Review: Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons – Francis Pryor

My version: Paperback
Genre: Non Fiction, Britain
Harper Perennial
First published: 2004
ISBN: 978-0-00-718187-2
Pages: 276

Francis Pryor – one of Britain’s most celebrated archaeologists – traces the story of Arthur back to its origins and overruns some common misconceptions. Demonstrating that the key elements of the Arthurian legend are deeply rooted in prehistory (when swords and armour were thrown into lakes as a sacrifice), Pryor argues that the legend’s survival mirrors a flourishing indigenous culture that endured through the Roman occupation of Britain and the so-called Dark Ages.
Pryor visits Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and Tintagel in Cornwall, tracing the story back to the 5th century and uncovering archaeological evidencce that the story of King Arthur was manipulated through the ages for various historical and literary purposes. Drawing on his archaeological expertise, Pryor asserts that the alleged Anglo-Saxon invasion after the fall of Rome never happened in the way we think – challenging a historical orthodoxy that has held sway since Bede’s 8th century history of the Britons.

Just when you thought you had the early history of Britain straight:

Celts living peacefully fighting with each other. Romans invade and rule and civilise. Romans go back to Rome, leave some Romanised British and other troops here. Civilisation declines, cities are deserted, fields overgrown, forests cover the land. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others seize the opportunity to invade and stay. Poor Celts are pushed west and north to the fringes and Britain becomes Angle-Land. (Early) English springs up, the new England enters the Dark Ages and people long for King Arthur to return before Vikings come and Normans conquer again. And especially afterwards.

Just when all the historical novels and films you’ve seen fitted that ‘truth’…along comes Francis Pryor and says ‘maybe you should think again.’

I’m not going to spoil the book for you, by going into precisely what he does think happened in the first 700 years Anno Domini. But whilst the conclusions he presents are perhaps a little less spectacular – and certainly not as blood-soaked – than the picture we perhaps all have of boatloads of Germans and south Scandinavians sailing over and taking advantage of a vacuum created by the sudden departure of the Romans – proto-Vikings who then set about killing everyone and setting up their own, new country: His are at least conclusions based on the archaeological record and not the few surviving ‘histories’ we have, surely written at the time to satisfy an audience, who largely wanted to hear what they wanted the documents to say.

However, Francis Pryor is far too respectable an archaeologist to say ‘THIS is exactly what happened.’ He knows that he is still presenting interpretations of the facts – until we invent time-travel, i guess. He does still point out that these are conclusions and interpretations based on archeological study of what we have available now; evidence- and technology-wise. He points out how interpretations of the archeological facts have themselves changed, throughout the 20th Century, for example, as more and more sophisticated techniques and ways of studying these ‘facts’, have developed down the years. But he can back up his conclusions with a lifetime of archeological work and an inquisitive ability to think around a problem and say ‘what if what we ‘know’, is wrong? Are we fitting the facts to what we want to believe?’ Similarly to what the writers of the first histories tried to do, if you ask me.

Above all, this is a fascinating, engrossing, and extremely readable tour around ‘Britain’, pre- and post-Roman invasion. If you’ve read the first of his Britain books; Britain B.C., you’ll know how Francis Pryor works and writes and you won’t be disappointed. I understand he is now the main archaeologist on ‘Time Team’, which unfortunately we don’t get out here in Denmark, but is an excellent appointment in my book. I felt he writes as if he is explaining things over a long lunch and a coffee in a cafe – warm and friendly and relaxed. Just right.

One thing I was not happy about – but that hadn’t influenced my decision to read the book – was that the sales blurb does, mischievously I think, try and sell the book on the promise of an explanation of the Arthurian legends. But the book rarely touches on that. If you read it hoping to find Geoffrey Ashe-like revelations, you’re going to be disappointed. The Arthurian legends are investigated and a possible explanation put forward. But no one is named as the ‘real’ Arthur, no place is pointed to as being the real Camelot or Mount Badon. You’ll have to go and visit Cadbury Castle and let your schoolboy/girl imagination wander.

Otherwise, go read this one NOW! And especially before you see another King Arthur or Robin Hood film!

You can buy Britain AD from The Book Depository

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