Review – Formative Britain: an archaeology of Britain, 5th to 11th century AD

3 mins read
By Martin Carver

Routledge, £26.99
ISBN 978-0415524759
Review by Carly Hilts

‘This is an archaeological book, I make no pretensions to write history.’ So writes Martin Carver in his wide-ranging new book – yet the more than 700 pages that follow represent a sweeping and impressively comprehensive account of Britain’s past, spanning the 5th to 11th centuries AD.

For the most part, Martin allows excavated remains to speak for themselves, demonstrating the invaluable light that archaeology can shed on a period too often stereotyped as the ‘Dark Ages’ – though his final chapter, which covers written material, is a welcome complement introducing key historical sources and exploring surviving literature of the period to reflect on what it can add to archaeological understanding.

Martin assumes no previous knowledge on the part of his readers, and the result is an invaluable primer for those new to the subject, and a very handy, engagingly written reference for the more experienced to dip into, accompanied by a generous number of black-and-white illustrations.

Particularly handy are Martin’s detailed accounts of key sites and excavations, which he frequently includes to help illustrate a point, some presented in particular depth as ‘field trips’. Martin’s method of dividing the period is also thought-provoking: he proposes a flexible, overlapping triad of ‘Formative 1’ (5th-7th century), ‘Formative 2’ (7th-9th century), and ‘Formative 3’ (9th-11th century).

Building on this temporal framework, our first encounter is with the inhabitants of 5th- to 11th-century Britain, drawing in particular on the evidence we can glean from excavated human remains. This analysis puts literal flesh (and clothing, and ideas of identity) on the bones, highlighting the great scientific advances that are transforming our understanding of the human past, from isotope analysis to aDNA.

From people, we move onto settlements (and the influence of monastic and market forces on their evolution) and burial practices, including a detailed analysis of Sutton Hoo – a site that Martin is extremely familiar with, having led excavations there between 1983 and 2005 (see CA 331).

Epigraphy and architecture have their own tale to tell, and a final overview includes interesting insights into what modern Britain owes to its early medieval past.

This review appeared in CA 352.

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