Interview: Neil Oliver


How It Works: With A History Of Ancient Britain in mind, tell us about the challenges of piecing together a narrative from fragmentary evidence.
Neil Oliver: When you embark on something with the title A History Of Ancient Britain obviously you are opening yourself up to having to find a way to navigate from the human occupation of the earliest times – as much as half a million years ago (maybe even up to a million years ago) – and then that human habitation being interrupted by numerous ice ages, right on through to the first Roman contact. So, it was daunting to say the least!
What I tried to do is to tell very much a human story. I aimed to keep it as simple as I could to try to get across the idea that Britain’s story is a very, very long one. That it is a story told in part by human beings – some exactly the same as us and others that are more distant relatives – but [ultimately] it is a story about people.

HIW: How far back are we talking for Britain’s earliest inhabitants and what impact did the people of pre-Roman Britain have on its landscape?
NO: Well, the oldest human remains, in terms of actual bones, are from Boxgrove Man in Sussex. He, or she – it’s only one shinbone and a couple of teeth so it’s impossible to specify – lived approximately 500,000 years ago and occupied a very different kind of Britain. A Britain that would have been populated by woolly rhinos and hyenas. That is the earliest proof of a human form we have, a species called Homo heidelbergensis, which is our cousin, if you like – a common ancestor to Homo sapiens.
But even earlier than that on the east coast of England there have been finds of tools – human-made hand axes – and food remains which go back as far as 900,000 years. So again, we are talking about a much earlier species. There has also been, more recent than Boxgrove, occupation by Neanderthals who were in Britain and north-western Europe approximately 25,000 years ago, where [eventually] as a species they became extinct.
As to the impact those species would have had it’s very difficult to tell. However, human beings have always had an impact on their environment. I think that right up until the advent of farming, where people engage in forest clearing and open up the land for crops, the impact was very artificial. They would have had fire and perhaps it would have been in their interests to clear areas of woodland – maybe to instigate some sort of regrowth where they could attract animals to hunt – but broadly speaking the impact would have been [minimal].

HIW: What effect did the last ice age have on Britain and the people who lived here?
NO: The last ice age probably began around 25,000-30,000 years ago. And by roughly 18,000-20,000 years ago that ice age would have been at its peak. So we are talking about glaciers and ice sheets as much as [0.8 kilometres] half a mile thick, an enormous weight of ice that pushed the landmass down into the sea. The ice was moving too and it was an incredibly powerful force in terms of sculpting the landscape, so many valleys and mountains were scoured out at this time.
By about 15,000 years ago the climate began to warm up again and the ice started to melt into the sea. The ice was fully gone by 10,000-12,000 years ago and it left a barren landscape – very much like a building site where all vegetation was completely cleared. There was no wildlife – even the big animals like the mammoth couldn’t survive – so it was like a blank slate. The blank slate was gradually repopulated, first by plants, then animals like deer, and with these animals you get interest from humans. So bands of hunters from what we’d now call the European Continent would have walked dry-shod back into what would have been the British Peninsula, as at that time Britain was still a part of Europe.
You then began a long period of time when, with the ice gone, the land started to rise up again. At the same time you have rising sea levels [due to all the meltwater]. So you get a jockeying of position between the land and the sea, with sometimes the former winning and sometimes the latter. Interestingly, that process is still occurring to this day with the north coast of Scotland rising up out of the sea and the south of England – like the other end of a see-saw – slowly dipping into it.
Eventually, about 8,000 years ago, there was an event off the coast of Norway – a massive sub-sea collapse of a land ridge. This pushed a tsunami across the North Sea to Britain where it hit the eastern seaboard. It was this event that finally separated Britain from mainland Europe. From that point on the British Isles were born.

HIW: What are you currently working on?
NO: I’ve just completed work on a TV series and a new book, both called The Vikings. I think we’re all quite familiar with the story of Vikings arriving in Britain and attacking the monasteries, however this project is all about looking at how wide-ranging the Vikings and the people of Scandinavia were. From about the 9th century to the 11th century CE, you had Swedish Vikings going through Russia, and then the Middle East, looking for Indian and Chinese silk and Arabic silver. You had the Norwegian Vikings heading west to Iceland, Greenland and eventually North America 500 years before Columbus. There are also the Danish Vikings who had such an impact on Britain and in northern Europe, and even Vikings raiding coastlines in the Mediterranean. So it’s a project to help make all of us more aware of how much the Scandinavian people contributed to the shaping of Europe and, indeed, the world.

Neil Oliver’s A History Of Ancient Britain is out now in hardback and in paperback. Neil’s new BBC Two TV series and affiliated book The Vikings were released in autumn 2012.