My passion for A History Of Ancient Britain

Wednesday 9 February 2011, 09:50

Neil Oliver Neil Oliver Presenter

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My original interest in history - and then archaeology - started with childhood curiosity about my own family.

I felt a need to know where we had come from. Why did we live where we did? Who were my grandparents and great-grandparents, and why did they have the lives they did?

From that grew a need to reach further and further back, to understand who first lived in Scotland, and where they had come from before they arrived here.

Neil Oliver looking at footprints in the mud in Newport

When Cameron Balbirnie - the series producer on A History Of Ancient Britain - came to me and asked whether I would be interested in presenting a big, all-encompassing series examining the pre-history of these islands, I jumped at the chance.

The opportunity to present a major series on a subject I'm passionate about was a dream come true for me, and I think the fact that I had a background in archaeology meant I was a good fit for the project.

I dived in headfirst, getting involved early on in discussions with the production team that helped to shape the series.

Back in my student days it was the Mesolithic period that attracted me most strongly. Its special power lay, I think, in my basic desire to dig back into time as far as possible.

And that brought me, in the end, to the Scottish Mesolithic, the earliest known human habitation of my own country - between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago.

At this time people hunted red deer, harvested and processed hazelnuts. They also fished.

Mesolithic people, although still nomadic, lived quite local lives, being born, living, and dying perhaps in the same general location.

Having said that, I'd have to admit that during the making of A History Of Ancient Britain I was lured into even deeper time.

Neil Oliver looking at a skull

In England and Wales there have been tantalising finds of human occupation reaching even further back.

I was therefore blown away by the sight of the so-called Red Lady of Paviland.

This was in fact the bones of a young mammoth hunter who lived and died in what is now South Wales, before the onset of the last Ice Age. His remains are more than 33,000 years old.

Also profoundly moving was the sliver of horse bone found in a cave near Sheffield that had been the canvas for an artist around 13,000 years ago.

That piece of rib bone - sometimes known as the Creswell Crags horse engraving or the Robin Hood cave horse engraving - has on it an etching of a galloping horse.

It is, by any standards, a work of genius. It is composed of just a few confident lines and yet the end result is an image of a living breathing animal.

To come so close to the way some individual, man or woman, was thinking all those millennia ago, while the Ice Age waxed and waned, was very moving for me.

Neil Oliver is the presenter of A History Of Ancient Britain.

A History Of Ancient Britain is on BBC Two and BBC HD at 9pm on Wednesday, 9 February.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

Find out about ancient sites you can visit around the UK and find activities relating to ancient Britain on the BBC Hands On History website.

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

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Comments

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    Comment number 1.

    What a huge disappointment this was. I was looking forward to the series and raced home this evening to be sure of catching it all. And what did we see? Neil Oliver. Pacing the beach; striding through corridors; walking the streets; up and down footpaths. Close-ups of his face talking to us while obscuring what we came to see; close-ups of his face studying ancient artifacts of which we were allowed only a few seconds' glimpse. You lost me after 15 tedious minutes.

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    Comment number 2.

    What a brilliant programme!! Very moving, stunning scenery and Neil - you're a star!! Can't wait for the rest of the series! Nothing wrong with close ups of Neil's face...

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    Comment number 3.

    I thought tonights programme was fantastic. It was the best overview of currant archaeological theories I have seen in a long time and I must have seen pretty much everything going for the last 20yrs. Mr Oliver's obvious enthusiasm and knowledge is very watchable. I am really looking forward to the rest of the series.

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    Comment number 4.

    RE: The 6000 year old footprints in the mud flats in Gwent. I can't believe how wrong "Archaeologist" Neil Oliver got it. He said that the raised impressions were caused by imprints filling with sediment. RUBBISH! The raised impressions were caused by the foot compressing the mud and compacting it, making it denser than the surrounding mud. The less dense surrounds are then washed away by water erosion leaving the raised "impression".

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    Comment number 5.

    I could not disagree more! I have a degree in History and currently work with dis engaged pupils and intend to use this programme as a stimulus and tool to start projects and believe that pupils will find a connection that will encourage debate. The programme had prime examples of primary and secondary sources and Neil Oliver has the passion and enthusiasm that we need to remove pre conceived barriers that pupils have, that 'history is not for me'. On a personal level we as a family of several generations felt the programme had something for everyone and Oliver never in our humble opinion seems jaded or less than excited and informative. A truly enjoyable programme, well done to all involved.

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    Comment number 6.

    Why did Neil repeatedly refer to Great Britain as "Britain"? They're not the same thing. Does the BBC think our little minds aren't up to dealing with the complexity of our own history? Let Channel 5 do the history lite, I want something a bit more robust, Beeb.

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    Comment number 7.

    An entertaining program: but where was Happisburgh? A little light on facts and heavy on BBC spin for my liking. A million years is ambitious by anyone's standards? I thought the lovely John Lord stole the show! :)

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    Comment number 8.

    After watching last night's episode I am amazed that such a programm could be presented as fact when most of archaeology is based on the idea that uniformitarianism is true. The dating of rocks, fossils, "footprints" "ice-ages" etc used in the programme are at best a guess.

    The unreliability of carbon 14 testing should be a great concern to honest archaeologists, and should not be presented as fact, I found out recently that a petrified miner's hat and wooden fence posts were unearthed from an abandoned 19th century gold hunter's town in Australia's outback. Results from radiocarbon dating said that they were 6000 years old!!!!!!!!!.

    As for the theory of iceages, have the so called experts ever considered that much of the geology of the earth's surface could have been changed during a global flood and the hydraulic forces that would have been present. So called glacial valleys which were portayed as taking thousands of years to form could have been formed in a very short time by the vast movement of water under flood conditions Maybe the bible had it right after all. I would recommend a book called the "Genisis Flood" co-authored by Henry M Morris and John C Whitcomb for an in depth consideration of this subject.

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    Comment number 9.

    I enjoyed the first episode - if you want something meatier I suggest buy a book! One thing I would dearly like to know - where is the meltwater channel shown in the episode? The implication was that it was close to Lake of Menteith, but I don't know where it might be in that area?

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    Comment number 10.

    Did anyone catch the name of the old guy who was teaching the old skills on the island

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    Comment number 11.

    I watched last nights programme and thoroughly enjoyed it although I feel I must correct the mighty BBC. Creswell, as in Creswell Craggs, is spelled with one "s" not two, as was written at the bottom of the screen and Creswell is in the county of Derbyshire not as was implied Yorkshire. It was stated that Creswell was near to Sheffield. Close I grant you but there are other well known towns or cities closer that could have been referred to. As a Creswellian born and bred things like this mean a lot. It's not very often our ex-mining village gets a mention on the T.V and you would think the beeb would at least get the spelling correct. xx

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    Comment number 12.

    What a shame the first comment is so negative! This is a fantastic programme, a story told by a man who obviously passionately loves his subject. I felt that I was right there with Mr Oliver, like he was talking to me! I have always loved learning about the past of my own country & I don't really think it could be done better than this. What do some people expect, a personal tour? Well done Neil, I can't wait to see the rest!

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    Comment number 13.

    I loved this, Neil Oliver's enthusiasm kept me enthralled right to the end, despite getting home from work late and being completely exhausted. The information was fascinating and very useful for filling in the gaps that I, like most people, had in my knowledge from picking up bits here and there. Thank you Neil and thank you Beeb for a wonderful programme which was lucid, informative, intelligent and covered the subject so thoroughly. I can't wait for the rest.

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    Comment number 14.

    Thanks for another great programme Neil, I really enjoyed this. Neil Oliver and Michael Wood are my favourite historians - both seem to have a great passion and enthusiasm for their subject and this comes across in their presenting styles. If history teachers in schools were more like them I'm sure many more people would study history! I learnt a lot from the first episode and will definitely be watching again. Ignore the negative comments, I looked on Twitter last night and the majority were very positive. Quite a few people asked if Neil has a Twitter account!

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    Comment number 15.

    What a fantastic opening episode! Neil Oliver is the perfect presenter for the programme, his genuine enthusiasm shines through. Those footprints on the beach in last nights episode gave me goosebumps, just to think so long ago somebody stood on that very spot. The 13,000 year old horse engraving on the bone fragment was beautiful, it's hard to comprehend that length of time. I look forward to the next episode very much, and well done to Neil for that abseil, my knees went weak watching him so goodness knows how his felt!

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    Comment number 16.

    Hello mrsfletch #11 - thank you for your comment and your correction. We've fixed the spelling of Creswell Crags above - despite our best efforts to keep the TV blog accurate, I'm afraid this one slipped through.
    We appreciate you spotting it and putting us straight!
    Cheers
    Fiona

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    Comment number 17.

    I'm on the side of those who found the programme absorbing. While already aware of much of the content, it was excellent to have it presented so well. For me the images "from space" of the movement of the British Isles over time brought that part of the prehistory of our islands alive in a new way - before this it had been only words on a page of my archaeology books. I hope we may see more of such inspirational work in the rest of the series alongside the pictures of the objects. I live near Cresswell Crags and, even in the brief visit, learned a lot of new stuff about where it fits in to the story.

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    Comment number 18.

    Enjoyed immensely but left me with some questions I think you could have answered in the programme.
    1) The Red Lady: can you not have said how you know this was not a Neanderthal, you explained the carbon dating brilliantly.
    2) An estimate of the last Neanderthal's would have been nice.

    3) Is it ot possible just to give a little reference point to what was happening elsewhere on the planet, purely to frame our timeline.

    Luckily I watched on iPlayer so I could keep re-winding for dates mentioned that you did not caption, you captioned many but not enough. The captions you did do were great because someone kept the leash on the CGI caption people who tend to go over the top and distract from the main content in other programmes.

    Incvase you think otherwise from my comments, I loved it ;-)

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    Comment number 19.

    Also, what will be the twitter # tag for this series?

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    Comment number 20.

    OK Daveshaw, I think lots of people know that "Britain" strictly speaking refers to the Roman "Britannia" which was England & Wales. "Great Britain" is the name of the largest island of the British Isles which of course also includes Scotland...but do you really have to be so pedantic? This in no way spoiled the enjoyment of the programme & I certainly didn't think it made the content lightweight.

 

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