Sacred Wonders Of Britain: My first encounter

Monday 6 January 2014, 17:14

Neil Oliver Neil Oliver Presenter

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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.

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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.

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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 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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Superbly researched and presented first programme, looking forward to the rest of the series. Its probably no coincidence that sites of spiritual significance throughout the ages are found in spectacular and awe inspiring landscapes.

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    Comment number 2.

    Really enjoying this, cannot believe I missed it last week... We have an embarrassment of riches in The British Isles, and there must be still so much to be discovered. I love not just the big, the spectacular places, but the small secret places. We all have our 'special' places, places that somehow speak to us... I'm just hoping that we don't become so remote from the real world because of technology etc that we lose a sense of our spiritual selves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Not your fault I know Neil but it's incredibly irritating that part one is now no longer available via iPlayer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    ETA: Ahh, you can get to EP1 via the Sacred Places website, but not via iPlayer itself or via the BBC Two listings on the iPlayer. I've now found part one again.
    As a PS, I wish the BBC would allow 10 minutes of editing time on posts, or even 5 minutes for that matter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Surprised it has taken you so long to get a blog together. When do you think the suffering hemisphere will get his show?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Great programme, a real joy to watch. Looking forward to seeing more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Hi Cadiva, I work on the BBC TV blog. Apologies that the series catch-up wasn't showing up properly in BBC iPlayer. It has been fixed and the episodes are now linked up. Thanks for getting in touch about it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Far, far too much speculation being turned into fact. Great graphics though.

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    Comment number 9.

    One question that I've always had in mind concerning Grimes Caves - how could they see what they were doing in the mining tunnels?

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    Comment number 10.

    Quite disappointed after the first episode. Too much agreement on 'facts' which are actually only hypothesis. A more open minded approach of "What if...." would have worked just fine. Will stick with it, as Neil Oliver stuff usually pretty decent

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Loving the series - shame it is only 3 parts though! Do enjoy Neil Oliver's programmes. He ought to do meditation CDs - he has such a relaxing voice!

    Interesting views on why some things were made/built - particularly the cave paintings. Bit hard to believe in today's world that someone would paint something and believe it would conjure it up but I guess that is the point, that we don't think like that anymore.

    Hopefully such series will help to increase public awareness and save some of the sites that are at risk from close development.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Apart from the wonderful subject matter, I could listen to to Neil's accent over and over again. Of course the advantage of watching these kind of documentaries after they are first aired, is being able to replay scenes and dialogue to fully appreciate them. Having missed the first episode, I found it just by entering Neil Oliver's name in the Search box on BBC iPlayer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    At last – a presenter with the courage to speak about ancient spirituality on BBC. Orkney still holds a tangible presence of power within its many sacred sites due to the fact that many of them are little visited and thus still hold a ‘magic’ that no longer exists in Stonehenge. There is a theory presented in Uriel’s Machine by Knight & Lomas about Enoch being the ‘ancient visitor’ to Orkney – worth a read.
    Thanks Neil for such passionate presentation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Rae – in reply to your comment – visualising with intention in order to create something in the future has now been proved by quantum physics. You can practice this yourself!! Most indigenous tribes still practice some form of ceremony before hunting in order to create a successful hunt. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari draw an antelope in the sand and shoot arrows at it and also commune with the spirit of the animal the night before a hunt to ensure success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Another brilliant and interesting history program, Neil Oliver's enthusiasm comes through in his commentary on the subject matter.

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    Comment number 16.

    A most interesting and fascinating series. Looking forward to watching episode three.

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    Comment number 17.

    Concerning the body/skeleton found at a significant place at Maiden Castle: could it not be that this person was a significant chieftain/leader/"protector" of the people and the site? a "hero" who is so placed in such a way that he is revered still and thought able to continue to protect the enclosure? What evidence suggests that he had committed a crime for which he had to atone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I think its one of the very best programmes ever. Well done Neil and the whole team.
    I was thinking; If a tribe drinks from the same spring, plus their livestock and crops grow from its water. Our bodies are mainly water so the tribes children are made of exactly the same stuff as the tribes ancestors! Also does this indicate that spring worship was a religion of settled farmers rather than nomadic hunter gathers? just some thoughts :)

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    Comment number 19.

    Neil Oliver conveys a broad-based pre-Christian spirituality very well,saying “They maybe doing this,they maybe doing that…” when encountering sacred sites.”…or looking for help,coping with an illness,wanting some comfort or reassurance…these are universal themes and they flow down through the centuries and millennia..the question is why do we regard some places as sacred than others?Why are there some sites that draw us back again and again and again?”A lot of speculation in other words but in his usual punchy style.What we know about their beliefs can only be guessed at.Prehistoric art married nature,geography and religion as well as architecture.The authority behind these works e.g. standing stones,was based on communal effort.These ceremonial centres like Stonehenge and the Ring of Brodgar(Orkney) was a
    phenomenon spread over the British Isles,though hardly in Europe.Enclosed areas with circular banks and ditches,upright timbers or standing stones,or ritual pits goes back to the 1st farming communities in 3rd millennium BC,continuing into the 2nd millennium.The Ring of Brodgar became the focus of sunsequent veneration,round which were set burial mounds of the later faithful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Really am enjoying this.Thanx Mr.Oliver.


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