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The first subject in our ‘Meet the Antiquarists’ series is Heritage Action chairman, Nigel Swift. So without any delay, let’s get directly into his responses to our questions…

* What is/was your day job?

(Was) Chartered Surveyor and lecturer.

* How did your interest in Megalithic monuments begin?

Pootling along westwards out of Marlborough in 2001, suddenly seeing Silbury loom up and exclaiming “What the #### is that?!”

* Is your interest grounded in something Spiritual, Academic or something else?

It came from wonder.

* What is your favourite time period or era?

The older the better. 

* Which book has had the most influence on your interest?

I suppose, since The Journal has its origins in people chatting on The Modern Antiquarian forum, I should say Julian Cope’s book of that name.

* Do you have a favourite field guide reference or gazetteer that you always take with you on-site visits?

A couple of Burls, Stukeley Illustrated and a map of Ancient Britain.

* What is the best site you’ve visited so far (however you want to define ‘best’), and why? Which so-far unvisited site is top of your ‘must-see list, and why?

Best unvisited site: Callanish. Best visited one has to be Silbury as I’ve yet to get over the shock of first seeing it in 2001, bearing in mind I knew nothing about ancient sites at that time. As a small child I’d seen a picture of the Avebury stones in “1001 Wonderful Things” but Spinal Tap-like, I thought they were only a foot high!

What is it about Silbury that attracts and obsesses? Two things, the sheer size and the sheer mystery. It inspired me to pen a poem which expresses it and, come to think of it, probably explains my conservation enthusiasm. The sites aren’t ours to mess with.

Silbury Hill

Ask in vain!
For we, the dead,
Speak not a word to you.
This thing was ours, not yours.

Gaze, in awe.
On what we wrought,
There is no clue.
This thing was ours, not yours.

We, whose fingers bled,
Whose passions burned,
Care not for you.
This thing was ours, not yours.

* Which archaeological words or phrases caused you the most confusion when you first started? What is your understanding of those phrases now?

Just about everything, as I knew nowt and I’m still struggling with Marxist archaeology and the bipolarism that exists between the processual and post-processual debates!

* What is your favourite theory about site origin/usage?

I have lots of theories, but not many I’d bet my house on as so many theories in archaeology end up wrong. But one of my ideas is that sarsen can be highly polished but the shine weathers away entirely in two decades (I’ve checked), leaving no evidence at all. Plus, there was an Age of Timber, or many, prior to stone circles and rows but again the evidence has largely disappeared. And a third one, a fantasy rather than a theory, that one day, deep in a cave, there will be discovered (preferably by me) a neolithic wheel.

* What is your pet peeve with regard to Megalithic sites?

I like to think the sites are shared, so leaving anything at them, even for a day, seems an unwarranted extension of our time there and just mean to those who come after us.

As for long-term changes, I’m not a fan of mantras such as “sites must change over time, nothing can be preserved in aspic”. I only agree with those if the changes are inevitable and aren’t imposed for ignoble and transitory human reasons such as to make someone richer or to provide cut-price road solutions, and certainly not if presented as an enhancement to the visitor experience, if you get my drift. I also think hiding from view is tantamount to demolishing.

The thing is, if a site has lasted for a hundred generations it’s right that we try to make it last another hundred generations, without changing it radically during our petty and blinkered spans. To do otherwise also seems just mean to those who come after us.


Many thanks to Nigel for sharing his megalithic origins with us. Look out for further instalments of ‘Meet the Antiquarists’ in the weeks to come! Don’t forget, if you’d like to take part in this series, simply contact us with your answers to the questions above.

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