“Generally archaeologists seem frightened by contact with real people. Some seem to be so fascinated by their own minuscule pursuits that anything remotely resembling publicity, fund-raising, newspapers and television is relegated to a remote part of their minds normally reserved for the especially sordid”
So wrote Graham Thomas and Graham Arnold in the seminal 1974 Pelican volume “Rescue Archaeology”, edited by Philip Rahtz. Then in 1994, along came “Time Team”…
“Time Team” is probably the most influential series about archaeology ever made, yet it has now departed UK TV screens [apart from the re-runs on documentary channels] not with Cecil B DeMille bang, or even the proverbial whimper, but with a gentle cruise into the sunset aboard a quarter scale replica of the Dover Bronze Age Boat. Characteristically what has been announced by programme presenter Francis Pryor as the last ever programme made for Channel 4’s UK “Time Team” brand, was a celebration of both the ingenuity and achievements of our ancestors and the research, practical skills, tenacity, fallibility and insight of the teams of archaeologists and specialist crafts people who set out to tell those ancestors stories through rigorous, but approachable, research.
That is an appropriate farewell because “Time Team” was always about the process. That was its secret. The programme turned dirt archaeology, complex science and dusty documents into a 50 minute narrative arc in the manner of a Police Procedural, complete with returning characters, jeopardy and the final scene in the Library- all right usually the pub- where all the principle characters gathered to let the lead detective Mick Aston [or objective observer and sometimes intellectual gadfly Tony Robinson] sum up the evidence and reveal the conclusions. Of course farewells to a much loved [although sometime irritating] friend are always sad. But this farewell to what archaeologist and Museum expert Hedley Swain chose as his most significant archaeological development of the 20th century in the December 1999 edition of British Archaeology, is perhaps more emotive than most. Such events remind us of our own mortality and the loss of “Time Team” to terrestrial television reminds us of how vulnerable archaeology is as a profession and as a part of the life of our communities.
“Time Team” was born into a media world of just four terrestrial channels, where TV archaeology usually took the form a lecture with moving pictures by one of the great and the good white males of the archaeological establishment, accompanied by journalist and historian Magnus Magnusson, and broadcast on BBC2 in the Chronicle strand. It was archaeology for the Grammer School generation taking in everything from Colin Renfrews first excursions into pre-history via the Polynesian Islands, through producer Paul Johnstone’s pioneering work in maritime archaeology to the first trial canter of the pseudo historical phenomenon which became the Da Vinci Code in Dr Who writer Henry Lincoln’s investigations into the story of Rennes-Le-Chateau. It was a world where commissioners would give programme makers time to grow and develop a concept and give it time to bed down, or even take a risk such as the BBC’s “Living in the Past” which was an early exercise in reality format, founded on the work of experimental archaeologists at sites like Peter Reynolds’ Butser Iron Age Farm. Not that Reynolds had any time for such a gimmicky presentation of the Iron Age. “Time Team” came from an earlier series called “Time Signs”, also made by Tim Taylor and Mick Aston and there is an apocryphal story that an early concept for a follow up series was a helicopter based historical chase where Mick Aston would be blindfolded and flown to a new landscape which he would then investigate and identify. Shades of the Annika Rice game show “Treasure Hunt” which was highly successful in the 1980’s and took advantage of advances in broadcast technology and mobile communications , including light weight cameras and the growing acceptance of a fly on the wall style real time mode of story telling. Television is nothing if not addicted to repeating in the form of a homage the successful format of the moment, albeit perhaps with jumpsuits replaced by colourful knitwear.
Unlike much of todays homogenised television history which exists in a bland mid Atlantic world where no one is going to be too challenged by issues rather than characters, narrative and “you heard it here first” revelations [usually of information which has been common knowledge in archaeological circles for years], “Time Team” was always small p political when championing archaeology. Perhaps this was because some at least of its makers held some large P Political opinions. For much of the life of the programme the Everyman figure of presenter Sir Tony Robinson held active roles with the actors trade union Equity and on the UK Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. While Mick Aston, for many the personification of “Time Team” at its best, came from a background of County Archaeology within the landscape and communities of Somerset and adult and continuing education, latterly and most influentially at the University of Bristol.
This low key but profound political and social engagement engagement led to a number of effects from the ridiculous, if delicious, spectacle of two self confessed republicans, Aston and Robinson, actively digging up the lawns of Buckingham Palace for the Royal Jubilee in 2012, to the highly political, if unspoken, underpinning of the series which was that the past belongs to everyone and everyone has a right to participate in finding out about it, particularly when it is literally in your own back garden. Crucially that participation did not need a degree, or membership of an organisation with a Royal Charter. Aston’s mentor at Birmingham University was Philip Rahtz who himself did not have a first degree and he belonged to the generation who learned their archaeology by doing it and by trying to save it from the predations of almost unconstrained development. In Time Teams archaeology you just needed to respect the correct archaeological process and share what you found as a public good. As a quid pro quo and repayment for the trust and interest shown by the public, “Time Team’s” professional archaeologists and specialists would be on hand to mentor, share skills and and assist when you needed it. In this “Time Team” had a confidence in its archaeology and equal confidence in the attention span and staying power of its audience rather than the insecurity and lack of confidence which sometimes seem to hedge around academic and professional archaeology. In Television and archaeological terms that was brave.
“Time Team” was also brave in that it helped develop both public understanding and practice in the sector. In this regard the programme did not just publicly champion the use of metal detectors used under supervision on archaeological sites, in itself a controversial stance in some archaeological circles. The programme also questioned the ethics of metal detecting and the attitude of archaeologists towards metal detecting in the special “Code Name Ainsbrook”. “Time Team” also tried to bridge the gaps between amateur, but often knowledgeable, aircraft wreckologists and professional archaeologists most of whom did not understand or even recognise the value of digging up aluminium scrap that had impacted the ground at several hundred miles an hour only seventy years ago. “Time Team” also regularly covered the new discipline of industrial archaeology and the even newer sub-discipline, the archaeology of modern conflict. The archaeology of colonialism and enslaved people on was examined on St Kitts and Nevis and the programme also ventured under the sea [or muddy river Hamble] with programmes about Henry V’s Royal flagship the Grace Dieu, and other maritime sites. In effect, “Time Team’s” back catalogue is a resume of UK archeology as a vibrant and developing sector from 1994 to 2014.
Time Team in its prime at Shooters Hill in 2007: Helen Geake talking Conflict Archaeology with Martin Brown and Phil Harding, or at least Phil’s legendary hat. [Copyright Andy Brockman]
Significantly the programme never visited the classical world, let alone that staple venue for US based satellite history channels Egypt But then sites in the Mediterranean and Egypt are largely the preserve of the large, usually heavily sponsored, often American, University project with a media tie in. In such programmes the local people [with the regular exception of the then Director of Antiquities in Egypt] were usually only ever seen as the work force. The antithesis of “Time Team’s” community engagement.
Perhaps bravest, or most far sighted of all “Time Team’s” innovations was the “Big Dig,” which pioneered the kind of mass participation, test pitting survey which is now commonplace in community archaeology, but back in 2003 when the “Time Team Big Dig” was launched, was met with cries of horror from some in the archaeological establishment that the public was being invited to collectively vandalise the nations archaeological heritage on prime time television.
When Mick Aston left “Time Team” in 2012 as a result of a dispute over format and personnel changes which he regarded, probably rightly as dumbing down although TV professionals would call it “refreshing the format”, he told the Western Daily Press of his concerns for the future of the kind of rigorous but at the same time inclusive, public archaeology he had been so influential in pioneering…
Meanwhile the archaeology which retains its place on terrestrial and satellite television is most often either an account of the exceptional and technical, such as the BBC’s recent CGI rich exploration of the work of the Stonehenge Landscape Project, and the numerous accounts of glittering prizes such as the Staffordshire Hoard, the media rights to which were snapped up by the National Geographic organization. Or it takes the form of accounts of the undefendable, such as the travesty of evidence and research process which is “Ancient Aliens”. These cynical exercises in cheap, dog whistle infotainment and reality formats reached their current nadir with the abortive “Nazi War Diggers” from Clearstory Productions for the National Geographic Channel. Such programmes are the antithesis of “Time Team” which made good archaeology seem approachable, ordinary and above all a fascinating and fun part of the everyday life of local communities.