5 minutes with Professor Alice Roberts

Wednesday 15 May 2019

1. What sparked your initial interest in science? How did you become an anthropologist?

I loved science from an early age - I was always asking questions about the world around me, and I was particularly fascinated in biology. I remember having my first microscope and how wonderful it was to see all that new detail in natural structures - from a bee’s wing to tiny creatures in pond water. I also enjoyed finding small pieces of pottery when I dug the vegetable patch in the garden - my first experience of hands-on archaeology! That joy of finding things out has stayed with me.

I’ve also 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 originally studied medicine at university, and then worked as a junior doctor - but it was a six-month job at Bristol University, where I taught anatomy to medical students, which rekindled my love of anatomy. I stayed on as a lecturer and embarked on a PhD - looking at disease in ancient bones, and comparing human and chimpanzee skeletons. For a few years, I thought I’d eventually go back to surgery, but academia had snared me - in a good way.

Now, I balance being a professor at the University of Birmingham with writing books and making television programmes. I feel very lucky: I really enjoy the variety of work that I do.

2. How did you get involved in TV?

I started doing reports on human bones excavated on the Channel 4 series, Time Team - and in 2001, they invited me along to an actual dig. It was an Anglo Saxon cemetery in Breamore, Hampshire. I had a brief speaking part, and got asked back to appear as a bone expert in later series. And then one thing led to another: in 2005 I joined the original presenting team of Coast, followed by various other programmes. In 2009, I presented my first solo landmark series on BBC2 - a global epic looking at ancient human colonisation of the globe, called The Incredible Human Journey. Since then, I’ve enjoyed presenting a great range of programmes, ranging across topics including medicine, anatomy, archaeology and history.

3. As a successful academic, author and broadcaster - is there anything career-wise you would still like to achieve? 

I achieved one of my ambitions last year - presenting the Christmas Lectures, and that was definitely a career high! Another was interviewing David Attenborough at the Science Museum a few years ago - he is such a hero of mine and it was humbling to be able to spend an evening in conversation with someone who has been such a pioneer of natural history television - right from its earliest inception.

Right now, there are a few series ideas I’m working on, but I’d really love to do a series on the Bronze Age - it’s such an exciting period of prehistory. I’m also involved with an exciting research project looking at ancient genomes and what that can tell us about the deep history of Britain.

But perhaps more than anything, I’d like to continue sharing the wonder of human biology and archaeology, making those new discoveries accessible to a wide audience - and also encouraging other academics to do the same with their knowledge and research.

4. 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. In 2018, 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.

5. What can people expect from the tour? And why did you want to go on the road?

I’m just embarking on an eighth series of Digging for Britain, my archaeology series on BBC4, and the second series of Britain’s Historic Towns went out on Channel 4 this year, too. It seemed like a good time to go back and look at the sites I’ve worked on over the years. History is such a huge subject, but archaeology allows us to get up close and personal with the past - with our heritage.

So I’ll be looking back to to my first Time Team dig 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.

I love making television and writing books - but that can feel a bit one-way. I really enjoy getting out and doing live shows, and having conversations with people.

6. How do you relax away from work?

I enjoy being active - I go the gym, cycle and go for long walks. But my favourite activity of all is kayaking - on rivers and the sea - and I do it whenever I get the chance.

For quiet relaxation, I enjoy reading, drawing and painting. I also 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.

7. How have you changed over the years - and what do you think is the one lesson you’ve learnt which has made the greatest impact on you?

I’ve always been interested in a diverse range of subjects - from biology through to archaeology and history - and I’m always looking for connections; I think that as I’ve got older, I’m finding connections between even more diverse areas of human enquiry. But the biggest impact on me personally has definitely come from motherhood. It unlocked reserves of love that I didn’t know I had, and it makes you much less selfish. I think it’s made me a better person.

8. What’s your philosophy on life?

I’m a humanist - in fact, I’m President of Humanists UK this year. I favour a rational approach to the world; I don’t believe in any sort of supernatural or divine dimension. I think we create the meaning in our lives, and I believe strongly in the power of empathy, kindness and love to make the world a better place.

9. What three pieces of music or songs best sum you up and why?

Monkey gone to Heaven by the Pixies is an enduring favourite of mine: it’s a great tune with weird lyrics and just brilliant to let your hair down (literally) and dance to to. It makes me feel 17 again!

I chose This is Me from the Greatest Showman to close my Christmas Lectures. I really enjoyed watching the film with my kids, and that song captures such a spirit of strength and is all about embracing difference and diversity.

My third piece would have to be The Water by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling. It’s an achingly beautiful piece of music and it’s about merging with the natural world as we disappear from this world. As a humanist; I don’t believe in an afterlife - I think we each need to make this one life meaningful. And then slip away like this song.

Alice's live show Digging into Britain's Past is at the Corn Exchange Wednesday 25 September and can be booked HERE