Last night saw the first episode of Pub Dig premiere on Channel 5: an exuberant escapade in which comedian Rory Mcgrath and archaeologist Paul Blinkhorn visited the Command House in Chatham, Kent, to hunt for Elizabeth I’s lost dockyard - once home to the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.
In true Time Team style, time was strictly limited – though in this case the diggers were allowed a relatively leisurely 4.5 days. The chase was on, and results came quickly. The Command House pub is a Georgian building – formerly the headquarters of the navy’s Storekeeper of Ordnance – and so it was unsurprising that the first features encountered by the Pub Dig team came from that period. But their chances of getting further back in time seemed scuppered when they encountered some inconveniently-placed steel sea barriers installed in the 1950s. Undeterred, Rory and Paul put in a new trench – and things were soon looking more shipshape.
Although the boozy premise to the series might seem lighthearted – and there is plenty of rollicking fun firing cannons and making grog – there is also some seriously solid archaeology going on here. Rory works very well as the ‘Everyman’ presenter, his cheery questions complimented by Paul’s considerable knowledge. This lively partnership allows the pair to pass on pretty technical information in a playfully accessible way – a query about what ‘backfill’ means leads to a very neat explanation of stratigraphy, while throughout the show there are references to how pottery can be used to date layers in excavations. Flinders Petrie would be proud! At the end of the programme they also mention the importance of recording trenches, cataloguing artefacts and backfilling a site to protect features after a dig. It’s great to see responsible archaeology being promoted amongst all the fun.
Alongside the digging, viewers were treated to a number of interesting historical insights. Marine archaeologist Gustav Milne discussed how coastal church towers were used both as navigation marks and as lookout points, keeping watch for Spanish invasion – a constant threat in Tudor England. We also learned that lime juice was initially added to grog to make the noxious rum-and-water mixture (marginally) more palatable, but that officers were delighted to find it had the handy side effect of preventing scurvy – which at the time had been killing more British sailors than enemy action.
Above all, the chemistry between Paul and Rory makes Pub Dig a joy to watch. Zippy, full of energy, and featuring some choice banter – at one point Rory calls Paul a ‘bald, Scouse pot-monkey’ – the 45-minute episode flew by. There were some really lovely moments, not least Paul Blinkhorn literally dancing for joy when he found a piece of Tudor pot. ‘I’ve got pottery, I’ve got stratigraphy,’ he sang. Who could ask for anything more? Roll on next week.
To see our interview with Paul Blinkhorn and for more information on the four pubs featured in the series, click here
The next episode of Pub Dig sees Paul and Rory hunting smugglers in East Sussex. Catch it on Channel 5 at 8pm, April 10.