And now for something completely different…

stephen oppenheimer book origins british

I was blogging some 6 years ago on a then recently-published book by Stephen Oppenheimer called “The Origins of the British”, starting with “Discover your inner Basque”.  The author’s thesis was eye-catching, generating quite a few newspaper reviews, so I wasted no time in purchasing the book. I think I got about as far as the first 100 pages, giving up in despair (failing to locate  the gist of his argument  – and instead finding myself bogged-down in a morass of technical and historical detail). Googling this morning turned up another blogger making a similar complaint about the book’s, er, variable quality.

Probably few if any of us like to give up on books, especially when separated from hard-earned money for the first edition hardback version. There’s also the upbringing thing as well:

If a task is once begun

Never leave it till it’s done.

Be the labour great or small

Do it well or not at all.

Well, with things being quiet right now in Shroudology (a polite way of saying that one can only stand so much interminable recycling of the same old arguments) what better time than to go back and tackle THAT 421 page tome, not counting another 100 pages more of appendices, notes etc. Mental note: don’t make the same mistake of starting at page 1. That way you avoid a lengthy, turgid and at times repetitive introduction to the Celts (odd, really, given the book was primarily addressed to the identity crisis of  us modern  English and our diaspora to the colonies and dominions – allegedly Anglo-Saxons(?) – who despite that have come on considerably in some instances.   😉

Fig. 11.5b , page 376, from Stephen Oppenheimer, 'The Origins of the British'. Constable and Robinson, 2006

Fig. 11.5b,  page 376, from Stephen Oppenheimer, ‘The Origins of the British’. Constable and Robinson, 2006

If you’re lucky you might happen upon this page first, with this graphic. But where’s the supporting text?

Yours truly must endeavour also, on long-postponed second acquaintance,  to get his head round modern genetics, and try to understand what haplotypes and haplogroups are, and try and link that to the kind of stuff he   learned about genes and DNA double helices as a biochemistry student several decades ago. (One dreads to think how many copies of Oppenheimer’s books must have been returned prematurely to the shelves – or secondhand book sellers – due to his user-unfriendly excursions into gene-typing at the molecular level. If it’s tough for a biochemistry graduate, think what it must be like for those with no more than O-Level or GCSE science). Reckon on 5 careful rereads on some pages, just to get an inkling (again, his frequent clunky exposition doesn’t help).

I’ll be updating this posting throughout the day, starting first with a copy-and-paste of the publisher’s blurb on the  flyleaf,  some newspaper articles from six years ago (maybe) and further  links to others’ postings. Expect also a copy-and-paste of the current  ongoing thread in “Prospect” magazine that’s apparently being running on and off over the years, apparently giving up the ghost  and then sputtering back to life again.

This is by way of letting fellow Shroudies know that this blogger is still alive, and mentally active after a fashion, even if there’s little happening right now to keep the inner-Shroudie occupied. That’s no disrespect to the likes of  Hugh, Charles, Adrie, Thibault and  others who have enlivened the Comments section here with their observations and opinions, even if I don’t agree with all of them.

Fly leaf: Stephen Oppenheimer:

In this important new book based on original research and the latest scientific evidence, Stephen Oppenheimer challenges some of our assumptions about the differences between Anglo-Saxons and Celts – perceived divisions that have long informed our collective sense of identity.

History relates that the Romans found a uniformly Celtic population throughout the British Isles but that the indigenous folk of the English heartland fell victim to genocide and replacement by the ‘Anglo-Saxon hordes’ during the fifth and sixth centuries.

But Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking research reveals that these late invasions contributed a tiny fraction (5%) to the English gene pool. Two thirds of the English people show an unbroken line of genetic descent from south-western Europeans arriving long before the introduction of farming.

Synthesising the genetic evidence with linguistics, archaeology and historical record. Oppenheimer shows how the long-term trade and immigration from North-west Europe including Scandinavia, between 7,000 and 3,000 years ago contributed most of the remaining third. The earliest forms of English language may have arrived on the tail of these large pre-Roman migrations.

And what of the people we know as Celts – the Irish, Scots and Welsh? Scholars traditionally place their origins in Iron Age Central Europe. But the data clearly show that they arrived via the Atlantic coastal route many thousands of years ago, from Ice Age refuges in the Basque country and Spain. The modern languages we call Celtic came later.

In this extraordinary study, the author’s childhood question is answered at last. He proves there is indeed a sharp divide between the English and the rest of the British but that the roots of that separate identity go back not merely 1,500 years but many thousands. His fascinating conclusion is that the real story of the British peoples is one of extraordinary continuity and an inheritance that has survived all onslaughts.


More later …

But here’s a link to that Prospect thread mentioned earlier

New addition:  here’s  a flavour of the current Prospect  thread (captured here,  just in case the magazine decides to wipe the thread – as happens all too often with MSM sites – and one suspects may already have happened earlier with part of the thread – why the gap between the posting – 2006- and the first comment -2009?):

January 23, 2013  Jonny C

Jane, you seem angered by Oppenheimer’s theory…

Your argument is emotional, sorry, but when I look around, I see a lot to back up what he thinks.

The people of the UK are largely self-similar in appearance and culture, and many of the differences between our neighbouring countries are invented (the whole Romantic Celt nonsense for instance) as an outlet for vanquished pride.

January 23, 2013

Colin Berry

While I don’t agree with Jane, neither would I agree with you either Jonny. About the only certain thing one can say about us Brits is that most of us would be described by the Bill as ‘White Caucasian’. Within that category there is a vast number of types when you factor in all the permutations of hair and eye colour, shape of nose, distance between eyes, height of forehead, skin shade, facial bone structure.

I was in Slovakia last summer, and recall wondering what proportion of folk in the supermarket I could say were definitely Slav, and definitely not British. The answer was small – probably no more than 20-30%, if that.

Is that so surprising? Stephen Oppenheimer says that no one genetic input accounts for more than 5 or at most 10% of our genome – but there have been a lot of those small contributions over the centuries and millennia – the Romans, the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Normans and more recent additions, not all necessarily in the same person needless to say (thus generating phenotypic diversity). But I for one am still fascinated by the idea that “Anglo-Saxon” could be a mis-labelling in genetic terms, especially if it was driven by some long-forgotten agenda in Victorian times, say. Maybe we ought to call ourselves Britannians. Nope, on second thoughts – English will do (even if that Mr.Singh next door keeps joshing me about being an immigrant, the same as him).

From scratchy 7929:

What is a Finn, Swede, Norwegian or a Dane ? What is a Scandinavian ? What is a Norse person ?
What is a Dutch person ? What is a Belgic person ? What is a Flemish person ? What is a Fresian ? What is a Walloon ? What is an Atlantic Celt ?
Who could be considered an Ingwaeonic person ? Could the Eastern side of the British population be considered Ingwaeonic / Nordic / Germanic / Celtic ?
What is an Anglo-Saxon? What is an English person ?……………

You started it Enigma

January 24, 2013

Colin Berry

 Well, this retired biochemist was taught that those differences in phenotypic expression that are heritable, i.e. passed on, represent the result of past mutations in the genome (DNA). Stephen Oppenheimer and others use DNA and haplotypes to investigate the mix of genes that determine our ethnic make-up. But my biochemistry was about genes that determine metabolism, and how defects in those genes can lead to inborn errors of metabolism. So that’s two of us who have to do some catch-up reading (but it sounds as though you might have to do rather more than me!)

I’m in fact re-reading SH’s book right now. I have to say, I am still somewhat underwhelmed by his style of exposition. You know, the clarity thing. I may give a sample or two shortly, but first have to see whether or not this site allows html tags, like italics.

 January 24, 2013

Colin Berry

Here’s an example of the kind of passage that gives me difficulty (but maybe I’m just old and stupid). My thought processes, if they can be so dignified, are in italics. I’ve taken the liberty of removing the author’s italics for words like ‘foederati’ and other Latinisms.

Title: The coast of New Saxony? (that description is not used again, so one is left to guess what it refers to geographically and when)

… Several hundred years later, the inhabitants of the ‘Saxon shore’ were still known as East Saxons, South Saxons and West Saxons. Given our complete reliance on Gildas for the intervening period, and his lack of dates or useful context, the coincidence seems remarkable.

(What coincidence, given there was mass immigration of Saxons, whether or not the original inhabitants were a first wave of Saxons who had already settled during the period of Roman occupation?)

The only named non-Saxons in this region were the inhabitants of Kent. Kentish people, supposedly derived from Jutes and Britons, spoke a dialect of Old English heavily influenced by Norse.

(A lengthy section now follows on the Kentish people. Why, given the section is ostensibly about Saxons?

The post-Roman self-identified name of the men of Kent, ‘Ceint’, is argued to be a Jutish version of the original Romano-British Cantiaci of Cantium (‘Cantia’ in Bede.)

(Better make a careful note of that ‘Ceint’ because we will need it later to make sense of a passage several lines later. “Self-identified”: does that mean the name they gave themselves? “Cantiaci of Cantium”? If that is the Latin for Kentish of Kent, could the author not have said so, instead of assuming that everyone remembers their Latin, assuming they have some formal training).

Authorities differ on the derivation of the original Roman place name ‘Cantium’ but one point on which they all agree is that some version of the root Cant- was already old, even in Roman times, since Pytheas and Diodorus used it. Ptolemy’s Kantion promontory in Kent is regarded as one of the ‘Harder ?British’ place names to identify etymologically in the recent analysis of Ptolemy’s map (Figure 7.2) of Britain.

(Ouch. ‘Cantium’ is referred to now as a place name, without indicating if it’s a town or what now we call a county or region even.. What’s the meaning of promontory in this context? Are those of us familiar with modern Kent supposed to know what feature is being referred to? ‘Harder ?British’. Is that an error? Are they proof-reader’s mark ups or what? Did the writer say ‘harder British place names’ originally. Did the proof-reader add the question mark – and if so that should have been in the margin surely? Ptolemy’s map is several pages back in the book – in a previous chapter in fact. Why is the author making it so hard on the reader?)

Jute is cognate with Jutland, part of modern Denmark. (Cognate?

Is there not a simpler term. How many folk know the meaning of cognate?)

Why the new Jutish overlords should hang on to an old, possibly immigrant name as their tribal designation is not clear.

(If that’s what they called themselves on arrival, based on their original home, why should there be a compelling reason to adopt a new description of themselves? But in any case, what name are we talking about – Jute derived from Jutland, or the earlier ‘Ceint’ referred to 4 sentences earlier?
The later Huguenots settling in Britain continued to describe themselves as Huguenots).
Caesar clearly regarded the Cantiaci as non-aboriginal, although whether they were Belgic/Germanic-speaking or Gaulish speaking he did not say (see above). (Oh dear. Why are we bothering right now with what language the Cantiaci/Jutes/Ceint (?????) spoke when it’s supposed to be a section about Saxons. Why is my head spinning. Why is my brain hurting?
Just one more paragraph still to do….

Pryor sees Anglo-Saxon communities as already present in the southern English archaeological record of Roman times, and points, for instance, to the Saxon site of Mucking in Essex, where Late Roman bronzes are found in both Saxon graves and Saxon huts dated to around AD 400. He argues strongly against the standard rationalization that these were just random homes of immigrant Germanic mercenaries, the foederati. I shall come back to the archaeology of the transition later; but returning to the question of identity and timelines, it is worth examining several consistent differences between Gildas and Bede’s ‘rendering of Gildas’, which are revealing as to how recently the Saxons had immigrated and who Bede’s ‘Britons’ and ‘English’ really were.
Again, I find myself hung up, and this time it’s just one word in the final paragraph of the section, right near the end. It’s that ‘how recently’ the Saxons immigrated. The question being addressed is not how ’recently’ surely, but how early on, whether that was concurrent with the Romans or even preceded them.
But we have still not had the section title explained: “The coast of New Saxony?”. How new is new? Is New Saxony a tongue-in-cheek designation for a pre-AD410 settlement of Saxon immigrants, arriving before the final departure of the Romans. How can the author be so vague and imprecise, given this is the crucial question that the book explores – whether the Saxons really came as an invading hoardes of warriors, or as colonising families who did not necessarily displace an aboriginal population, especially if the latter were not all settled farmers but pastoralists?

January 25, 2013


 Wasn’t the Saxon Shore created to KEEP OUT the Saxon’s & Frank’s (all other pirates – lnc. Irish, Vikings etc.). After a few decades (while Britain was still under Roman rule), weren’t these defences (on both sides of the English channel) manned by desirting / conscripted Saxon soldier’s / sailer’s.
The Saxon shore wasn’t named so, due to the fact they controlled those area’s, to begin with anyway.A common mis-understanding.

January 25, 2013

Colin Berry

“Saxon shore” seems an odd name to use if the intention is to keep the Saxons out, even if there was a chain of forts/strongholds/trading stations – call them what you will..


That lends credence to the idea that there was already a string of Saxon coastal settlements even while the Romans were in occupation. Displacing them might not have been considered worth the time and effort, especially if the indigenous population was happy to stay in the interior, living off the fat of the land, so to speak, and not yet accustomed to fish on Fridays. (Or maybe they traded fish for furs or grain).

The locals’ fear would have been one of further encroachment inland. Maybe that’s why the strongholds were built in the first place, not so much for pro-active naval patrols and other policing (there being relatively unsuited as customised military garrisons were we are told) but as retreats if or when the locals felt threatened by any new activity or arrivals on the shoreline.

As for the brief Carausius take-over, lasting less than 10 years, there is a suggestion but no proof that he initiated the construction of those forts, but if they had preceded him, he may have been more than happy to adapt them to a more aggressive military posture, fearing that the Empire might strike back at any time, sending in fleets of ships to retake Britannia.

The initial (Roman) policy of containment could then have morphed into one of creeping “Saxonisation” , loosely defined to include a rag bag of Angles, Saxons, Danes, a few Gauls maybe as when the Romans departed. Just think – an inland indigenous population, used to paying taxes to their Latin masters, suddenly get a tax holiday, but knew they were living on a borrowed time without P60s. The temptation for the coastal Saxons etc to simply run up a flag and declare themselves the new masters and tax-collectors must have been enormous, and was made so much easier when control of the coastline had already been established with an advance guard in place. So no massive invasion was needed – just bring in more and more shiploads of one’s relatives from the old country. Result: creeping infiltration, pacification and subordination of the natives (who may in any case have taken a philosophical view – better the devil you know than a bunch of even wilder barbarians from more distant parts – Scotland or Scandinavia.

It’s all speculation of course, but one can never resist a jigsaw puzzle… even one with so many pieces missing.

January 25, 2013


‘Two interpretations were put forward as to the meaning of the adjective “Saxon”: either a shore attacked by Saxons, or a shore settled by Saxons’
‘Whatever their original purpose, it is virtually certain that in the late 4th century the forts and their garrisons were employed in operations against Frankish and Saxon pirates’

January 25, 2013

Colin Berry

OK, but look at the pictures of the 9 forts in Notitia Dignitatum (see your wiki ref for Saxon Shore).


Do they look like military ops centres for intercepting and attacking pirates? Not to me they don’t – merely secure strongholds for resisting attack by land-based militias. The archaeology too says they were not military garrisons in the ordinary sense, according to SO.

January 26, 2013

Colin Berry

PS to my previous reply: I’m having second thoughts about the depictions of those nine forts along the Saxon Shore They would appear to come from a colour illuminated copy of the Notitia published in the 16th century, so may be idealized versions, the product of fanciful 16th century imaginations.There’s certainly an age-of-chivalry Arthurian look about them, a far cry from the reality of the fort at Portchester (which I need hardly add is still in an amazing state of preservation, notably the original flint/slab walls that preceded the later medieval additions).

The outer wall of the Roman fort at Porchester still stands to this day - said to be the best example of a Roman fort north of the Alps.

The outer wall and bastions of the Roman fort at Portchester on England’s Channel coast,  close to the Isle of Wight,  still stands to this day – and is claimed  to be the best example of a surviving Roman fort north of the Alps. (The steeply-pitched roof at the far end belongs to a Norman church inside the enclosure.)

Plan of the fort

Plan of the fort


Purely for the record, here’s a link to all 3 of my earlier postings on the origins of us English…

Final note (for now). There was a reference at the start of this posting to the tedious recycling of stale and disputatious debate. Here’s the latest contribution to the genre from The Other Site (click on the lilac numeral):

January 26, 2013 at 11:02 am | #11

“Regarding the identity of the man, if we can assume that the forensic pathologists are correct, ie Bucklin, Zugibe and others, that the man seen on the shroud was a real man who died from the wounds pictured. AND if we can assume that the blood chemistry is correct, ie Adler, Heller and others, that the blood is in fact blood from actual wounds. Then there are two choices, either the shroud is the result of an actual crucifixion or one that was staged.

The problem with the staged hypothesis, is that as far as we know, corpses do not make images on linen shrouds. There is nothing else like it in all the museums in the world…only shrouds covered with stains of body decomposition…no images. If it was the result of an actual crucifixion then a simple comparison should reveal the identity.

The uniqueness of Christ’s crucifixion are numerous starting with a crown of thorns as a singular mockery as King of the Jews, severe scourging as a last ditch effort by Pilate to release him–he didn’t think he was guilty of a crime worthy of capital punishment–plus he was spooked by his wife’s dream.

His legs were not broken and he received a side wound instead because he was already dead when it came time to remove the bodies–consequence of the scourging no doubt. He was given an individual burial even though most who were crucified were thrown into a common grave.

He was wrapped in a very expensive linen–one suited for a high priestly garment. All this together would indicate it is probably Jesus. Is it Conclusive? Not by today’s scientific standards—but probably enough to hold up in a courtroom as the “preponderance of evidence”–the burden of proof necessary for a civil trial.”

What can one say? Reading that, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is a fresh corpse on a mortuary slab, one where the bloodstains can be wiped away to reveal the underlying wounds, one that is amenable to a full and thorough forensic investigation.

But there is not. All we have an image on centuries-old linen, with some improbably bright red stains that reportedly have some but not all the properties of authentic blood, that require inventive stories invoking novel  and unprecedented complexes of oxidized haemoglobin and bilirubin. We can only speculate as to how the image was formed, and there is no evidence that wounds are imaged, as distinct from blood that is wrongly equated with wounds (those “scourge marks”, for example,  are simply “blood”, not the imaging of skin lacerations, as some would have us believe).

What we see above is a totally circular, self-serving argument that simply begs the question (original sense of that phrase). It’s not just the conclusive scientific evidence that is missing. It is the absence of  the  quintessential SPIRIT of scientific enquiry that brought Western society out of the superstition of the Dark Ages and medievalism, and into the Renaissance.

What we see above is simply a contrived play on words.  Well, here’s someone who doesn’t want to play any of his games, having tediously to point out the flawed, bent or circular logic, the verbal  distraction techniques and sleights of hand.  Which is why I am now looking for new puzzles, new enigmas to  study –  like what really happened in Britain after the Romans pulled out?  Will an entire new brigade of internet-enabled agenda-pushers come popping out the woodwork, disputing one’s every word or claim, once one is perceived and then targeted as being seriously off-message? We shall see…

PS  Here’s an image that I need to respond to Thibault Heimburger re his anti-scorching pdf and my response to it:

how to falsify thibault's principleAnd I need this one too for insertion in a comment:

king george 3d in image J heavy crop

Scorches of decreasing intensity, before and after light/dark  inversion and 3D enhancement in ImageJ.

Scorches of decreasing intensity, before and after light/dark inversion and 3D enhancement in ImageJ.



About Colin Berry

Retired science bod, previous research interests: phototherapy of neonatal jaundice, membrane influences on microsomal UDP-glucuronyltransferase, defective bilirubin and xenobiotic conjugation and hepatic excretion, dietary fibre and resistant starch.
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