Culture

Professor Alice Roberts: 'I got sidetracked into academia in a delightful way'

She started out on the path to being a medical doctor, but TV stardom beckoned

Alice Roberts

Alice Roberts. Image: Supplied

Professor Alice Roberts is a biological anthropologist, author, and broadcaster. Roberts was born in Bristol in May 1973. After studying and practicing medicine in Cardiff, she then became a lecturer at the University of Bristol, teaching clinical anatomy.

Roberts became interested in the intersection between biology, archaeology, and history, and started working on the archaeology TV show, Time Team, initially as a bone expert and later as a presenter. Her TV career went from strength to strength as she presented Coast, Britain’s Most Historic Towns, Extreme Archaeology, Britain’s Biggest Dig, The Day The Dinosaurs Died, Food Detectives, Origins Of Us, and Fortress Britain, among many others. She is also a best-selling author, with books including Antatomical Oddities, Buried, Ancestors, and The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being. 

Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to my Younger Self, Roberts explains how she ended up becoming a familiar face on our TV screens, the importance of questioning received wisdom and how important family is to her.

I was a very academic teenager. I’d loved books since I was quite small. I had a real passion for learning but it got me into trouble – I was really badly bullied at junior school because I liked books and I wore glasses. I was always in the corner with my nose buried in a book. But that bullying when I was in primary school didn’t put me off, it actually made me even more determined. When I was 11, I knew I wanted to be a medical doctor. So by 16 I was on that course of learning. It was a kind of lifeline for me because I had a really deep sense of insecurity as well, anxieties about what the future held and where my path would lie.  

I was quite a late developer in terms of my sexuality and developing relationships with boyfriends, but part of that was my upbringing. I was brought up in an intensely religious family. That might be why boyfriends were not welcome in my house. I remember when I was 17 I’d had a really bad accident. I was knocked over by a car just outside the cathedral in Bristol – I went right over the top of the car and landed on the road. And I was left with a cracked rib and a really badly bruised face; I couldn’t open my right eye.

I had a boyfriend at the time, a great guy. He wanted to come and bring me flowers and my parents wouldn’t even let him in the house. I’d just had this terrible accident and really wanted to see him. I was upstairs in my bed, battered and bruised, and I could hear my parents talking to him on the doorstep and they wouldn’t let him in. So in the end he just handed over the flowers. My mother said to me, “You can have boyfriends when you go to university.”

1990: Aged 17 with her kitten Florence. Image: Supplied

I didn’t have an ambition to be brilliant or achieve something superlative in the field of medicine. I just wanted to be a good doctor – I remember reading AJ Cronin’s Citadel and that was hugely influential to me, especially going off to study medicine in Cardiff. But I was always also interested in history and archaeology. I think if there was something I wanted to tell my younger self, it would be that you don’t have to panic about just choosing one thing. You are a multi-faceted individual and over the course of your life you’ll end up doing quite a few different things, and you’ll use different parts of you for each one of them.

I didn’t stay in medicine and sometimes that’s a sort of regret for me because I didn’t leave medicine and surgery due to not enjoying it. I left it because I got sidetracked into academia in a delightful way. I’d done my junior doctor jobs in south Wales, and then I did what I anticipated would be six months at the University of Bristol teaching anatomy. But that turned into 11 years. Bristol was nice, but it wasn’t the city that kept me there. It was the work, it was the bones. This massive collection of medieval bones that were kept in the basement of Bristol Royal Infirmary. I was hooked, and that was it for me. 

I made a transition from a job where I was looking after living patients to looking at these ancient skeletons. My patients were suddenly centuries old, and very dead. But I was amazed at how much you can tell from bones, how to look for particular signs of an ancient disease. With a living patient you can ask them where it hurts or get blood tests done, but if they’re dead you’ve got none of those options. I just finished my new book Crypt [due out in early 2024] with this line, which I’m quite proud of: “This is what the skeletons of the dead say to us when we find them: listen to us. We have stories to tell.” 

Going from academia into broadcasting was a complete accident for me. If I went back to myself at 16, that girl would say I’d be doing surgery in 20, 30 years’ time. But things turn out a little differently in life. I was a fairly newly qualified doctor when I became an anatomist and a biological anthropologist. Then I met a really wonderful woman called Kate Edwards who worked on the Channel 4 show Time Team, and she was bemoaning the fact that the team needed to write up its digs and they had a big backlog. So I started helping out. Then I went on a dig with them. I loved the experience; three days of digging and trying to find answers. And that was it, I carried on working with Time Team for many years.  

I’ve written a lot of factual books about archaeology and anthropology. That work really makes you wonder what these ancient lives were like. You start to imagine the people. That imagination is really important. I began to want to take the objects out of the museum and make them alive again, in the hands of real living people. So I wrote a pre-historical novel, mainly to bring the past alive for my children.

I have a son and a daughter and I’ve tried really hard to filter the gender stereotypes. The idea of books or toys for boys and different ones for girls. Because I don’t want their ambitions to be narrowed. I don’t want my daughter to think, oh, I can’t do that because girls don’t do that. And I don’t want my son to think oh, I can’t feel that way or I can’t be emotional because that’s not what boys do. 

I feel quite strongly that children are often overlooked in archaeology. The ones that really get my goat are things like… I saw this amazing ice sculpture in Zaraysk in Russia. The archaeologists have discovered an extraordinary ancient Palaeolithic dwelling there from almost the peak of the Ice Age. And on the floor of it, they found this amazing carved bison. Oh my god, it’s beautiful, and absolutely gorgeously carved – even the mane along its neck is picked out. The archaeologist said, this is a ritual object and it’s been ritually killed. You can see it’s been damaged, it’s been stabbed at. This might have been some kind of hunting ritual. And I said to him, do you think it could have been a toy? And he was completely shocked and horrified that I suggested this.  

Alice Roberts on stage
2019: On the main stage at the New Scientist Live event. Image: John Gaffen / Alamy Stock Photo

But I wasn’t being flippant – we rush to assume that if you see a beautiful object, it must be some kind of ritual thing which other adults must approach with reverence. It could be that a parent made it for a child, and it was a treasured object for that child. I think we’re missing a big swathe of culture if we don’t consider objects from a child’s perspective. 

When I think about moments of intense happiness in my life, three stand out. One is when I first met my husband and I fell in love for the first time. And that was weird because I thought I’d fallen in love before. But when I met him I was bowled over. Like, properly bowled over. It was the physical reality of it, immediately thinking, OK, that’s different. We’ve been together since we were 21. A long time, more than more than 25 years. I think it’s really important to remember the joys in long-term relationships, because you have ups and downs, and you go through rocky patches.  

The second time I fell in love was when I gave birth to my daughter and the third time was my son. I had this amazing feeling when I had my daughter that I was connecting to all of my female ancestors. There was a moment when I was breastfeeding and I just had this incredible rush, this incredible feeling of love for her but also this feeling that I was just part of a chain, this chain of life. And that was incredible.  

Wolf Road book cover

Wolf Road by Alice Roberts is out now (Simon & Schuster, £14.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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