Book review: The Ravens by James Dyer

The Ravens is a children’s book set in the late Iron Age, in fact in 54 BC, the year of Caesar’s second invasion of Britain, similar to Adventure on the Knolls which we reviewed earlier (and published by the same publisher). It even starts with a modern boy dreaming about what went on in an ancient hillfort. Where it differs, though, is in the quality of writing and research. It was written by James Dyer, an archaeologist with a specialism in Iron Age hillforts.

The modern boy is called Adam and he is a really good runner. He is training with a rival, a boy called David Azlett and stops on the Mound overlooking Ravensburgh hillfort. The Iron Age story then begins in the next chapter, leaving you wondering whether it’s all in Adam’s head or not.

The Iron Age Adam is tipped to be the new leader of the Boys House at Ravensburgh, but his rival is a bully called Azlett. Adam’s grandfather is advisor to their leader, Cassiv (short for Cassivellaunus, the documented king of the Catuvellauni tribe). Cassiv is away fighting the Romans, who find the British fighting methods, guerilla tactics, each to himself and use of chariots, difficult to deal with. Adam and his friend Marik go with Greggo, a veteran of the wars, to deliver more equipment to Cassiv’s warriors.

With the confidence and freedom of being near-grown boys in the Iron Age, Adam and Marik decide to go and take a look at Caesar’s army for themselves and end up finding out a secret that could see the end of the Catuvellauni and Ravensburgh. Only swift-footed Adam can save the day, and he’s been spotted by the traitor Azlett.

The book is filled with amazing attention to detail, such as the importance Iron Age Britons attached to their appearance, sacrifices made to Iron Age gods and accounts of the campaign from Caesar’s perspective as well as the Britons’. One reference to the now discredited Icknield Way can be forgiven; the book was written in 1990.

The book could be read alongside topic work on Iron Age Britain and the Roman invasion, what it meant to Iron Age people, some of whom welcomed it and some of whom certainly didn’t. You could explore what changes the Catuvellauni might have expected if Caesar had decided to stay instead of going back to Gaul, before looking at what did happen in AD 43.

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

What’s particularly lovely about studying this book is that the author also surveyed and excavated at Ravensburgh, so you can look up the work he did and compare it to what he wrote in the novel. This PDF from the Chilterns AONB in which Ravensburgh sits is quite useful, or there is a quick summary from North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society.

Book Review: Adventure on The Knolls by Michael Dundrow

Adenture on the Knolls by Michael Dundrow

Adventure on the Knolls by Michael Dundrow

This book is set in the late Iron Age. John is an ordinary boy who helps out on his parents farm in 20th century England. One misty morning after getting the cows onto their pasture, he takes a stroll up the hill behind his house called The Knolls to the remains of the Iron Age hillfort. He knows there’s a chalk pit up there and tries not to fall into it, but fall he does and in a flash of light he finds himself transported back 2000 years in time.

The first people he meets are a brother and sister very similar to him in age. They introduce themselves as Morva and Rik and urge him to get inside the hillfort before the enemy tribe, the Iceni, attack. Although their accent is funny he can understand them, and they him, which is lucky.

From the beginning there is plenty of action, with the battle, a kidnapping of the three children thrown in for good measure, and then a visit by Romans headed by Julius Caesar himself, there is plenty to capture children’s imagination and to build discussions and activities on.

Being an outsider from our time John gets to compare the lives of the people in the Iron Age to today and thinks about the differences in clothing, houses, food, beds, and even religion, comparing a visit to the sacred oak tree in the forest favourably to spending a sleepy afternoon on a pew in chapel back home. The description of the role of the druid is quite interesting and could be built on to get more of an idea of what they did.

Replica Iron Age roundhouse at the Chiltern Open Air Museum.

Replica Iron Age roundhouse at the Chiltern Open Air Museum.

As usual there are a few issues we have with the accuracy of some of the events and the author’s portrayal of the Iron Age. The tribe, a hitherto unknown one called the Cretaci, are shown to have two settlements, one at the foot of The Knolls which is the main settlement and one in the hillfort, which they retreat to in times of danger. This gives you a great way in to talking about the possible function of hillforts, but be aware that this is only one possible interpretation and that some were permanently occupied whereas others were probably just used as regular meeting places.

The depiction of Iron Age people as smelly, dirty and dressed in shapeless sacking is laughably wrong. People in the late Iron Age took great care over their appearance and were well known for their high quality, patterned woollen clothes, cloaks in particular. Rich people in the Iron Age wore plenty of gold, silver and bronze jewellery, and had shears, razors and mirrors to help them look after their hair and, for men, moustaches.The smith gives bronze brooches with red enamel to children to wear on shapeless sacking is the most unrealistic moment.

Soay sheep, a breed close to the type of sheep kept in the Iron Age. By Giles Carey.

Soay sheep, a breed close to the type of sheep kept in the Iron Age. By Giles Carey.

Although the tribe are shown as farmers, bringing goats into the settlement at night, they are still portrayed as relying on hunted meat, which is unrealistic at this point. It was the agricultural, and mineral, wealth of Britain that the Romans wanted to exploit, and so the appearance of Julius Caesar in this book is a good way in to exploring the reasons behind the Roman invasion and why some tribes might have welcomed Roman rule while others fought it. That the Cretaci had never before heard of Romans is also unbelievable as many Britons went as mercenaries to fight against them for the Gauls in what is now France.

The battle between the Cretaci and the Iceni was lacking in chariots, which are mentioned by Caesar in his account of his visit to Britain, and by Tacitus in his Annals, specifically when referring to the Iceni queen, Boudicca. A woman, possibly a queen, was buried with a wonderfully decorated chariot in Wetwang, East Riding of Yorkshire. Find out more about it from the British Museum’s Teaching History in 100 Objects.

Boudicca is referred to in this book but her name is not mentioned. One of the Cretaci complains that the Iceni were peaceful until a woman took over as queen. If Boudicca was queen in 55 or 54 BC (when Julius Caesar visited) she was a pretty old war leader by the time of her rebellion in AD 60/61! Anyway, a good opportunity to explore some of the tribes of Britain.

So far this is the only book set in Iron Age Britain that we’ve found. It would be a good one to use if you are doing an in depth study of hillforts, but keep in mind its limitations which we have outlined here. It is 115 pages long but the text is pretty large and could probably be tackled by most Year 4s and older.

Useful images and resources on Heritage Explorer for Stone Age to Iron Age Britain

Heritage Explorer has lots of images for teachers to use in the classroom from English Heritage’s many archives. They already have lots of useful images for the topic Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age and here are some of them. Follow the links from the images to find more information. Thanks to Heritage Explorer for allowing us to feature these images on our blog.

Aerial photograph of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Stonehenge in Wiltshire from 1906

Crown copyright NMR

Also see English Heritage’s Stonehenge teacher’s pack.

Aerial photograph of Neolithic Avebury and Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

Crown copyright NMR

Cutaway section through Grimes Graves Neolithic flint mine, Norfolk

Copyright English Heritage Photo Library

Aerial photograph of the Late Bronze Age Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire

Crown copyright NMR

Reconstruction drawing of Iron Age roundhouses from the 2nd century BC at Danebury hillfort, Hampshire

Copyright English Heritage NMR

There is also this excellent little book written for English Heritage available as a PDF about teaching prehistory. It is a little old and be warned, it says the earliest humans in Britain came in 500,000 years ago (BP). Recent investigations have pushed this back to 800,000 years ago.

Also by going to the Heritage Explorer search page and searching for prehistoric under the when tab you will bring up a huge number of images from English Heritage’s photo library of different sites around the country.