Talking Point: Alice’s adventures

Round & About

Academic, writer and Digging for Britain broadcaster Professor Alice Roberts chats to Peter Anderson ahead of her speaking tour this month

Q. What intrigued you about the human body and anatomy to prompt you to change tack? “I’ve always been fascinated by the structure of the human body – and by evolution as well. I read books by Richard Dawkins and Steven Jay Gould voraciously as a teenager, as well as watching David Attenborough of course – his series Life on Earth had a huge impact on me. I slipped from medicine into academia, teaching anatomy to medical students, and I did a PhD comparing the skeletons of humans and other apes. I just found anatomy endlessly fascinating; I still do!”

Q. You come into the tour off the back of doing the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. Do you hope to inspire teenagers to follow your career path? “Not particularly! I hope to inspire teenagers about the world around them, about the wonders of science and archaeology, about evolution and history. But I think, in terms of choosing what to study and then what to do as a career, children should be nurtured and offered unfettered opportunities, rather than being encouraged into one area or another. I’m uncomfortable with the real focus on pushing science-related subjects at school, for instance – I can’t help feeling that’s sometimes at the expense of other subjects which are just as valid, fascinating and important. I’m particularly worried by the marginalisation of art, music and drama in schools.”

Q. Who are your biggest inspirations? “The scientists and writers Richard Dawkins and Steven Jay Gould, and Attenborough of course. But it was probably my teachers at school who had the most impact on me: Mrs Wood, who taught Ancient Greek, which I took at GCSE, was a real polymath and a huge influence on me – and she introduced me to the writings of Gould. My physics teachers, Mrs Ross and Miss Jones, were very different characters, but both inspirational, too. They tapped into the enthusiasms of our group at A level, and somehow we managed to cover all the exam material while still having plenty of time to follow our own passions. The lessons would just spark off in all kinds of directions – and we had the glorious feeling that learning could be something that we could lead. Heading off like this, following our own ideas and the passions of our teachers, made for some incredible, memorable lessons. That kind of creativity in the classroom is so precious.”

Q. We now have a female Doctor Who. If you were in charge of the Tardis, which period of history would you travel back to and why? “The Bronze Age. I’d love to see people living in a Bronze Age village, like the one at Must Farm – in roundhouses built on stilts over the each of a river, paddling log-canoes out on the water and driving their cattle down to the riverside to graze. I’d love to know how they wore the beads we find on our digs, and what they cooked for tea! I’d also love to know about their stories – and what they believed in – but I’d need a translator!”

Q. What’s the most memorable discovery you’ve either made or reported on? “A few stand out over the years – and we’ve covered some amazing discoveries on Digging for Britain, of course. In 2016, we reported on very early Neolithic crannogs or lake dwellings in the Hebrides; in 2017, we had two extraordinary Neolithic mounds which had been presumed to be focused on burials, but were found to contain the remains of huge timber buildings. This year, we devoted an entire programme to the incredible Iron Age chariot burial at Pocklington in Yorkshire – that just blew me away. The deceased man had been placed in his chariot, in the grave, and there was a pair of ponies standing up – reduced to skeletons of course – just extraordinary. I love the way that archaeology gives us these wonderful glimpses of our ancestors’ cultures.”

Q. What can people look forward to in Digging for Britain’s Past? “I’m going to be talking about archaeological sites that I’ve dug at and filmed over the years – from my very first Time Team shoot back in 2001, when we were excavating an Anglo Saxon cemetery with a lot of buckets buried in the dead – all the way through to the latest from Digging for Britain – including that amazing chariot burial. There will also be clips from my Channel 4 series, Britain’s Most Historic Towns – and plenty of behind-the-scenes stories, and time for Q&A with the audience, and I’ll be book-signing after each show.”

Q. How do you relax away from work? “I draw, paint, go for long walks and I absolutely love kayaking, on rivers and the sea, whenever I get the chance. I love watching with films with my kids, and reading to them. Visiting friends is important too – I have a lot of friends who are also busy, working mums and dads – and it’s so important to make time for a good cup of tea and a chat.

Q. If you were stranded on a desert island, but could have two or three companions living, historic or fictional who would you pick? “I assume I’m not allowed my family? If not, I’d have to have Bear Grylls, of course, to make sure everyone was comfortable and well fed on the island. And I think Dave Grohl would be a very entertaining companion, and could play us all the Foo Fighters back catalogue as well, of course (I’m assuming he’d bring a guitar). And I would have loved to met Mary Anning, the famous palaeontologist _ so let’s have her along, too.”

  • Catch Dr Alice Roberts on tour from this month, including Richmond, Oxford and Guildford. For more details please visit www.alice-roberts.co.uk

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