As Time Team ends its run, Jim Mower – an archaeologist and producer for ten years on the programme – reflects on two decades of television archaeology and asks: what’s next?
Time Team is the longest running history/archaeology strand in television history. Although often criticised over its lifetime, this is, by any reckoning, a remarkable achievement. On 20th October 2012 Channel 4 announced that the 20th series of Time Team, to be transmitted in 2013, would be its last. As an era in television archaeology comes to an end, what does Time Team tell us about the relationship between archaeology and the media and where do we go from here?
I was lucky enough to work on Time Team for a decade, first as an archaeologist, then an assistant producer, and finally as the development producer for the programme in its last few years. My role principally involved identifying and setting up potential sites for the three-day excavations and working with the documentaries team, with whom the main series shared an open plan office. The job was challenging, exciting and, most of all, fun. I worked with a family of dedicated professionals who cared about the programme and I was also lucky enough to develop strong working relationships with archaeologists across the UK. Time Team was a joint effort between the media and the archaeological world; this relationship became crucial to the programme’s longevity.
Initially commissioned by the education department at Channel 4, Time Team formed part of the broadcasters public service remit. The concept; an archaeological question addressed by an expert team in three days, was original and proved popular. Audiences were entertained by the genuine camaraderie of the team and found the idea of finding the past in their own back gardens appealing. Ratings success followed, seeing the Time Team brand extend into documentaries, live programmes and the more controversial Big Digs.
Time Team was a challenging programme to produce. Combining a professional piece of archaeological work with the complexities of a television production relied on a unique understanding between an experienced field team and a sizeable television crew. Over time directors and research teams became familiar with the archaeological process allowing a variety of sites to be investigated and their narratives given structure through the three-day format. This is the heart of why Time Team delivered so much for so long to both television audiences and archaeological colleagues.
The origin of series
Time Team’s origins and its first few series took place in a media landscape very different to that of today. The programme was allowed several series to find its feet and address teething problems such as the necessity for post-excavation reporting. This particular issue was addressed when Mick Aston took the Commissioning Editor to task about the absence of funding for the processes necessary after excavation concluded. Despite initial bafflement from the Channel as to why they should pay for something that didn’t appear on screen, an understanding was reached.
Over 20 years Time Team became an efficient archaeological unit with the ability to bring experts and technology to many sites that would otherwise not have been investigated. English Heritage, Cadw and other major heritage agencies saw the benefit to be gained from engaging with the team. Eventually this mutual understanding led to work at high-profile protected sites, such as Westminster Abbey and BuckinghamPalace. By now Time Team had tapped into a national obsession with the past; broadcasters took note. Television schedules saw every conceivable variation on the ‘archaeology as it happens’ theme. Time Flyers, Two Men in a Trench and Extreme Archaeology all had a go at replicating the formula with little success. For better or worse Time Team had become the de facto public definition of what archaeologists actually did.
As Time Team became part of the television establishment the media landscape was changing fast. Multiple new channels and the rise of the internet began an ongoing fragmentation of audiences that led to slowly declining viewing figures. Traditional economic models for television production were also being challenged and broadcasters began to rethink long established business strategies.
In 2010 Time Team became a casualty of change. In an attempt to ‘refresh the brand’ the broadcaster tweaked the format resulting in the departure of team leader Mick Aston and the breakdown of what had made the programme such a success. Relationships became strained, the production process and schedule became more difficult to manage; the end was inevitable. However, Time Team had already achieved a huge amount. Public awareness of archaeological science and process had been raised significantly. Genuine original research had been conducted all over the country and, undoubtedly, many people had been inspired to take up the subject at an amateur or professional level as a result of the adventures of Tony, Mick, Phil and the team.
So where does the departure of Time Team from our screens leave archaeology as a subject for television? No doubt there are production companies developing the new ‘Time Team’ as I write this. They will undoubtedly encounter a problem or two. Time Team took several years to develop an essential understanding between two very different worlds; archaeology and television media. This understanding was at the core of what made many of Time Team’s more ambitious projects possible.
It is certainly the case that archaeological narratives can be challenging to translate into stories for a lay audience, but where Time Team succeeded was in allowing the archaeology to speak for itself and the archaeologists themselves to be our guides. Unfortunately, this approach appears to be an exception rather than a rule in television. Quite understandably broadcasters and television production companies are not concerned with the generally slow paced minutiae of archaeology. It is vital that archaeologists engage with broadcasters, seeking new ways to communicate their discipline and, equally so, that broadcasters respect the integrity of archaeology as a subject. Open communication is key.
It may be a cliché to say so, but archaeology needs public support if it is to survive, especially in a struggling economy. Television is a powerful communication medium harnessed by Time Team to great effect. Technical terms like ‘geophysics’ became widely used and understood as a result of Time Team’s work. It is this focus on process that is, perhaps, the programme’s greatest legacy. If those of us in the archaeological world do not build on the foundations that Time Team has laid then our profession will once again be depicted on our screens as an Indiana Jones-style search for priceless treasure in exotic locales. None of us want that… do we?
This article was published in CA 274. For more on the triumphs and trials of Time Team, see our feature: Time Team – the rise and fall of a television phenomenon