Digging For Britain's Alice Roberts explores ancient DNA ahead of Leeds City Varieties show

A familiar face for fans of archaeology shows Digging For Britain and Time Team, this month, Professor Alice Roberts will be visiting Leeds to give audiences a fascinating insight into the ancestry of Britain.

By Rebecca Marano
Sunday, 3rd April 2022, 4:30 pm
Professor Alice Roberts, presenter of Digging For Britain, will be at Leeds City Varieties in April as she tours her new book, Ancestors. Image Credit: BBC/Rare TV.
Professor Alice Roberts, presenter of Digging For Britain, will be at Leeds City Varieties in April as she tours her new book, Ancestors. Image Credit: BBC/Rare TV.

Her upcoming City Varieties show is part of an extended tour of her latest book Ancestors, a Sunday Times bestseller that uses the latest advances in genetics to explore the prehistory of the land.

Focusing on seven burial sites, professor Roberts and her team have analysed ancient DNA to discover how people came to be in the British Isles, exploring migrations, global ancestry and the human experience.

She sat down with Rebecca Marano to explain what these scientific breakthroughs can tell us about our past and what it means for us as humans today.

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The Digging For Britain team during an archaeological excavation. Photo: BBC/Rare TV/Historic England Archive

“I think that history is a bit like travel,” Professor Roberts explains. “It broadens the mind and it shows you how cultures have changed through time.”

Professor Roberts, who trained first in medicine and worked as a junior doctor before pursuing anatomy and biographical anthropology, said: “The fact that two and a half million people tuned in to watch Digging for Britain this year shows that people are endlessly fascinated by archaeology and history.

“We want to know where we come from. We want to know what people were doing in Britain generations before us and further afield as well.

“But I think beyond that curiosity, which I think is enough of a reason to do it for itself, there is a wider context where you end up thinking differently about yourself and your own culture as well by studying the past.”

Professor Roberts is promoting her new book Ancestors which explores the pre-history of Britain.

Robert’s new book Ancestors explores this past in great detail by using the latest revolution in technological developments for ancient DNA.

In recent years, scientists have gathered genome-scale data from thousands of archaeological specimens to examine.

A key thing they have been able to establish through the use of ancient DNA is familiar types, which has, in turn, allowed them to see patterns of elite dynasties that were perhaps the most important families in the Neolithic period.

It has also allowed them to study patterns at a population level such as ancient migration.

One major discovery detailed in the book was a huge influx of people moving to Britain in the Bronze Age. "We think that it was about a 90 per cent population replacement at the very early centuries of the Bronze Age”, she explained.

“It's all stuff that literally ten years ago, we had no idea about. It's quite big and transformative."

The presenter added: “What drew me into [the field] at the very beginning was just the fact that you could tell so much just from looking.

“It was quite surprising to me as a medic that if I had a skeleton I could still tell quite a lot even though I couldn't ask the person where it was hurting. I could still extract a lot of medical information from that skeleton.

“That's been massively boosted by ancient DNA and the ability to extract DNA from old bones and read that DNA sequence.

“On an individual level, you can perhaps look at, for instance, what somebody might have looked like.

“It's a bit it's probabilistic, but we can certainly say, looking at this genome, this person had probably had a certain skin colour, certainly eye colour, certain hair colour.

“Take Cheddar Man, for example, he's a 10,000-year-old skeleton from caves in Cheddar Gorge, yet we know that he had very dark skin, dark hair and blue eyes. A really kind of striking combination.

“It's fascinating”.

The skeletons studied in the book include the Red Lady of Paviland - actually a male skeleton - which dates back 34,000 years and is the earliest burial we have in Britain.

“The story of the discovery is fascinating because it was discovered back in the 19th century and thought to be really thought to be much more recent, thought to be perhaps Roman or Iron Age,” Roberts explained.

“This man was buried fully clothed with lots of mysterious objects in the grave, lots of objects that are carved out of ivory and a mammoth skull because at that time he was a hunter-gatherer in Britain back in the ice age when there were still mammoths roaming around. It is extraordinary.”

Another skeleton studied in the book is the Bronze age skeleton Amesbury Archer, discovered a couple of miles away from Stonehenge in 2002.

Professor Alice said: “It is the most richly furnished Bronze Age burial that's ever been discovered in Britain and I love burials like that where you've got the man himself, and we can tell a lot from his bones and his skeleton is really interesting, and then alongside that, you've got almost 100 objects in the grave.

“All of these objects are telling this incredible story of his culture and him as a person.

"In other archaeological sites you might find items in a rubbish pit and that's fine, but these things have been discarded, you can sometimes work out what they were used for, what their function was, but they're discarded objects

"The objects that are placed in a grave are not discarded. These objects that are personally associated with him, people have put them in the grave, they're very meaningful.

“You get this incredible kind of time capsule and the Amesbury Archer is a wonderful time capsule.”

Professor Roberts will share these fascinating stories with the Leeds audience, as well as host a Q&A and booking signing, on Wednesday, April 27.

“Leeds venues are always very lively", she said.

“It's a great venue to come to, the audience is always really engaged and I'm really looking forward to it. It's just so lovely to be back on tour again.”