Sacred Wonders Of Britain: My first encounter


From the very beginning my interest in archaeology was driven by fascination with the strangeness of the past.

As well as wondering at the effort involved in building places like Avebury, West Kennet long barrow and the Ring of Brodgar, I wanted to understand what on earth had motivated all that labour in the first place.

When the Sacred Wonders Of Britain project came along, I felt I would finally have the opportunity to have some speculative conversations with the foremost experts in fields like archaeology and medieval history. And so it was.

Why do some ancient sites draw us back and still resonate with us today?

For the first time we could visit sites like St Nectan’s Glen, Flag Fen, Llyn Cerrig Bach, Canterbury Cathedral and many more besides – and allow ourselves to think about not just how and when these places were built, or by whom – but also the most fascinating factor of all – why?

My own first encounter with sacred sites came during my years as a student of archaeology at Glasgow University in the 1980s.

Field trips took us to sites like Dunadd hillfort in Argyll, ancient capital of the kingdom of Dal Riata; the Neolithic stone circles on the Island of Arran, off Scotland’s west coast; the early Christian site of Iona; as well as venturing into the south of England to see the most famous sites of all at Stonehenge and Avebury.

I was captivated by all those places then and I’ve been captivated ever since.

When it came to choosing which sites we should feature in Sacred Wonders Of Britain, the process was agonising.

The notion of sacred is woven through the landscapes of Britain and Ireland.

Generations of people, down through the millennia, have sought to make sense of the cosmos, and their place within it.

Spend time in any of the circles, chambered tombs or early churches and you can almost sense the passion with which our ancestors went about the business of understanding what was going on around them and in the sky above.

We were at all times sensitive to one absolute truth – that it is quite impossible to put yourself in the mind of a Neolithic farmer, or to understand the thinking of an Iron Age druid.

Their worlds are utterly separate from ours and the profound differences in our circumstances mean we would be ill-advised even to try.

In the 21st Century, where religion is practised at all, it is separate from the activities of every day life.

It seems at least possible that in the ancient world, no such distinction existed.

Similarly, the practice of religion may have functioned as a practical tool – not unlike the use of modern politics, bringing people together to discuss matters of mutual concern.

In any event, we tried to allow for those concerns and others. We selected sites that spread across as long a time period as possible.

For this reason, the rock art of Creswell Crags seemed like a must – given that it was made more than 13,000 years ago.

We needed to consider too the world of the Neolithic, the Iron Age, the impact of things Roman and also the advent of Christianity.

Bath's sacred spring holds surprisingly vindictive requests from ancient Romano-British worshippers

Hopefully the sites and monuments visited during the three episodes will suggest just enough to make a meaningful, if speculative picture.

What we are saying about those places is certainly open to challenge – indeed my greatest hope is that our version of events will simply get people talking and arguing!

I’m often asked to identify my favourite site – and it’s as hard a question as you might imagine.

When pushed however, I have to concede that Orkney knocks me off my feet.

If I had a time machine, I would certainly go back to the Neolithic period on those islands in hope of understanding just what grand idea – what visionary individual, perhaps – inspired a mania for monument building that lasted for a thousand years.

Ness of Brodgar on Orkney is, for me, the most significant archaeological discovery of my lifetime.

Just the sight of the place strikes me dumb and I look forward to every visit and the chance to glimpse just a little bit more.

The Ring of Brodgar is an ancient circle of stones, each quarried from a different part of Orkney

Flag Fen too is a wonder to behold – the realisation that people living nearly three and half thousand years ago were motivated to build, to reshape their landscape to such an extent.

There’s undoubtedly something very strange about looking down a deep dark hole onto a structure that people once walked on in the daylight.

But it is the fact the place was swallowed by rising water levels and the deposition of peat that has preserved it for our viewing today.

Thanks to the careful application of modern techniques of preservation, the timbers of the walkway are still timber, soft to the touch.

Much of it is as it was when those Bronze Age farmers knew it as part of their every day landscape.

Maybe it’s just the way I’m made, but that simple fact puts the hairs up on the back of my neck every time I think about it.

Neil Oliver is an archaeologist and presents Sacred Wonders Of Britain.

Sacred Wonders Of Britain continues on Monday, 6 January at 8.30pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC. 


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