Adams is a synthesiser, a noble pursuit often derided within academia, where praise is instead heaped on original research. He has read assiduously the arcane studies written for a specialist audience and condensed them into an accessible and illuminating book, studiously avoiding the temptation to fictionalise when facts are scarce. The period is susceptible to romantic reconstruction precisely because the narrative is otherwise so thin. The adventures of Beowulf are frankly so much more exhilarating than the story that po-faced archaeologists can tell.
Adams is a wonderful writer and the interpretations he provides of complex arguments rooted in archaeology, or linguistics, or genetics, expertly convey the sheer excitement of research into the period. Dramatic though the traditional narrative of Roman Britain’s utter collapse may be, the detective work required to cast doubt on it comes, in Adams’s hands, to possess its own revelatory sense of drama. A remodelled grain store on Hadrian’s Wall provides an example of how forts evolved as centres of locally sustained power for decades after the Roman withdrawal; layers of dark earth over cityscapes suggest not the abandonment of cities but their conversion into cattle-pens, “producing not just meat but also manure”.