Oliver is an archaeologist of eclectic experience. Currently he works as a freelance consulting archaeologist, and provides advice for Andante Travels on designing as well as leading a number of tour groups.
Oliver began as a commercial archaeologist and museum curator in the UK. Preferring warmer weather, he worked for over 10 years as a field archaeologist in Italy for the British School at Rome at classical and medieval sites. These included a rescue excavation in the grounds of the British Embassy at Porta Pia in Rome, and the great Carolingian abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno in the central Italian mountains – two very contrasting sites. Further afield, he drove through North Africa to participate in excavations in Cyrenaica, mainly because it revisited a journey his mother had made with the eighth army in 1943, but also because of the wonderful classical sites to be seen. He then followed a childhood destiny, specifically the callsign of Radio Tirana, and moved across the Adriatic to Albania, where he directed excavations and trained students at the World Heritage Sites of Butrint and the evocative medieval city of Gjirokastra. Oliver is still involved in a number of projects in Albania, notably the survey and excavation of an intriguing Hellenistic sanctuary, and is one of only a handful of experts on Albanian archaeology in the United Kingdom.
Oliver’s publications include:
Gilkes, O. et al. 2013. Gjirokastra: the essential guide. Norwich: Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization.
Gilkes, O. 2012. Albania: an archaeological guide. London: I.B. Tauris.
And numerous papers and articles in journals and magazines.
What first sparked your interest for archaeology?
If truth be told it was at the age of nine or ten on a visit to Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex. The excavation of this great site and its modernistic cover buildings had just been completed and a wooden walkway took visitors around the preserved northern wing with its mosaics. The palace had been rather quickly built over a pre-existing military supply base, part of the Roman conquest of Britain, and the ditches had been badly filled in. Now, over the centuries these sorts of fillings tend to compact down and generally new filling is paced on top to level things up. Here of course this was impossible but what happened instead was that the floors and mosaics slumped into the fosses. Of course, this happened centuries after the villa had been abandoned, in a slow ongoing process, as a result the mosaic floors of some rooms look like a sheet of corrugated cardboard. Children are often take by odd things and this oddity engrossed me., I can still recall clearly standing on the walkway and looking down at the rippled pavement and thinking ‘how did the Romans get their furniture to stand up straight’. I have spent the last fifty or so years endeavouring to find out!
If you can – which is your favourite archaeological site?
It cannot be pinned down to one; so I am taking two. The first is Butrint in southern Albania, a Unesco World Heritage Site, an ancient city with Bronze Age origins in woodland on a hill overlooking the beautiful blue Ionian Sea. It is a place of myth and legend, but also played its part in ancient and medieval history; being visited by figures as disparate as Aeneas, Julius Caesar, Suleiman the Magnificent and Edward Lear. Its tree shrouded ruins give the sense of being a grand tourist finding them for the first time. But beyond that its suggestive location and past makes it a portal into the beyond. One expects to find satyrs peering at you from around the boles of trees, as indeed they did in ancient times as there was a cult of the god Pan here.
Second is Bignor Roman villa. The very architype of a grand Roman villa of the closing centuries of Orman power, with sprawling buildings, fine mosaics of the fourth century and the country’s earliest archeological cover buildings (themselves now listed) put up by the farmer, Mr. Tupper, who found the mosaics in 1819 and saw an opportunity. Just to the north of the downs it is located just west of Bignor village, a real piece of the ‘England that never was’ and is no rural quiet and relatively unvisited. Once it was right by the main Chichester to London road, Stane Street, and must have been a bustling place. These days if you visit, go on a warm late summer’s afternoon. Visit the fine mosaics, take tea in the tea shop and then lie in the long grass gazing at the buzzards soaring and circling over the scarp face of the South Downs.
What does archaeology mean to you?
At its root it is part of an attempt to recreate the totality of human experience, like an archaeologist who puts back together the pieces of a smashed ancient vase, we try to reassemble the patchwork of human civilisation in the context of the great river of time. Studying the past helps us to know ourselves, in many cases the answers we come up with might say more about our own era than the past. Archaeologists and historians (and at their heart I would argue that they are both more or less doing the same thing) find that their explanations change as attitudes, techniques and indeed the very questions change with each passing generation.
A good part of this through is the sense and thrill of discovery, whether it is the library of Ashurbanipal form ancient Nineveh, which extended human literature back another two millennia (you can buy the result in paperback today – the Epic of Gilgamesh), or seeing the dull green shape of a Roman coin on your trowelling. Making these links is important, it connects us with the past. The very best are what I call Sistine Chapel moments, that point where the fingers come together, and a spark of understanding flies between, or between the viewer and the past. You do not have to dig things up, or find them in a dusty archive to experience those moments of discovery, they come at all levels. Merely standing in the forum at Pompeii, or being awed by the antiquity of the Neolithic temple at Gobekli Tekke can be enough to connect you to the past. Visiting these places gives everyone the chance to be involved in this act of discovery too.
Andante Guide Lecturer(18 tours)
12 November 2022