What became of Thomas Becket’s bones?

The St Brice’s Day Massacre? I must admit I hadn’t heard of this ‘most just extermination’ of Danes in Oxford at the instigation of King Aethelred the Unready in 1002, perhaps because the teaching of history in this country tends to kick off in 1066. You certainly don’t think of Oxford as a place that pioneered techniques of ethnic cleansing. Crypt is a collection of seven essays that unearth details about how certain people lived and died in the past. If you didn’t already know Alice Roberts’s background as an anatomist and biological anthropologist, you’d have a good chance of deducing it from this book. The old jibe that archaeology

In defence of Netflix’s Ancient Apocalypse

British writer Graham Hancock has riled the archaeology community with his Netflix documentary, Ancient Apocalypse. The series follows Hancock to ancient sites around the world in pursuit of proof that an advanced human civilisation existed thousands of years before the first cities of Mesopotamia. Hancock, a former Economist correspondent, argues that most archaeologists are too stubborn to admit even the possibility of such a civilisation. Several archaeologists have rebuked Ancient Apocalypse since its release in November. They claim that it propagates false theories, avoids inconvenient facts and regurgitates old beliefs about ancient myths. One Guardian columnist called it ‘the most dangerous show on Netflix’. Flint Dibble, a research fellow at

Is an unknown, extraordinarily ancient civilisation buried under eastern Turkey?

I am staring at about a dozen, stiff, eight-foot high, orange-red penises, carved from living bedrock, and semi-enclosed in an open chamber. A strange carved head (of a man, a demon, a priest, a God?), also hewn from the living rock, gazes at the phallic totems – like a primitivist gargoyle. The expression of the stone head is doleful, to the point of grimacing, as if he, or she, or it, disapproves of all this: of everything being stripped naked under the heavens, and revealed to the world for the first time in 130 centuries. Yes, 130 centuries. Because these penises, this peculiar chamber, this entire perplexing place, known as

New light on the building of Stonehenge

When it comes to Stonehenge, we are like children continually asking why and never getting a conclusive answer. There are plenty of theories as to its purpose, ranging from the ludicrous to the dull, but perhaps we would be better off concentrating, as in this excellent book, more on how our ancestors got the stones up in the first place. Attention has always centred on the original bluestones which made up the first circle at Stonehenge, because they were brought, remarkably, all the way from Wales. These are the smaller – but still two-ton – megaliths, carved from the Preseli quarries in Pembrokeshire. It used to be thought they must

The watery life of the capital

To write about London and its rivers is to enter a crowded literary field. Many aspects of watery life in the capital have been documented for public consumption over the past 150 years, from Hilaire Belloc’s lament for the river’s lost monasteries in The Historic Thames to Peter Ackroyd’s doorstop, London: A Biography. More recently, it is previously unremarked everyday stories which have found a home on many publishers’ lists. The practice of mudlarking especially of sifting objects from the river’s mud has held readers in thrall. Sometimes it sounds as though the Thames foreshore at low tide must be as busy as a King’s Cross platform during a pre-pandemic

A pawn in the Great Game: the sad story of Charles Masson

‘Everyone knows the Alexandria in Egypt,’ writes Edmund Richardson, ‘but there were over a dozen more Alexandrias scattered across Alexander the Great’s empire.’ By the early 19th century, though, very few had been identified. Moreover, the prevailing scholarly view was that there remained ‘not a single architectural monument of the Macedonian conquests in India’ — let alone in Afghanistan, which had, ‘for more than 1,000 years… been a blank space in western knowledge’. So finding one would be ‘a world-changing achievement’. At dawn on 4 July 1827, Private James Lewis of the East India Company’s Bengal artillery walked out of the Agra fort and into history — or at any

Our love affair with the Anglo-Saxons

On 5 July 2009, an unemployed 54-year-old metal detectorist called Terry Herbert was walking through a Staffordshire field when his detector started to beep and didn’t stop. Herbert guessed almost immediately that he’d found gold. What he didn’t realise was that he had made Britain’s greatest archaeological discovery since the second world war. Three hundred sword-hilt fittings, many of them spectacular examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork; a mysterious gold-and-garnet headdress, apparently for a priest; miniature sculptures of horses, fish, snakes, eagles and boars. The Staffordshire Hoard, as it became known, led to a sold-out exhibition, an Early Day Motion in parliament saluting ‘the UK’s largest haul of gold Anglo-Saxon treasure’, and,

The scholars who solved the riddles in the sands

In 1835 the first two Egyptian antiquities were registered in the British Museum: a pair of red granite lions from Nubia. Each bore the name of Tutankhamun — not that anyone had ever heard of him. All serious understanding of the millennia-spanning Nilotic civilisation had disappeared before the last hieroglyph was carved in 394 AD. In the mid-18th century the most advanced ‘scholarship’ on the subject consisted of ‘pinpricks of insight in an enveloping fog of misapprehension’, and by the early 19th century the Egypt of the pharaohs was still largely buried in the sand. The word ‘Egyptology’ did not exist. Yet within 100 years Egypt would no longer be

King Solomon’s lost city will remain lost forever

Armageddon began as Har Megiddo, the Hill of Megiddo in northern Israel. The theological aspect is Christian. For Jews, ancient or modern, Megiddo is more existential than eschatological. The name denotes a fortress overlooking a strategic crossroads: Megiddo means ‘strength’. This is where the ancient Via Maris (the ‘way of the sea’, or coastal road) between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent cuts inland, through a pass from the Carmel mountains and into the Jezreel Valley. Megiddo remains strategically crucial and retains its potential for last stands. Today, the only airfield in Israel’s north, the erstwhile RAF base of Ramat David, sits somewhere in the valley (it’s not on maps, but