Sir Barry Cunliffe at his home in North Oxford


The great archaeologist talks about the guiding lights of his life’s work: connectivity and human interactions with the environment, and with each other

Published: 7 June 2023

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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One could commence an academic profile of one of Britain’s most compelling and senior archaeologists with a great fanfare of gongs and publications and titles, but it ill fits an individual who would rather be on a dig, riding a horse in Outer Mongolia or tending to his sea-facing house in Brittany from an Oxford base on the same road in North Oxford once lived in by T.E. Lawrence, he of Arabia.

‘We can leave Oxford at 4.30pm, take the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and be at the house by 11.30am the next morning,’ he says, confirming that he has a deep and abiding love for Brittany.

Completely defying his biological age (born 1939) Barry practically bounds into his front room with a tray of coffee and tea.

He is pictured here sitting in a favourite chair which has compartments built into the arms.

‘I picked it up for a fiver from a junk shop in Southampton, then had it re-upholstered. It’s called a smoker’s chair, late Victorian. They were out of fashion in the 1970s!’

Almost no other archaeologist has produced as much ground-breaking work as Barry Cunliffe.

He is principally known for transforming our understanding of Celtic culture and identity, and in particular the exchange of that culture and peoples between south-west England and Brittany, coastlines that he is at pains to note lie parallel to each other and have been repeatedly been crossed by boat over thousands of years.

If you were going to dive in as a curious general reader you could do worse than pick up Barry’s 2003 OUP reader, The Celts: A Very Short Introduction.

Warmed up, you might try Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC – AD 1000, Barry’s only major defection from Oxford University Press to a different university press, in this case Yale.

And then, fully warmed up, try Bretons and Britons: The Fight for Identity (2021) followed by his first major project after ‘retirement’, By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (2015).

I joke that possibly he had considered the title ‘Bretons, Britons and Brexit.’ That of course is a facile jibe. But it is not irrelevant given the degree to which Britain’s national self-identity has been built on its status as an island, and how flimsy the ‘island identity’ appears, long before the Vikings turned up by boat, or the Normans in 1066, or the Channel Tunnel, or migrants on little boats in 2023.

How many of us have really understood the immense connectivity of the sea between the English south coast and the Atlantic world? We are probably more used to the Sceptred Isle idea (also the BBC radio series of that title), and all the patriotic myth-making that goes with it, especially from the Tudors onwards, a tiny and unrepresentative time frame for any archaeologist.

And that’s also to touch on Barry’s guiding light, ‘the connectivity of everything’ as he puts it.

‘You can’t have something in isolation,’ he says.

Casting back to his formative years –his decision to become an archaeologist connects all the way back to his discovery of Roman remains on an uncle’s farm when he was nine years old, shortly after the end of the Second World War – he cites two influences in particular.

One is the Annales School of French historians and geographers and especially Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, one of the greatest works of geography and history written in the past century, originally published in 1949.

‘We were all reading Braudel! The whole Annales school, yes, it was very important.’

He also cites archaeologist Gerald Dunning, who told him as a young scholar, ‘There is nothing you’ll come across that isn’t relevant to you as an archaeologist.’

‘He was exactly right. Every single material artefact you encounter in life tells you something important about human society.’

So the bit of sea dividing Cornwall from Brittany, is not a barrier so much as a corridor of contact, seen historically, Barry says. 

One wonders how a life’s work on the Atlantic world of Celtic culture and identity led him to Eurasia, but the underlying stimulus was ‘the Steppe – another form of sea except that here it is a sea of grass.’

It’s a simple hop from there to Barry’s new book, yet another tour de force, Facing the Sea of Sand, that is published by OUP in June 2023.

In this case the desert is the sea, and predictably it is again understood, with the evidence brought to bear in abundance, as an immense corridor of human connectivity over thousands of years rather than this impenetrable barrier to Europe that it was understood to have been by Nineteenth Century scholars high on their own civilisational sophistication contrasted to the stranded ‘Dark Continent.’

It was never a ‘Dark Continent’, but it has taken vast efforts of careful work, archaeological digs, and now the latest DNA sequencing science and climate research, to begin to unlock the true complexity and richness of those connections, which are reconstructed across millennia partly in rich prose and partly in a rich collection of superb maps and images (Barry is full of praise for his OUP picture editor and cartographer).

Barry’s next book is already in draft form, he says. ‘It’s called Driven by the Monsoons,’ he says, and it concerns rainfall as a fundamental driver of human activity and connectivity, and the maritime connectivity linking Europe and the Far East by means of the Indian Ocean.

But to return to the current book, its sub-title is ‘The Sahara and the Peoples of Northern Africa’, the most important thing to remember here is that Barry has exploded our preference for short chronologies, going back 11,000 years to a period when the Sahara was a moist, humid pastoral setting with a different climate, a reminder that natural climate change has occurred in a distinct pattern of warmer and colder over the past million years, a matter that is shown in a fascinating chart on page 40.

A new period of dessication began around 3000BC, he says.

Human populations shifted accordingly, following the water. The climate shaped the human communities who dwelt within and around the great desert that eventually came to be known as the Sahara, stretching 6,000kms from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

To the extent that they flourished, humans then reproduced and acquired wealth and knowledge and periodically fought with each other for more of it, and that is the entry into human motivation and behaviour, given sufficiently favourable underlying geographic conditions.

And that is another idea for another book, says Barry, ‘It would concern humanity. It might be called something like, ‘Human Beings Being Human.’

But he would also like to write a volume about the Phoenicians having already written about the Scythians and the Celts.

Above all, and reflecting on his profession, he says that the sequencing of ancient DNA has wrought the profoundest revolution because it has allowed bone fragments to be identified and dated

‘I am exceedingly glad to have lived into the period when ancient DNA became available.’

‘But it’s in the early state. The methods are absolutely fine, but the data is still a bit thin.’

He believes that if the requisite data could be amassed, it would be able to answer one of the big outstanding questions he has of the Britain/Breton relationship, namely whether the Breton language is the survival of Celtic through indigenous succession, or the product of reintroduction by Cornish migrants.

We hope that he obtains the answer with the help of French archaeologists, and if he did it would be a fitting sequence because it would confirm in a final sense what is already not in doubt, that Barry has achieved for our understanding of the Atlantic world what Braudel did for our understanding of the Mediterranean world.

Sir Barrington Windsor Cunliffe, CBE, FBA, FSA (born 10 December 1939), known as Barry Cunliffe, is a British archaeologist and academic. He was Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2007. Since 2007, he has been an emeritus professor.

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