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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  • rate this

    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.

  • rate this

    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...

  • rate this

    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.

  • rate this

    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".

  • rate this

    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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