Time Team

Many years ago I was looking through tv channels and chanced upon a show called ’Time Team’. The name was intriguing, so I sat down and watched. It fascinated me. I continued watching and I am glad I did. But sadly, after quite a few years, the tv series ended so I was delighted to see a mention of it again recently. As is my way, I did some research online and found that a fair bit had been written, especially recently and the following is what I found. I discovered some excellent images and some information on digs that were done last year as well as work expected in what I hope will be quite soon this year now. In fact ‘Time Team’ is a well-rehearsed story, but what I didn’t know was that it started as ‘Timesigns’, a four-part series which first aired in 1991. Roadford Lake, also known as the Roadford Reservoir is actually a man-made reservoir fed by the River Wolf, located to the north-east of Broadwoodwidger in West Devon, eight miles (13 km) east of Launceston. I do like the delightful village names we have in this country! This place is quite small and according to the 2001 census it had a population of just 548. Also, the reservoir is the largest area of fresh water in the southwest of England. Exploring the archaeology of this area came about after Tim Taylor approached Mick Aston to present the series and as a result, along with Phil Harding, three members of the future Time Team core were now in place. Yet despite bringing the past to life using the ingredients of excavation, landscape survey and reconstructions, including Phil felling a tree with a flint axe, Timesigns was a very different beast. In fact the four-part series is still available to watch online at https://www.channel4.com/programmes/timesigns and watching it now provides a lesson in just how revolutionary the Time Team format actually was. That is because Timesigns was slower paced and it had Mick talking directly to the camera in a style more akin to a history documentary or Open University broadcast, also there was a focus on interesting, previously discovered artefacts. It included Phil Harding in woodland, seeking out raw materials for a reconstructed axe and this allowed the audience to witness the hands-on practical process. It meant that viewers were placed at the heart of the action and this would later become a hallmark of Time Team. Whilst filming Timesigns, Tim and Mick often discussed other ways to bring archaeology to a television audience and what later proved to be something of a providential conversation took place in a Little Chef on the Okehampton bypass, where Mick mentioned that he had recently missed a train and, having a couple of hours to kill, decided to explore. During that time he deduced the town’s medieval layout and, struck by how much could be learned in a few hours, Tim wondered what could then be achieved in a few days. When he took this idea to various studios though, no-one wanted to know. Still, it was not the first time that a chance conversation with Mick had started someone thinking about television archaeology as a few years earlier Tony Robinson had joined a trip which Mick was leading to Santorini, a Greek island in the southern Aegean Sea about 200 km (120 miles) southeast from the mainland as this was part of some education work for Bristol University. Mick’s aptitude for breathing life into the past convinced Tony that archaeology had untapped television potential, but when he returned to Britain Tony found the studios unwilling to take the idea further. The breakthrough came when Timesigns proved an unexpected hit. Suddenly Channel 4 was receptive to the idea of a major archaeology programme, Tim Taylor devised the name ‘Time Team’ and in 1992 a pilot episode was filmed in Dorchester-on-Thames. Never screened and reputedly lost in the Channel 4 vaults, this pilot captured a show that was radically different to Timesigns and was initially seen as a quiz show in a similar vein to ‘Challenge Anneka’, where the team would be called on to solve archaeological mysteries whilst racing against the clock. Envelopes hidden at strategic points would set challenges along the lines of ‘find the Medieval high street in two hours’. Judged a misfire by Channel 4, it could have been the end. Thankfully, instead the Time Team’s format was radically overhauled although shades of the quiz-show concept did survive in early episodes. The onscreen introduction of all the team members and their specialist skills was a hangover from a time when participants would have varied from week to week, rather than coalescing into a core group but in the meantime, Tony’s role transformed from a quiz master to translator of all things archaeological for a general audience and the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place during the fledgling Time Team‘s first episode. Filmed at Athelney, site of Alfred the Great’s apocryphal burnt cakes, the site was scheduled, precluding excavation. John Gater, who was the programme’s ‘geophysics’ wizard, surveyed the field. Despite the Ancient Monuments Laboratory having drawn a blank the year before, John’s state-of-the-art kit revealed the monastic complex in startling clarity. Best of all, the cameras were rolling to capture the archaeologists’ euphoria as the geophysical plot emerged from a bulky printer in the back of the survey vehicle.

Mick Aston at work.

As well as an arresting demonstration of the power of teamwork, Athelney showed how geophysics could be the heart of the programme. As Mick Aston observed “the geophys and Time Team have always gone hand in hand. It is the programme really. Geophysics gives you that instant picture you can then evaluate”. John has kept on top of technical advances, and the results of his survey of Brancaster Roman fort provide one of the really outstanding moments in later series, with the breathtaking 3D model it produced of the buried structures persuading English Heritage to commission a complete survey on the spot. The original team brought an impressive breadth of skills to the programme. Victor Ambrus’ peerless ability to bring the past to life on the fly was well displayed after his artwork caught Tim Taylor’s eye in an edition of Readers’ Digest and the late Robin Bush brought a degree of historical expertise that would be missed almost as much as the man himself following his departure in 2003. Despite their varied talents and backgrounds it quickly became apparent that the team had a natural chemistry. Time Team became well-known for their individual ways and styles, including Mick’s famous striped jumper. Requested by a commissioning editor to wear more colourful clothing, Mick turned up in the most garish garment he could find as a joke, only to be told it was perfect. Far from a media concoction, the unique individuals on Time Team were filmed going about their work with an honesty and integrity that has seen the series heralded as Britain’s first reality television show. There can be little doubt that part of the show’s early success stems from the audience warming to the group’s genuine passion for teasing out the past. Rather than targeting the palaces and castles of the rich and famous, each of the episodes sought to solve simple, local questions. This was really highlighted by having a member of the public read out a letter of invitation at the beginning, posing the question they wanted answered. The message was simple, this is local archaeology, it is ‘your’ archaeology. It worked well, especially whenever the director of the first few seasons followed the digs as they evolved and his technique meant that viewers were often placed on the edge of a trench when discoveries happened and making them privy to key discussions. However some archaeologists were initially, quite fairly, a bit sceptical. One aspect that some treated with suspicion was the three-day deadline. Research digs usually ran for weeks if not months, and it was questioned whether anything approaching responsible archaeology could be achieved in such a short space of time. It was certainly not ideally suited to showcase all of the techniques available to modern archaeologists. Much money would be spent on scientific dating, with the results only coming back in time for a line of dialogue to be dubbed on months after filming had concluded. Coincidentally, digging within a tight timeframe was how changes were occurring within the profession. Obliged to cut evaluation trenches to meet the deadlines of multi-million pound construction projects, the 1990s saw a surge in short-term excavation projects. It led to an appreciation of just how much information could be quickly gleaned from comparatively modest trenching. The thrill of time running out also engaged viewers, and Time Team’s popularity was rewarded with increasingly longer series. Season one, aired in 1994, had four episodes, while season two followed with five, and season three then boasted six.

Some members of the Time Team.

Seasons nine to twelve have often been seen as Time Team‘s ‘golden’ age. Screening thirteen episodes a year, as well as live digs and specials the programme seemed to be ever-present. Its stars were household names and at its zenith, Time Team had regular audiences of over three million viewers. Now that the format was safely established, the programme was increasingly able to capitalise on its fame and access big name sites, even Buckingham Palace. Whilst the allure of such sites created a powerful television spectacle, it also marked a move away from the programme’s humble local archaeology origins. Even after its star began to wane, Time Team remained popular and an audience study in 2006 indicated that twenty million people watched at least one show that year. However it was season nineteen that changed everything as in 2011 the production centre for the programme moved from London to Cardiff. Very much of a political gesture aimed at building up regional television, the series was picked because it seemed a safe pair of hands. Sadly it cost the show almost all of its behind the scenes staff, expertise honed over fifteen years was lost at a stroke, to be replaced by crew and production staff who knew neither each other nor archaeology. Despite some great new people who learnt fast, expecting them to produce the same calibre of product immediately was just too big a demand. Time Team‘s cost also made it vulnerable. Towards the end of its run an average episode would cost around £200,000, a budget more on the scale of a small drama show in the eyes of television insiders but over twenty years Channel 4 had in fact pumped £4 million directly into British archaeology. It is to the Channel’s credit that it did this despite much of that outlay being channelled into post-excavation work that never appeared on-screen. The money was well spent and today only five Time Team sites remain unpublished, a record that shames many UK units and academics.

The Time Team in 2012.

Back then, Time Team’s legacy left much to celebrate. It brought the money and expertise to investigate sites that would otherwise never have been touched. The Isle of Mull episode in season seventeen is a great example of what could be discovered. With only some strange earthworks exciting the curiosity of local amateur archaeologists to go on, the programme was flexible enough to be able to take a gamble and the result was a previously unknown 5th-century monastic enclosure linked to St Columba. It enabled a local group to secure Historic Lottery Fund money to dig the site. Time Team excavations at Binchester’s Roman fort also helped kickstart a major research project. I was saddened when the series ended, but in 2021 there was excellent news when, thanks to the overwhelming support of their supporters, the Time Team returned for two brand new digs in September that year, with the episodes due to be released this year on the YouTube channel ‘Time Team Official’. This will give viewers the chance to engage as the shows are researched and developed, see live blogs during filming, watch virtual reality landscape data at home and join in Q&A’s with the team. Carenza Lewis, Stewart Ainsworth, Helen Geake and geophys genius John Gater will all be returning. They are joined by new faces representing the breadth of experts practising archaeology today. Sir Tony Robinson, who is an honorary patron, says: “I was delighted to hear about the plans for the next chapter in Time Team’s story. It’s an opportunity to find new voices and should help launch a new generation of archaeologists. While I won’t be involved in the new sites, I was delighted to accept the role of honorary patron of the Time Team project. It makes me chief super-fan and supporter. All armoury in our shared desire to inspire and stimulate interest in archaeology at all levels.” Like Tony, I too am a great fan of Time Team and feel sure that this will bode well, as there is now a Time Team website at http://www.timeteamdigital.com.

This week…

A Turkish proverb.

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