She’s been on our television screens for nearly 20 years and yet Professor Alice Roberts still exudes the passion of a debutant when talking about anthropology, archaeology, anatomy and history.
Her engaging nature and ability to translate the complexities of subjects for audiences in a way that embodies a talk with – rather than a lecture to – make her entirely relatable. Add in her own story of a love affair with knowledge, first forged at age 10 with a pop-up book of the human body, and you have someone you want to listen to and learn from.
Before a packed auditorium in the lovely Garden Rooms at Tennants Auction House in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, Roberts continued her tour, Digging into Britain’s Past. During an entertaining evening, Roberts shared insights, anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories from her life and explored the history of known civilisation in Britain, including a potted history of her career to date, a focus on the archaeology programmes she’s appeared in and how they tell the story of the people of our country and history.
Among the memories she shared were photos and stories from her early life, including a photograph of a young Roberts qualifying as a doctor, fresh-faced enthusiasm in her smile. “If you only remember one thing from tonight, junior doctors start work in the first week of August. Do not get ill in the first week of August.”
A job teaching anatomy at Bristol University turned into a position that lasted 11 years. She loved the bones, the inner workings of the body, the dissections. Although she discovered that not everyone, her husband included, has her gore threshold. Meanwhile, Roberts was attending archaeological digs in places like Anglesey (“perfectly pleasant but not Greece”) and it was through a friend of her partner’s that she joined the TV show Time Team. Within two years she’d been invited to join one of their larger digs examining the skeletons as they were unearthed live on television.
Excerpts from her tele career illustrate the heart of tonight’s talk as Roberts uses her experiences to share imagery, anecdotes and stories of periods in the development of civilisation in Britain. There’s a wonderful consistency to her straightforward enthusiasm, thirst for knowledge and wonder at uncovering evidence which sheds new light on old stories.
Throughout the evening, it is Roberts’ hunger to learn and surround herself with learned people that shines through. It’s easy to see why, in 2012, she was appointed the first Professor of Public Engagement in Science at Birmingham University.
Meanwhile, Roberts expresses her frustration that schools still teach children that “cavemen lived in caves…they weren’t cavemen, they may have kept things in them, but they lived in tents”. And she recounts one of her most satisfying moments on television: “shooting an iron ball from a musket through a watermelon”.
Words and images Marc McGarraghy
Find remaining dates and locations for Digging into Britain’s Past here.