Tag: Alice Roberts

Review – Buried

Posted January 22, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Buried by Alice RobertsBuried: An Alternative History of the First Millennium in Britain, Alice Roberts

Buried is a natural follow-up to Ancestors; I enjoyed the latter, but I enjoyed this one even more. Here it really is focused on burials in the UK, using mostly other burials in the UK as points of comparison, and Roberts chose some really fascinating sites to discuss.

My favourite chapter was one that I think some readers would find very difficult, discussing a cemetery of child burials — feotuses, neonates, and very young children, all buried together near the site of a villa, even some of them in a well-shaft. Roberts discusses why that may be with sympathy, pointing out that people of the period probably did care about their children; a lack of formal mourning in society does not, clearly, preclude the possibility of private grief. Burying children near the villa, instead of the cemeteries adults were interred in, may also be a sign of care — keeping the children close to the home, where children belonged, rather than sending them off alone to a place created for adults.

She also discusses cut marks on the bones of some of the tiny bodies. Often cut marks on bones are taken to mean cannibalism (usually on older bones than these, of course), but here she suggests it represents obstetric surgery, intended to help save a mother when a child was born in the breach position and nothing else could be done.

As in Ancestors, she also discusses the sexing of bodies, though I found it a bit hilarious that she talked about DNA evidence disagreeing with the physical examinations and then DNA evidence had to be brought into line with famously inaccurate — as she acknowledges — sexing based on things like the shape of the pelvis. I don’t quite understand how she can acknowledge that it’s hard to sex a skeleton, particularly a fragmentary skeleton, and then in the very same book talk about refining DNA evidence to ensure it 100% matches that. Surely the better course (and hopefully what really happened) was to look at cases where the two disagreed and re-test and look for clues about why they diverged, check for contamination, etc. The goal should not be — as stated — to have aDNA match a metric that’s famously inaccurate (and sometimes laughably self-serving).

The final chapter attempts to tackle a weighty subject, with mixed success: how much of changing trends through history was down to population replacement? She suggests a middle ground, which is fairly safe to say (extremes like “no population replacement” and “full population replacement” are easy to disprove) and didn’t, to my mind, offer up much to cut through the rhetoric.

Broadly speaking, though, I found this fascinating and absorbing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ancestors

Posted July 14, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Ancestors by Alice RobertsAncestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials, Alice Roberts

To get my nitpicking out of the way, the subtitle is really inaccurate. There are a lot (a lot) more than seven burials discussed here: I wouldn’t be surprised if it managed to get up to seven burials per chapter, though I wasn’t counting. It makes sense, in a way: many prehistoric remains are fragmentary, and they can tell us more in aggregate — which does lead me to my other peeve with this book, which is that many of the examples were actually not even British. Sure, each chapter discussed British remains as well, but there’s inevitably a lot of discussion of other burials, including quite a bit of detail about places like Shanidar.

I guess what I had hoped for was a book that really focused in on seven specific exemplary burials, and was quite exhaustive about those, discussing all the different factors we know about that specific individual, that specific grave. At least, that’s what I expected with the subtitle, at least. So, it isn’t that. There is quite a bit of detail about some of the burials, including some fascinating ones I didn’t know about, but it is really much more of a general survey of prehistoric burials, mostly in Britain, but using burials in Europe and further afield to help contextualise them. Which also makes sense, but is not how the title sounded.

Despite those peeves taking up a lot of my writing space so far, I did really enjoy the book. There are some burials here which really intrigue me, like the full chariot burials, complete with horses. Roberts mentions some ideas that really fascinate me, like the idea that maybe offerings to the water were actually funerary offerings, not offerings to abstract deities. She suggests that some of the “missing” dead (we would expect to find more prehistoric remains than we do) could have been cremated and scattered on water, with offerings thrown in after them — or even that bodies could have been placed on rafts with their belongings, and then the offerings ended up in the water when the rafts deteriorated.

It’s an interesting idea, at least, and the book had a few such titbits. Although I knew a little about most of the burials she discusses, if not all, there was definitely some new material in here and stuff that surprised and fascinated me. Worth the read!

Oh, and I’ll just bet the section on interpreting sex/gender in burials reaaaally chapped some people’s hide. Ahaha.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted July 1, 2021 by Nicky in General / 0 Comments

Anyyyy day now I’ll get round to scheduling more of my backlogged reviews, but for now, here’s the WWW Wednesday post!

What are you currently reading?​

Cover of After the Dragons by Cynthia ZhangAbout eight books at once, last I checked! So I’ll just pick a couple to talk about: first on my mind is After the Dragons, by Cynthia Zhang. It involves dragons, biology, and a prickly love interest with whom things will (presumably) get figured out. I hadn’t realised it was queer, actually, somehow — or hadn’t remembered it, anyway. I am promised there will be cuddles soon, and I wonder quite how they’re going to get there.

I’m also reading Ancestors: The Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials, which would be more accurately but less catchily titled “Ancestors: The Prehistory of Britain, with seven key burials discussed to varying degrees, and mostly lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of description of non-British archaeology”. Which is cool, but I actually wanted a closer focus on particular burials — that’s what I was interested in.

Finally, I’m now reading Anthony Berkeley’s The Wychford Poisoning Case, which is fun: the detective character is very glib and smooth-talking, in a way familiar to those who love Lord Peter. Mind you, Lord Peter never tried to turn his grown-up female cousin over his knee to spank her, so there are definitely bits that ring very oddly to a contemporary reader.

Cover of What it Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka ArimahWhat have you recently finished reading?​

I am really bad at keeping track of that recently, so the thing that mostly jumps to mind is that I finished Seashaken Houses, by Tom Nancollas. He made the cardinal sin (to me) of getting something wrong about Arthurian myth — the very briefest of references, but infuriating. That said, it definitely scratched the curious itch I had when looking at it on the shelf, so it worked out.

Oh, and I finished What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which has a lot of clever stories in it, and which I’m still mulling over.

Cover of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall KimmererWhat will you be reading next?

No idea at all. Chances are high that I’ll be picking up Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, since it’s a book club read for this month. Black Water Sister by Zen Cho is also coming up soon, so that might be a choice. But really, who knows?

What are you folks reading?

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