L O N G * R E A D
Please remember that this interview took place 15 years ago. Things have changed. I am old and decrepit and Neil has also moved on, grown a beard, and now has has a regular slot on GB News.
Scotland’s newspaper, the Daily Record, describes Neil Oliver as a modern-day, long-haired Indiana Jones. Best known for the Bafta award-winning programme Coast and the series Two Men in a Trench, Neil has presented The Face of Britain on Channel 4 and last year took part in Time Team’s Big Royal Dig. This summer he has been covering stories for The One Show and his new series The History Detectives is currently showing on BBC 2. He is also writing another book.
2007 Article-Questions and Answers with Neil
In the book that accompanied the television series ‘Two Men in a Trench’ you wrote: “Archaeologists are historians with the gloves off.” Do you see yourself as an archaeologist or historian?
I’m primarily an archaeologist. I studied for a degree at Glasgow University and worked as a freelance excavator for five years before realising I’d never be rich as an archaeologist so I joined a local newspaper and trained as a journalist.
Can you explain in what sense you use the word ‘excavator’?
In archaeology you either remain in academia, a lecturer or being associated with a museum, but jobs like that are at a premium. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly academic and enjoyed excavating – digging holes. I had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to be part of an archaeological department.
You are a very high profile archaeologist who is known to
be pro-responsible metal detecting. Has this caused you to receive
any professional criticism?
I haven’t had any comments brought to me directly. If people are dubious about the involvement I’ve had with detectorists, they haven’t said anything to me. I’ve been on many sites in relation to television work when the county archaeologist has been present, or the FLO or other members of the ‘establishment’ No one has said anything to me there – that’s all I can say.
Do you use a metal detector for recreation or just when working on archaeological sites; how does the hobby help in your study of archaeology?
I’ve never been a detectorist, but often on television projects, I’ve had a go – literally for about five minutes. It doesn’t appeal to me because my interest was never really about objects. When I was a digger I used to find things occasionally but I was more interested in the site, lines of walls or postholes, and understanding what people had been doing there. I was never excited by artefacts; for me they are just a tiny fragment of a story. Nice, but quickly forgotten.
I have often seen detectors used on archaeological sites, but seldom used in what I would consider an effective way. But you must realise that I have been away from excavation for a number of years. In the early 90s you might see a lone detectorist going over spoil heaps, but I know the situation has now changed. A lot of the next generation of archaeologists, those recently graduated and working in the field have a more pragmatic approach to metal detecting. There are still a minority who will retain to some extent a suspicion regarding the motives of detectorists, but the majority of younger archaeologists see metal detecting as just another tool in their arsenal.
Why is there ‘suspicion’ from some quarters about the motives of detectorists?
I don’t know why detecting has acquired a troubled relationship with some archaeologists and what the genesis of that was. Perhaps there were wrongs on both sides and clearly there is a lingering distrust in both camps. As I suggested earlier, a metal detector and somebody proficient in using it is just another tool the archaeologist can deploy. It’s never ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it’s benign.
The vast majority of finds are coming out of the plough soil and some archaeologists get jumpy because some of the deep penetration detectors, legend has it, can get down to as much as four feet. Now if that field was to be subjected to an open- area excavation a JCB would, in general, be employed and the plough soil shoved to one side. Those potential finds in the top soil are being abraded every time the plough goes over.
The fuss between detectorists and archaeologists is a storm in a teacup. If everyone involved would just work together, that would be fine. You are always going to get entrenched positions on both sides. Detectorists have a lot in common with archaeologists and maybe, just maybe, a lot of the antipathy has to do with class – archaeology tends to be a middle-class pursuit and metal detecting can be perceived as working class.
This dichotomy brings many problems, but I am sure that there are more detailed reasons for the strained relationship of which I am not aware.
What, if anything would you like to see changed with regards to the use of metal detectors as a hobby?
I would like to see them brought into the fold. All the detectorists I have been involved with have been keen historians with a very good understanding and history of their own patch. They are usually very good at ‘reading’ landscape. The good ones have the kind of expertise you can only acquire after many years. I don’t use and I would never use a detector, because I wouldn’t know how to operate it properly. It would be like putting a shot gun in my hands – I’d be doing more harm than good with it! But in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing … yes, a valuable resource.
Like most detectorists I am appalled by the very thought of those called ‘nighthawks’ who go on to scheduled monuments and take stuff away never to be seen again, and I am against that. But I genuinely believe that they are in a tiny minority and any detectorist I have spoken to also doesn’t have any time for them.
The history of this country belongs to everyone. Detectorists as well as archaeologists just want to get in on the act. I don’t see it as anyone’s right or duty to exclude anybody else from exploring the history of where they live. And given the fact that detectorists could be involved with the local archaeological community, I don’t see what the problem is. It should be part of the way in which the history of this country is investigated. Click on page 2 to read more . . .