Neil Oliver – A modern-day, long-haired Indiana Jones. 

I’ve read – and you have told me during the course of this interview that you have a passion for digging. If it’s been buried in the ground during the last 10,000 years, you’ve dug it up. Rather a sweeping statement. What do you consider to be your ‘best’ find?

My degree is in Scottish Pre-History, so I’ve dug on some very early sites of human habitation that have been found on the British mainland. For example, I have excavated at Rhum on the west coast of Scotland and several English Civil War battlefields as well as Second World War sites in Germany and France. Everything from pre Roman age up to 1944! Remember, I said that I was never really an artefact person, but perhaps this is one of my ‘best’ finds…

I have a particular passion for the South African Anglo/Zulu war of 1879 and I got the opportunity to excavate on the battlefield of Isandlwana where the British were wiped out. Finding service buttons and spare cartridge cases was very evocative. Why? Because you knew you were standing where in 1879 a British soldier may have breathed his last . . . and I was interested in the events of that day. For me, it’s the story that is the treasure – a random artefact has but a brief interest and value. If it’s a button and you are devoid of all information about that button, how interesting can that be? But if you know that it came off the tunic of a soldier of the 24th Regiment on the 23 January 1879, probably about two or four o’clock in the afternoon, that’s what makes it meaningful.

Can you really get down to that kind of detail?

Yes, it’s the story that makes the button! If you just went on the field at Isandlwana not knowing what had taken place and found that button … it wouldn’t mean anything to you. Even gold is just a trinket to me unless I know why it was dropped there.

You have used the phrase ‘responsible detectorist’ on a couple of occasions. What do you understand by that?

I know the vast majority of metal detectorists’ whose interestand motivation is in history. When they find things they make some record. Given that it’s coming out of plough soil, it doesn’t have to be a GPS reading down to the last millimetre, simply that they make some record of its physical location on Planet Earth. I also don’t have a problem with most finds being kept in private hands bringing pleasure to those who found them. Of course, there are certain items where it’s going to be in the greater good of the nation to see them properly displayed then arrangements can be made for that to happen. Perhaps the finder should make some provision for what happens to the find after his death, like turning them over to the museum, for example.

What, in your opinion, were the benefits of the recent Water Newton Rally?.

I think it was very impressive and did a lot for relationships between detectorists and archaeologists. I understand that the County Archaeologist was also pleased, that the methodology was appropriate and, with some fine tuning it basically worked. It’s not rocket science. The detectorist sticks a flag in the ground and puts the find in a bag. The archaeologist comes along presses a button on the GPS and records where the artefact was found. In addition, to have a super proficient archaeologist like David Connolly involved was great. His attitude is very open-minded.

Notice the venerable swinger and regular good guy Jerry Morris taking a keen interest in what’s going on!

Do you think metal detecting gets a good press? If not, will it gain some respectability from snippets on national television from the Water Newton and Corfe rallies?

It doesn’t generally get a good press but I was genuinely amazed at how much time, how many minutes, were dedicated to the hobby on The One Show. There were live outside broadcasts which are the most expensive television you can make. Now, that is the BBC taking something seriously! It was a lot of telly to give to something which is essentially a fringe interest. I would say that detecting is getting a good crack of the whip from The One Show. Detecting is being portrayed as a pursuit which, done the right way, shows how it’s ultimately for the good in understanding our island’s history.

What do you think experienced detectorists could contribute to archaeology and what attitude should they adopt with archaeologists?

Archaeologists are almost always working to tight deadlines and most are involved in developer-led archaeology. In the main the developer, be it Barratt Homes or anyone else paying, so by definition it’s done quickly. Detectorists may be used to working on an area for months or even years and going back and re-visiting it. So archaeologists don’t have a lot of time for working with detectorists, who may vnot understand those very precise, business- driven needs. Their time on a site can often be measured in days.

I know that you valued the help of detectorists in your Two Men in a Trench series that you did for the BBC. What exactly did they bring to the series?

I’m truly awe-inspired by the skills and knowledge of the detecorists I’ve met. By definition and because of our needs, I am usually put alongside an experienced detectorist and I have realised that a detector is not an easy thing to use. The guys I have worked with often know in advance what the find is going to be. Their knowledge of coins (for example) is often exceptional. They have the ability to identify, sometimes very accurately, most artefacts they find. It’s purely the work of experience. You can’t teach somebody over the course of a four-year degree how to identify Celtic staters and hammered coins, but these guys can do it. Obviously, sometimes they will be wrong, but most of the time they get it right and I am hugely impressed! Without their painstaking efforts during the course of the programme, many fascinating and valuable battlefield artefacts would have remained buried. And that’s what the experienced detectorist brings to archaeology!

Most people appreciate that metal detectors can be a powerful tool in the recovery of archaeological material. Do you see a bright future for the hobby?

I don’t have up-to-date knowledge on how legislation is being prepared and although I do know that in Ireland metal detecting is illegal and there are those who would like to see the same in Britain, it’s not really a story that I follow. I would like to think that detecting would continue to be part of the way in which we study the history and archaeology of this country.

Picture – © Mrs.John

Given the role that detectorists play in archaeological discovery, the recording of finds and as the most effective means for the recovery of treasure, do you think the hobby deserves a little more recognition than it has hitherto enjoyed?

The answer is a resounding “YES.” The vast majority of finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme have been uncovered by detectorists. I believe that the history and archaeology of this country belongs to everyone and we, as a nation, have to find a way to ensure that people get a fair shout, an understanding and are able to contribute to that study. It’s not for the brilliant, gifted few, but for anyone interested in it. You have to find a way of using the hobby of metal detecting and the expertise it generates… but I don’t make laws.

Education – do you think we should be doing more in schools in helping children to understand their past?

I’m dismayed that history is not a mainstream subject in schools anymore. I think that an understanding of history is one of the most important pursuits of human-kind. And I certainly believe that the subject should be counted as the study of English, Maths and Information Technology.

You don’t need any kit to be interested in history, not even a trowel, a metal detector, JCB or a degree in archaeology. You can be interested simply by taking a bus to Flodden battlefield and having someone with you who can tell you what happened. History is a human need; it’s gossip about the past or archaeologists picking through people’s bins.

Earlier I said that I didn’t have a problem with finds of little interest remaining in private hands, but part of education has to be about the fact that we don’t own those finds. All of the remains of the past belong to us collectively.

Some readers may consider my last question rather frivolous and perhaps rude and others will be disappointed that I never asked, but after being in your company for the last couple of hours, I know you won’t mind . . . have you ever considered having a haircut?

Actually, I get regular haircuts – I just don’t get it cut short. There was a period in my life when I was able to sit on my hair . . . people mention the length all the time. This is me and what I look like. People ask me why I don’t get a haircut and I think, well, why don’t you wear a hat? I don’t think about it at all, but get asked about it a lot. Why don’t you shave off your beard? It’s none of my business … is it? (laughing)

3 thoughts on “Neil Oliver – A modern-day, long-haired Indiana Jones. 

  1. Great to hear a balanced view of detecting from a person with his background.
    Honest and to the point, I have always found his programs to be extremely interesting.
    Haven’t seen anything for a while though, will make an effort to look him up.
    Thank you John for a candid interview, even though I did whince over the ‘hair’ question! Lol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A balanced view indeed John…. but that 4 foot depth thing makes me ponder.. I have never heard of a detector going that deep.. okay.. maybe if you are looking for a Volkswagen it might.. LOL

    I know it is an old post… but even more relevant today

    Thank you my friend


    Liked by 1 person

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