Via Memoriae Classicae IV – Time Team

For twenty years Time Team was a British institution. Despite being a low-budget, often rather dull programme tucked away in the less glamorous parts of Channel 4’s Sunday evening schedules, for a generation it shaped the way the general public saw archaeology. I long ago lost track of how often I’d been talking to someone outside the subject and the ‘what do you do?’ question would be immediately followed up with, ‘So are you going to end up on Time Team, then?’ I used to laugh politely, maybe say ‘I hope not!’, because, like many people in academic archaeology, I had very mixed feelings about the show.

Those interlocutors had the last laugh, though. Because this is where Classical Memory Lane’s media-reminiscences intersect most closely with my own career. You see, I really did end up on Time Team. Twice.

So this article is the story of the programme’s role in making me an archaeologist and shaping public attitudes to archaeology. It’s the story of a valuable piece of old-fashioned public-service television which for two decades delivered long hair, beards, woolly jumpers and Wiltshire accents to the Great British Public. It’s the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love Time Team.

And to add an extra frisson of excitement, I’ve got the arbitrary structural constraint of just three sub-headings to tell it!


Part 1: Breaking Ground

Time Team’s very first episode was broadcast in 1994: in many ways a different world for television, especially for factual programming. The changes since then in style, technology, writing and especially pace have been profound. To prepare for this article I visited the 4OD YouTube repository in which every episode of the series is freely available, and dusted off the very first instalment from way back when I was ten years old. As it fired up and the reassuringly familiar drums of the theme tune gave way to Tony Robinson’s first excitable piece to camera, I was rather surprised by just how similar that very first Time Team was to the contemporary version (or at least, the version from around 2010. I gather there were a few major changes in latter series which culminated in creative disagreements, departures of key team members and eventually cancellation. I’ve not seen or been involved in any of these episodes, so I won’t be discussing them).

But I should back up a bit. There may be people reading who aren’t from Britain, or have somehow managed to avoid the endless reruns that pad out More4’s schedules in between instalments of Come Dine With Me. So here’s a basic primer in the Time Team format. It’s simple, really. A group of archaeologists go to a location where there’s reason to believe there might be something interesting, and they investigate it over the course of three days packed with planning, geophysics surveys, excavation and somewhat over-excited speculation. Sometimes they find things. Sometimes they don’t. You get 50 minutes of field archaeology either way. Throughout its run it was presented by Tony Robinson, a man so synonymous with the programme now that it’s hard to recall just how weird a bit of casting it was back at the start. He’s still best known as Baldrick from Blackadder, of course, but in 1994 he was very much still primarily a comic actor rather than a presenter. He was best known to the likes of me for the sublime, wonderful and very muddy children’s series Maid Marian and her Merry Men, which he created, wrote and starred in, as the Sheriff of Nottingham. I’m very tempted to go on a lengthy digression about that show, but I’m going to be good and restrain myself. Please, give it a watch. At the very least listen to the ending credits song. My final word on the subject is that to this day, this song is still the first thing to enter my head on the morning of Shrove Tuesday…

Huh? Where was I? Oh yes. I was trying to write an engaging but vaguely intelligent discussion of Time Team. So, Tony was accompanied by a hard core of archaeologists of varying degrees of beardiness, eccentricity and stereotype-fulfillingness. Most famous are the snow-haired and ever-be-jumpered Professor Mick Aston and the hatted, flint-obsessed, and very very West Country Phil Harding. If Mick represented academic archaeology, Phil was the personification of the humble, hard-working digger, the kind who make up archaeology units up and down Britain and who are responsible for the vast majority of archaeological work done in this country. It’s a mark of how beloved Phil became with a certain segment of the viewing public that his employer still sells Phil Harding memorabilia.

Let’s get back to Episode 1. Tony, Mick and Phil are all present and correct, though not yet quite in their canonical forms. Mick’s hair isn’t quite fully white and he doesn’t yet have one of his trademark multi-coloured woolly jumpers. Phil’s long ginger locks are unusually well-groomed at times and he’s not yet donned the army jumper and grotty hat that later became his unvarying uniform both on camera and off (I’ve even seen him doing his grocery run in town on a Sunday morning in the exact same get-up. No TV affectation, this). Instead he’s modelling a natty leather jerkin which lies somewhere between ‘peasant’ and ‘caveman’. I presume he must have made it himself, since surely no shops would stock such a thing, even in 1994. Even in Wiltshire. As for Tony, with his slicked-back long hair, bad 80s-style specs and naff knitwear, he looks more like the weedy side-kick to a disreputable nightclub owner than anything else. The rest of the team are clad in the expected assortment of beards and bow-ties, for which I will not condemn any archaeologist. There are two women, who look pretty normal, all told.


Key members of the team on the Salisbury Cathedral dig, 2008. L-R: Phil Harding, Mick Aston, Tony Robinson and Cambridge’s own Helen Geake.

In this episode, as in most of the early ones, Time Team has been called out by a member of the public to investigate something archaeological on their property. The landowner is a prodigiously-bearded gentleman who gave me the nagging sense of being a sitcom or sketch-show character who’d wandered into the wrong genre, rather than any plausible real person. I eventually worked out that this was because, juxtaposed with Tony Robinson, he was reminding me of Tom Baker’s insane Captain from Blackadder. No bad thing that.

You Have a Woman's Trowel

Oh! You have a WOMAN’s trowel, my lord!

Anyway, they’re investigating the isle of Athelney in Somerset, where Alfred the Great built a little fortress and hid out from marauding Vikings. It’s fitting that Time Team began its run in the West Country, since through Phil and Wessex Archaeology (of whom more later), that region was to remain the programme’s spiritual home throughout its run. That rural world of henges, chalk-downs, real ale and fake crop-circles has long seemed to stand for a particular flavour of British archaeology which Time Team embraced wholeheartedly.[1]

Over the course of the episode we’re treated to plenty of vivid Alfred- and Viking-centric stories, from cakes to blood-eagles, not all of which seem directly relevant to what’s actually going on archaeology-wise. It seems to be a desperate attempt to pad it out, because for the first episode of a new archaeology series there’s surprisingly little actual archaeology going on here. I ran into problems with YouTube watching this and it refused to let me see the last ten minutes, but even that late in the episode they still hadn’t so much as stuck a spade into the topsoil. There’d been a lot of discussing, some faffing about with tape-measures, a little fieldwalking, debates with the county archaeologist about badgers, but up until the point my viewing was interrupted, not the slightest bit of actual digging.

Of course, excavation’s not the only way of doing archaeology. At first, I was dismayed when they broke out an augur to see what lay beneath the surface, fearing that they were going to omit that perennial favourite of the series: the geophysics survey. Time Team loved geophysics, or ‘geophys’ as it was usually abbreviated in the series’ lexicon. Over the years the series became a kind of holy rite in which Britain’s middle classes, lulled into a trance-like state through late-weekend somnolence and nagging boredom, partook of the sacred mysteries of magnetometry, resistivity, and – if the Bearded Hierophants of the Transect were feeling especially benevolent – ground-penetrating radar. We became used to seeing men tramping up and down fields carrying arcane pieces of clunky-looking technology, to Tony and the gang ribbing them with faux-scepticism, before a computer screen would light up with the familiar black-and-white images of walls, ditches and anomalies hidden beneath the surface, ripe for Phil to whack in a trench to investigate further.

I needn’t have worried. The augurs are soon forgotten and the magnetometers and resistivity meters arrive on the scene. Watching the geophysics in this early Time Team is by far the most fascinating part of it. Knowing what it will become – how integral not only to the series’ own mythology but to general archaeological practice – it’s strange and wonderful to see the archaeologists’ genuine delight as their ancient dot-matrix printer chitters out a primitive and very low-res plan of Alfred’s fortress. Caught up in the excitement of seeing what lies underground without any need for excavation, Tony exclaims, ‘This’ll make a lot of archaeologists redundant, this new technology!’ I don’t know whether this has come to pass, but it betrays an interesting attitude which seems to pervade the episode: that geophysics is somehow not ‘real’ archaeology, but instead the province of slightly strange sciencey-boffin-types. For example, in another of the archetypal Time Team scenes, the Discussion Round the Meal Table, the two geophysicists seem to be slightly separated from the core team members. They look awkward and uncomfortable and the others appear to go out of their way not to refer to them by name. We’ve come a long way now, and geophysics has been completely integrated as a fundamental part of the archaeological process. The idea that whoever does your magging isn’t a ‘real’ archaeologist is absurd.

Right, the sun’s drawing in and we’re getting to the end of Day 1. Overall, early Time Team does have its interesting historical quirks, but far more striking is how faithful the series remained to that original early-90s educational format. For most of its run it resolutely eschewed flashy gimmicks, fast pace or attention-grabbing celebrities. When it did flirt with innovations, such as its occasional live digs, if anything they made it even more slow-paced and dull. This was what did for it in the end, of course. Viewing figures declined and attempts to revitalise the format ran into opposition from cast and viewers alike. But until then, there was always something comfortingly constant about Time Team, something –  appropriately enough – timeless. It was never very exciting; much as I thoroughly enjoy taking part in fieldwork, I don’t think it really makes for must-see TV. Fairly often the show was – to be perfectly blunt – pretty boring.


But slowly, surely, and with the minimum of fuss, it taught you things.

Part 2: Arguments Around the Pub Table

In my experience, there are two broad schools of thought on Time Team among professional archaeologists at universities and commercial units alike. The first is that it’s a good thing, raising the profile of the profession in a fairly positive and representative way. Yes, some of the participants are picked because they’re at the more eccentric or photogenic ends of the spectrum, but this doesn’t mean they’re not good at their jobs. And their jobs are, first and foremost, to be archaeologists. Apart from Tony Robinson, the people who comprised the team were always proper professionals with day jobs in archaeology or history. Even Tony, after 20 years making the programme, knows far more about the subject than his role as the voice of the questioning viewer allows to come across on screen. As you’d expect, really: by the end, he’d been in those trenches since many of the people digging them were still at primary school.

The second view is that Time Team practises, to put it bluntly, bad archaeology. One joke I was told by a prominent Cambridge archaeology lecturer puts it like this:

‘Did you hear that Time Team turned up at some archaeologist’s house on Christmas morning? His kid asked Santa for a cowboy outfit.’

I’ve already said this was a view I had a certain amount of sympathy with when I was an undergrad. It’s not one I hold at all now.

The argument is that in the interests of TV, the programme tears up the material record without applying the appropriate professional standards and without adequate concern for properly recording what’s found. A key bone of contention here is the three-day time limit, and there’s an obvious validity to the criticism: most professional digs last weeks, months or even years. How can you hope to come up with anything at all in three days unless you’re badly cutting corners? As a corollary to that, the conclusions presented at the end of the TV shows have been known to spiral off often flimsy evidence to an extent that’s something of a running joke regarding the programme even among the general public. To a certain extent this damages all archaeologists, giving an impression that our interpretations are flights of fancy or houses of cards.


Now let’s be clear, obviously this isn’t how I’d choose to set up an archaeological project, even if I was doing it for TV. My defence here is going to be a partial one. But I think many of the critics overestimate the distorting effect these TV considerations have. The three-day time limit’s artificial and limiting – of course it is – but it vividly communicates the way, to a less extreme degree, deadlines are an integral part of the way archaeology’s done. Within the commercial sector, there’s a constant balancing act between the needs of the archaeology and the commercial imperatives of developer-funded work. For the diggers to be there costs developers money and holds up construction. There’s a tension between the desire to treat the material professionally and the limitations imposed by the system. In academic research archaeology things are more flexible, but even then there are permits, digging seasons and funding to worry about. Archaeologists never work free of constraints, able to uncover material at the pace of their own choosing. By representing these considerations, even in exaggerated caricature, Time Team is at least doing something to illustrate the trade-offs and frustrations of the archaeological process, counteracting a public impression which is still largely of experts digging painstakingly and very slowly with tiny leaf-trowels and paint brushes.

Those who argue that this haste has a damaging effect on the archaeology itself underestimate the professionalism of those involved. To the very best of our abilities, those of us who have worked on the programme strive to ensure that the telly people’s demands don’t interfere with the quality of the recording and the academic rigour of the results. One of the questions people on Time Team most often get asked is ‘Is it really done in three days?’ Then answer is yes. Sort of.

What you see on TV really is done in three days, but sites are carefully chosen to be manageable and there’s an awful lot of work that goes on for days either side of the shoot. This is where Wessex Archaeology comes in. They’re a commercial unit, one of Britain’s biggest and best. Phil Harding works for them as his day job. So did I, from 2007-8. Wessex were contracted by the producers of Time Team to do all the ‘background’ archaeology. They supply the equipment and many of the diggers you’ll see working in the back of shot. Look out for them in their blue jackets and fleeces and yellow hard hats. Those of us dispatched to work on Time Team would treat it in more or less the same way as any other contract, just with a tighter schedule and better food.

time team me

This is what a Wessex Archaeologist looks like.

In the days leading up to a Time Team dig, things are meticulously planned and the area to be investigated is prepared. All the equipment’s got ready so work can start as soon as possible on Day 1. For the three days, we work long hours and as hard and fast as we can. Necessary recording’s done, of course, but anything that can be left, like planning or photography, is. That can go on for a fourth day, maybe a fifth. Then there’s all the backfilling and relaying of turf. It can all go on several days after the film crew have gone home. After that, as with any other commercial dig, boxes and bags of finds are taken back to Wessex’s Salisbury base to be processed and recorded just like any material from any other site. The process can take weeks or months. While I was on two actual Time Team shoots, I’ve worked on the artefacts from countless others. Like with any other project, the information gained from the finds is integrated with that from the site itself and published in a proper, professional report.

The commercial archaeology process is far from perfect. There are problems of time and resources; workers are often overworked and underpaid. Time Team presented particular challenges and demands on top of that, but at the end of the day to dismiss it as a ‘cowboy’ operation is unfair to the hard-working professional archaeologists who made it their business to ensure that it was all done properly. Having been both a viewer and a participant, I now come down firmly on the side of believing that Time Team’s benefits to public appreciation of the archaeological process outweigh its numerous imperfections.

Part 3: Making History

Which brings me to my final part. How has Time Team fitted into my own life and career?

I’m a second-generation archaeologist. My mum studied history and archaeology at university back in the late 70s, and although circumstances meant she never got to practise fieldwork professionally, she never lost her interest. When my brother and I were growing up historical and archaeological documentaries of all kinds were regular fixtures of our family TV viewing. I was ten when Time Team came along and probably saw almost every episode up until I left for university. Not in an avid I-absolutely-can’t-miss-it kind of way. It was never my favourite programme; not even close. But it was a solid part of the backdrop of my childhood. Like the wallpaper or the ancient Thomas the Tank Engine lampshade that hung in my bedroom. And it interested me enough that when my secondary school was getting us to think about careers,[2] I told them pretty unambiguously that I wanted to do archaeology. The teacher in charge of careers advice was pretty unsure about that, suspecting that I was just blindly following in my mother’s footsteps. After all, I’d never had a chance to do archaeology at school; I had no real idea whether I’d enjoy it or be good at it. I was talked into applying for Classics instead.

I duly found myself taking archaeology at undergrad but within a larger course devoted to language and literature. Classics has many wonderful advantages, not least the breadth of learning it gives you, but despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the lectures and essays can only cover things quite superficially. Throughout my first year or so, I didn’t feel like I was learning much I hadn’t already known for years thanks to Time Team. This was, almost certainly, undergraduate big-headedness. But I do think watching the show prepared me extremely well for university, particularly because Cambridge in general, and Classics in particular, tend to focus on the theoretical rather than practical aspects of archaeology. I’ve been conscious of that in my own teaching, and try to include more about the nitty-gritty (does that count as a soil texture pun?) of fieldwork. I often find that undergrads who’ve watched a fair bit of Time Team tend to find those supervisions easier to deal with.

I progressed through undergrad and MPhil, took part in digs, began to think of myself as an archaeologist first and a classicist second. Eventually, a year after leaving Cambridge, I got a job with Wessex Archaeology. This isn’t the place for a full account of my experiences of the commercial sector, but I will say that it was probably the most intense period of learning and improvement of my skills in my archaeological career. Towards the end of my time with the company, and after much work processing Time Team finds, in September 2008, I was finally assigned to work on a Time Team dig at Salisbury Cathedral. It wasn’t something I’d sought, but after years of hearing stories within the small, gossipy world of archaeology, I was curious and excited to finally get to see what went on behind the cameras. Plus, of course, Salisbury Cathedral! Not the kind of place we usually got to dig anywhere near.


But by now you’ll be wanting behind-the-scenes gossip, won’t you? Well, OK. Gossip. The accommodation’s better than you get on a normal Wessex contract. The food, courtesy of a TV catering van, is way above the usual on-site standards. Seriously, it’s the only time you’ll ever be on a dig site with a cheeseboard. At Salisbury lunches were served in a big marquee. One day I ended up sitting opposite Tony Robinson and chatted with him about the archaeological jobs market. He seemed like a nice guy.

As for the actual process of digging, it does tend to be a bit surreal. You get most of your work done when the cameras are away filming a different part of the site. When they’re on you, there’s an awful lot of spreading dirt back over something you’ve found and pretending to excavate it again because of the need for multiple takes. On our first morning at the cathedral it took about three hours for Tony and the two experts he was talking to to get their spontaneous conversation right. By the end of that, those of us cleaning back a surface in the background had literally run out of any more soil to trowel and had to shovel it back on from the spoil-heap. I don’t think that scene even made it into the final programme. On another occasion, retakes were necessitated by Tony tripping over his feet and landing face first in the trench, with a torrent of expletives. Much to the amusement of the schoolkids who were watching. Mobile phone footage of the incident was at one stage available on YouTube. I can’t find it now.

A more annoying feature is the tendency the TV people have for the regular people whose names and faces the viewers know to be the ones who find interesting things. My second Time Team dig was at Portsmouth. By this point the economy had collapsed and Wessex had let many of us go. They were short a couple of people for this dig, though, so my friend and I were phoned up and asked back for one last job. On the first day on site we found almost nothing of interest. At all. So when I eventually unearthed a large fragment of (if I remember rightly) pottery, it was the best find we’d had so far. The producers wanted to bring in one of the regulars to be filmed ‘finding’ it and to give a little spiel about what it was. I didn’t much like this idea, and made my feelings known. Even if it wasn’t much, this was my find and I wanted people to know it (partly because I was keen for Wessex to remember what a handy digger I was). I stuck to my guns and a compromise was reached. The TV regular would come over and talk to me about what I’d found. So I was to get a TV mini-interview. Not that I had any particular burning desire to speak on telly. But it was the principle of the thing.


So I did my bit, and went away content. In the end they edited down my side of the conversation to a mere three words (and not three words I would necessarily have chosen as my one contribution to British television), while my interlocutor appears to enlighten me about what the object was (incorrectly, as it later turned out). Those were my fifteen seconds of fame (skip to 14 minutes in if you want a laugh), though when I finally watched the episode on its broadcast around 18 months later, it turned out I’d done an impressive job of appearing prominently in the background of a great many shots, especially in the second half. Not all the shots were especially flattering. Salisbury’s episode featured a slow pan from my trowelling hands up to my then-spotty face (mercifully obscured by the low-res YouTube version). Portsmouth offered a big HD close-up of my bum. Still, it’ll be something I’ll be able to look back on in my dotage. And I fared better than some of the female diggers.

Since my appearances I haven’t watched Time Team much. It’s just too much like the day job. Not just in the sense that, working as an archaeologist, you don’t necessarily want to spend your free time watching other people working as an archaeologist, but even more specifically that it’s a load of Wessex Archaeology people using Wessex Archaeology equipment and digging the Wessex Archaeology way. When you get a nostalgia rush from recognising a particular shovel or bucket, it tends to distract from the overall programme. Still, I catch bits of it now and then, and watch long enough to try and spot a friend or former colleague pottering around in the back of shot. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I can turn on More4 at any random moment and there’s a chance I’ll see my own younger self, sunburnt or spotty, working away earnestly in a West Country trench.

I can live with that. Because overall, while it wasn’t perfect, Time Team was a good thing for British archaeology. It helped lead me into my eventual career and I’m proud, in my turn, to have made a small contribution to it.

Previous trips down Classics Memory Lane:


Doctor Who (Part 1, Part 2)

Tomb Raider

[1] As an addendum to my epic Doctor Who opus a while back, I’d point people in the direction of the 1971 Satanists-in-Wiltshire spectacular The Dæmons and 1989’s Arthurian-legends-and-nukes story Battlefield, both of which at times play like Time Team parodies years early. Battlefield in particular captures the look and flavour of Time Team perfectly. It’s not all that good a story, though. Shame!

[2] Time Team, not the lampshade.

One thought on “Via Memoriae Classicae IV – Time Team

  1. Pingback: Previously On… | Ancient Worlds

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