Review – Secret Britain: unearthing our mysterious past

1 min read

Mary-Ann Ochota
Frances Lincoln, £20
ISBN 978-0711253469
Review CH

As advances in archaeological science march on, we are increasingly able to answer questions of ‘when’ and ‘how’ when investigating sites and artefacts. But what about ‘why’? In this attractively presented and impressively wide-ranging book, Mary-Ann Ochota invites us to explore the possibilities of some of Britain’s most enigmatic discoveries.

Through this brisk and engagingly written tour, we cover a lot of ground, ranging from sweeping Neolithic complexes like the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, to the astonishingly well-preserved Bronze Age remains of Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, via Grimes Graves’ dramatic landscape, pockmarked with the remains of 600 Neolithic flint mines, and the bluestone quarries linking the Preseli Hills with Stonehenge. Other entries explore intriguing imagery – Pictish symbol stones, the leaping hill figure of the Uffington White Horse, hooded Roman deities, medieval graffiti depicting demons on a Suffolk church wall – and we also encounter a dizzying array of objects, from carved stone balls to wooden ‘deities’ recovered from Highland lochs and the banks of the Thames; Star Carr’s ‘frontlet’ headdresses formed from deer skulls and cups created from human crania in Somerset; Iron Age musical instruments like the Deskford carnyx; and the wonderfully characterful ‘Westray Wifie’, Scotland’s earliest known representation of the human form. Spectacular finds like the Staffordshire and Snettisham hoards and Sutton Hoo’s glittering grave goods highlight the incredible artistry of previous populations, while mysterious human remains like the ‘Lindow Man’ bog body and Cladh Hallan’s ‘jigsaw mummies’ highlight how much we still have to understand about past practices.

Secret Britain is a pleasure to dip into, illustrating the amazing diversity of archaeology across this country, and accompanied by beautiful, big colour photographs. Its entries are arranged geographically, beginning in the Orkney archipelago and voyaging down the eastern side of Britain before crossing to western Cornwall and returning north as far as the Outer Hebrides. Accessibly written and accompanied by a useful map and timeline to help locate sites and place them in their wider historical context, this is a book to capture the imagination of interested amateurs and experts alike.

This review appeared in CA 368. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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