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Reviews - March 2007

Homo Britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain

Chris Stringer 
Published by: Allen Lane
Publication date: 2006
ISBN: 978-0-713-99795-8 (hbk)
List price: £25.00
320 pp

For most of us, the history of the human occupation of Britain is probably a little vague. There were old, middle and new Stone Age people around for thousands of years, then Bronze Age, then Iron Age, and finally the Romans came and sorted us out. We might also have faint memories of controversies over ‘eoliths’, bits of flint from the Thames gravels that might be tools, or might be nothing at all, Piltdown Man and some other hominid skulls and skeletons found 100 years ago, and of uncertain age.

Everything has now changed, and rather rapidly. Re-excavations of older sites in the 1970s and 1980s and the discovery of the Boxgrove site in the 1980s, showed that human occupation of Britain extended back further than had been thought. And perhaps the major change has been the improvement of time scales. The old four- or five-division ice age that was used by earlier palaeontologists and archaeologists has given way to a much more complex, and well-dated, picture of numerous ice advances and retreats. Individual sites can be placed quite accurately in the chronology based on fossil evidence (beetles, pollen, small mammals) and isotope evidence (classic carbon dating, and newer methods such as uranium-series dating). The fossils and isotopes can also give considerable detail on climatic conditions at each site.

The application of new methods, and growing interdisciplinary work, was recognised in 2001 by the award of perhaps the largest grant ever given to an archaeological project, over one million pounds, awarded to the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, led by Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum. This book is a remarkable final report of the AHOB project, which finished in 2006 (and subsequently extended to 2010 by renewal of funding). The team of 13 scientists, as well as 16 associates, has produced 150 scientific papers, and further excavation, dating, and DNA extraction from fossil bones is promised.

The headline discoveries by the AHOB team were that humans first occupied Britain 650,000 years ago, as shown by finds of tools at the Pakefield site in Suffolk, and that human occupation of Britain was not continuous after that time – there were numerous retreats and reinvasions.

Chris Stringer’s book deserves its considerable success so far. The book is written in a very personal style, as well it should be, since Chris has been instrumental in driving the blossoming of new work and the new understanding. He presents enough of the mud and sweat and intense concentration required to excavate, as well as the way in which earth scientists and archaeologists have worked together. I particularly like the detailed essays by 14 of the scientists in the AHOB team about their backgrounds and their work. The illustrations are superb – marvellous maps of the geography of southern Britain at different points through the Pleistocene and Holocene, useful time charts, and spectacular photographs of sites and specimens. Some photographs - of African savannas, people on the beach, forests, meandering rivers - while beautiful, are perhaps less essential.

Mike Benton, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

A Pocket Guide to the London Clay Exposed on the North Shore of the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

Adrian Rundle
Published by: Rockwatch (Guide No. 1)
Publication date: 2005
ISBN: 978-0900717659
List price: £3.95
28 pp (B&W)

Available from:

The Box Hill and Mole Valley Book of Geology

Richard Selley
Published by: The Friends of Box Hill
Publication date: 2006
ISBN: 0-99534430-6-X
List price: £4.95
34 pp

In those innocent days when geology consisted of knowing what rocks were where, what fossils they contained and how they expressed themselves in landscape, there existed a series of local guides called ‘Geology around the University Towns’. These began as a Centenary initiative for the Association (in 1958), and reading these two new local geology guides was like meeting the grown-up son of a long-lost friend.

The nearest blood relation to those Centenary guidebooks is by Adrian Rundle, and is the first in a new series being created for the GA's young person's club ‘Rockwatch’. The booklet is simply and unfussily produced on good stiff paper and describes the famous early Eocene London Clay fossil localities of Sheppey - a favourite with school parties - along the coast from Minster to Warden. Much of it is a catalogue of the common fossils that weather out there, with simple line diagrams of each. I was glad that the list included plant remains and microfossils, and there is even something for the young mineralogist.

This is a basic manual for the young rock-hound. It tends to treat fossils as objects and makes no attempt to build a picture of the Eocene world. I found this lack of context a little disappointing. But the guide has a further reading list for those that want to know more and it will help youngsters label their specimens. It is refreshing to come across a publication so free of pretensions - and I liked it enough to feel uncharitable for worrying that this almost amounted to lack of ambition.

No such suspicions cloud my feelings for the second book, however. Prof. Dick Selley has begun to remind his fans of that other witty retiree, Gioacchino Rossini. The ebullient composer passed his later years creating agreeable chamber pieces - his "sins of old age" - as well as such recipes as tournedos Rossini, betraying his other main interest in life. The Box Hill and Mole Valley Book of Geology is the third such peccadillo from Selley (since Winelands of Britain (2004) and the Dorking Caves Guide (2006)). As with the composer, we are very grateful for Selley’s late-flowering sinfulness.

This is a well illustrated and produced booklet aimed squarely at the general adult reader - not necessarily the amateur geologist - and it originated as a keynote lecture given at Denbies Winery as part of 2005 Heritage Weekend. After easing the reader into the subject with a discussion of local nomenclature (to prove what is, or sometimes is not, in a name), the author describes the mostly Cretaceous rocks exposed in the Mole Valley and explains what they tell us about this corner of England between 70 and 140 million years ago.

Helpful geological sections demonstrate how the different rocks express themselves in landscape. Each of the main units (Lower Greensand, Gault, Upper Greensand, Chalk) is then described, with fossil diagrams, followed by a brief description of the Tertiary sediments further downstream near Leatherhead. The author uses a set of colourful ‘phantasmograms’ to explain the uplift and erosion of the Weald, continuing into the last Ice Age. The economic geology of the area, including as terroir, remind us of the author's peripheral interests, while the book ends with a hugely enjoyable post-apocalyptic, globally warmed vision of the future Weald, resembling a cross between Star Wars' planet Tatooine (filmed in southern Tunisia) and the landscape of the Mad Max movies.

It would be easy - and wrong - to dismiss this fantasy section as a makeweight. Creating a sense of deep time among readers unused to the concept is often more effectively done by projecting forward into a distant future (when familiar things have changed or vanished), than by attempting to recreate a past that has no point of contact with the world we know.

Ted Nield