When we invited Mick’s Time Team colleagues to contribute to our commemorative article, we were inundated with warm words and loving memories.
Time Team Series Producer and creator
After 23 years of friendship and working with Mick, it is hard to summarise my thoughts about the lovely man, but I will give some snapshots:
That early discussion in a cafÃ© on the edge of Dartmoor, sometime in the 80’s. We had been working for 3 months going up and down the valley that would become Roadford Reservoir, to film Timesigns, a documentary I had written for Channel 4. After a hard day we sat together and Mick recounted his adventures of the previous weekend. ‘We’d missed a bus [I hear it with Mick’s Brummie twang, which on occasion I share , so it sounds like ‘buzz’] and so, with a couple of hours to spare, we wandered around and sorted out the Medieval plan of the village.’ I replied: ‘You mean you did all that in two hours and we’ve been going up and down the valley for three months — what could you do in a weekend if I gave you all the diggers and kit you needed?’ And that was it, the rest is history. Mick finished the conversation with a note of typical Brummie pessimism: ‘It’ll never happen Tim!’
A memory of Mick’s magic with kids on the Ribchester shoot in Time Team‘s first series: a young lad brought in a bit of old ivory toothbrush and Mick – who had the ability to treat the young as equals – fascinated the boy with the story of this simple artefact, its use, and who made it — he always made ordinary objects of life come alive.
Mick’s fierce and wonderful anger, on a shoot in Somerset at Templecombe, where he forgot to refer to a tythe map — a string of expletives came streaming out and required official sanction from Channel 4 to use in the final edit! He was, as always, splendidly angry because he cared.
At Buckingham Palace, hidden in the bushes, I remember waling with Mick across the Queen’s pristine front lawn – in which we would be sticking a large trench – and saying to each other : ‘well, we have come a long way!’
And of course all the lovely personnel memories. Just one of many: sitting up late at night and playing for him Cohen’s Faded blue raincoat. I think he liked Cohen’s pessimism!
He always loved to be involved with the reconstructions. I remember watching Mick and Phil Harding with their shoes off, warming their toes on a re constructed hypocaust. And of course, the Mick lines that he would issue in my general direction when I got a bit over enthusiastic with the trenches, but I always knew that he would let me go that bit further if I’d made my case well . He got that it was important for the TV, as he put it, to ‘get it out there.’
I was, and remain glad that I was able to put what I knew about film and media to such a good purpose and it was Mick’s inspiring magic that was at the heart of that but mostly I am glad to have know him as a friend, mentor and unique human being.
A final note received from Mick a few months ago was written on a letter from a viewer exulting us to take Time Team to the BBC or anywhere that would appreciate us. Mick’s note simply said: ‘What a good idea! Over to you, Tim.’ Mick’s legacy is something we will hopefully all carry forward. It is a unique contribution to archaeology, a living thing that will continue to flourish and grow.
Time Team presenter
Mick was a glorious bundle of contradictions. He was as fit as a fiddle but with crippling asthma, an incurable optimist who never stopped moaning, he was deeply moral but for much of his life was a rascal and a libertine, a passionate environmentalist who drove at least twenty thousand miles a year in a series of ancient camper vans.
He was also highly political, believing deeply in human equality, and the right of everyone to access the very best that education had to offer. And because, for him, archaeology epitomised that very best, he wanted to share it with everyone. Consequently he was far happier giving talks in village halls than locked away in the ivory towers of academe. There were howls of outrage from some of his contemporaries when he sank to fronting a popular television series, but he produced a stream of books and magazine articles every year in addition to his voluminous work on Shapwick (see CA 272), and the thousands who took up archaeology because of his influence demonstrate how misguided his critics were.
My abiding memory of him is when the two of us climbed to the top of a church tower one sunny summer’s day somewhere in the Marches, and looked at the little town below us. He showed me its relationship to the fords and bridges of the nearby river, he pointed out the remains of the monastic enclosure, the ancient lanes, the pattern of the Norman new town, the Victorian redevelopment and the post war expansion. With a few deft flicks of his wrist he made sense of this palimpsest, a supreme story-teller lifting the scales from my eyes and helping me comprehend a little more about the country of my birth. That was what he did best, and it will be remembered for a long time by all those who came under his spell.
GSB Prospection Ltd, Time Team geophysicist
I knew Mick for probably the best part of 30 years; he was one of the most inspirational people I have worked with during my career. Mick always encouraged the use of scientific techniques in archaeology and in particular he saw the huge potential of geophysics. I had worked with him before Time Team and he recognised that we could play a pivotal role in the television investigations. He always defended us both on and off screen, even on the very rare occasions we made mistakes(!). Although he claimed to know little about the science, he understood the difficulties and pressures involved when interpreting datasets in very short periods of time (with Phil Harding breathing down our necks…). After almost 20 years on television he still referred to our work as being a ‘black art’ or ‘magic’. In my eyes Mick was the closest you could get to being a consumate professional; his one failing was his preference for Merlot over a pint of Real Ale. As Phil used to say: ‘How can you call yourself an Archaeologist when you drink that stuff?’. I’ll continue to remind Mick of that fact each time I drink a toast in his memory.
University of Chester, Time Team landscape archaeologist
Mick started off his academic training as a geographer not an archaeologist, although it is as the latter that most people, particularly watchers of Time Team, that he will mostly be remembered. In reality, he was an archaeologist and historical geographer combined, and he was one of a select few who genuinely understood the complex relationship between archaeological sites and the geography of the landscapes of which they were part.
Over the years as he became a scholar of note, particularly on the subject of monasteries, he never abandoned his foundations as geographer in his pursuit to understand the past. Nobody, in my opinion, has surpassed Mick in his ability to communicate to the widest possible audience that the modern landscape is full of a wide variety of clues which could lead the way to understanding the archaeology and history of the past – earthworks, patterns of streets in towns, maps, aerial photographs, buildings, and topography and geology – as well as many other things such as trees and hedgerows – and that sometimes all you have to do to understand that is to ‘Go out and look’, a favourite phrase of Mick’s. He often also said that some of his best discoveries were made popping over a hedge for a pee, and that by looking away from a site you actually started to understand it more. Thus spoke a true geographer.
As a result of Mick’s knowledge and enthusiasm for all aspects of landscape, not just archaeology, he helped educate a multitude of professionals, academics, students, children and adult-learners alike to appreciate the value of multi-disciplinary investigation – that all the things we see may have a story to tell about the past and that excavation was only another tool in the archaeologists’ armoury.
Mick and I shared this love of ‘decoding’ the clues in the landscape in the hunt for the past. Many happy hours were spent pouring over OS maps, marking the clues with coloured highlighters. We shared two other passions. Firstly, a hatred of sat navs – ‘Give me grid reference and an OS map and I’ll find anywhere’ was usually muttered when anyone dared to use a sat nav in Mick’s presence – and secondly, an unbridled love of seeing the landscape from the air. Time Team allowed us to indulge the latter by letting us fly together regularly in helicopters to help communicate the landscape context of sites we were investigating. Just as the helicopter would lift off, Mick would comment without fail: ‘I still don’t know how it does that’ – despite the number of conversations we had about lift, power to weight ratios and the dynamics of flight, Emeritus Prof Aston always mischievously argued that it was simply ‘magic’, in the same scientific way that he articulated that sat navs were ‘black magic’.
In flight we would enthuse about earthwork patterns and crop marks for the programme, but off camera many an unscheduled detour was taken to allow Mick to photograph a monastery or church (or anything else that took his fancy just as a true geographer would – he could get just as excited by a market-garden or a bog) and the enthusiasm just kept coming. Deep down we were big kids who just loved flying – with archaeology and landscapes to talk about while we were doing it, it was just paradise for both of us. How I used to love discussions with Mick about the landscapes we saw from the air (or on the ground) – it was like finding someone who speaks your language in a foreign country – but much better than you do.
I know that Mick was very proud of his election as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 2010, and it as a geographer of the past that I remember him with great respect and fondness. I feel enriched both as a person and a field archaeologist to have known and learned from Mick – except the science bit.
University of Cambridge, Time Team archaeologist
Mick was already well-known and well-respected when I started my career in the late 1980s. Never too grand to talk to anyone, he was characteristically enthusiastic and encouraging when I approached him at a conference to enquire tentatively if he would be interested in putting together a set of papers with me on Wessex’s Medieval landscape. I learnt so much from working with him on this, and have fond memories of assembling the index in his bungalow with the aid of a very rudimentary computer and several bottles of wine.
Mick’s adamant insistence that Time Team should follow standard archaeological protocols extended to his demand that C4 should cover the costs of full archaeological reporting on all the digs. This hard-won battle was a key factor in making the series acceptable to archaeologists in the early years when many doubted it. For the first few years this caused endless headaches for him, but his dogged insistence means there are now a fantastic series of reports on scores of sites of all dates and types – more than many units achieve.
One of the great assets Mick brought to Time Team was its ability to convey an enjoyment of archaeology while still retaining a sense of serious commitment to getting the job in hand done properly – not an easy balance to achieve. As important behind the scenes as in front of the camera, Mick was the one person without whom Time Team would have been impossible.
Home is where the heart is, and Mick’s archaeological heart was, perhaps more than anywhere else, in Shapwick, near his Somerset home. The final report on his Shapwick Project (written with Chris Gerrard) is a fitting testament to ten years of dedicated and innovative fieldwork away from the TV glare. It will stand the test of time, not only because Shapwick was one of the first projects to show the potential of excavating inhabited Medieval villages, but also because it explains how the various techniques he used — and invented — were carried out, in typically generous educational mode.
Mick had a wicked sense of humour: one very Mick-ish joke was his deliberate planting of over a dozen different plant species in his garden boundary, to confound anyone who might try to date it using hedgerow dating — a technique he did not rate in the slightest. He was also a very good artist, and I wish we had kept more of the napkins he would draw on over dinner to explain the day’s discoveries or his aims for the next stage of digging.
Mick was a giver, not a taker. So many people get a lot out of archaeology because Mick put a lot into it. He was a genuinely wonderful and wonderfully genuine man who inspired millions but never forgot individuals. Principled, intelligent, brave, loyal, warm, humorous and visionary, it was a privilege to have known him for as long as I did. If humanists had saints, he should be one. I can’t believe I won’t see him again.
Time Team ceramics specialist
Whenever we had had a really good day on site, and nailed a difficult or important bit of archaeology, after dinner, Mick would rise to his feet with a big grin and shout across the assembled Time Team horde: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, a toast!’ With much laugher, we would all, archaeologists and TV people alike, roar along with him: ‘Death to all our enemies!’ He would then take a slug of red wine and sit down, beaming and happy beyond measure. I think what we all loved was the preposterousness of the idea that Mick could have any enemies.
L-P Archaeology, Time Team archaeologist
I did not meet Mick for quite a while after starting on Time Team, as he missed the first few shoots of my first series (10). Then, after turning up early at a rather posh hotel, I was ushered into the restaurant where the receptionist told me ‘some of my colleagues were sitting’. Mick and Teresa were at a table with a Roman pottery specialist. I was feeling pretty shy, but Mick hailed me like an old friend and invited me to join them. What struck me was that he seemed genuinely interested in my views on archaeology. I also remember showing him my first major publication (he was like that – you wanted him to appreciate your achievements, as if he was your personal mentor) and he seemed as pleased and proud of the report as I was, showing it off around the dining tent. Mick had a very basic enjoyment and interest in archaeology which touched everybody he met and will surely continue in the many people and projects he has influenced.
Time Team Development Producer
I was lucky enough to work with Mick Aston as part of Time Team for almost ten years. From my first role as a field archaeologist on series 11 to later work as Development Producer, Mick was a constant presence and an anchor for the programme. As with any long running project, Time Team became an extended family, and Mick was the Great Patriarch. He was always there for considered advice and was friendly, supportive and inclusive. In the fast paced world of television production Mick thought nothing of having a three-hour telephone conversation with a busy producer — especially if it was about archaeology.
At Time Team we fought an ongoing battle for acceptance from certain parts of the heritage sector and Mick was our standard bearer. He cared deeply about the integrity of Time Teams archaeological practice, and he made sure that, as media professionals, we understood that the archaeology came first. It was Mick who convinced a reluctant Channel 4 they should pay for post-excavation and reporting
Mick was on fine form when I last saw him a few months ago at a book launch in Oxford on behalf of his old friend Trevor Rowley. Mick gave a speech and couldn’t resist shaking up the slightly stuffy atmosphere by making a few cheeky comments. This anarchic streak, coupled with a sharp mind and a wicked sense of humour was one of the many things that made Mick so endearing to so many of us. I feel very lucky to have counted him as a friend.