In mid October 2012 an all-points bulletin was emailed to Time Team staff. It announced that after 20 seasons and over 230 episodes the programme was being axed by Channel 4. A few days later news of Time Team‘s demise broke in the Guardian. It was a perfunctory end for a television institution that, over two decades, made British archaeology more accessible and popular than ever. Here we chart the highs and lows of a revolutionary format that aimed to bring archaeology to the people.
20 years is a long time in television. In the immediate aftermath of a programme’s cancellation it is traditional to attempt a post-mortem of what went wrong. But in this, as in so many other ways, Time Team bucks the trend. It is practically unheard of for a factual, specialist programme to spend two decades as the public face of its subject and become a national institution along the way. While Time Team unquestionably experienced problems, particularly in its final years, this much-loved show was an astonishing success, propelling modern archaeology into the public conscious as never before. As Francis Pryor observed on his blog, in many ways the real question is ‘what went right?’
A brief history of Time Team
Time Team‘s genesis is a well-rehearsed story. Its prototype was Timesigns, a four-part series that aired in 1991. Exploring the archaeology of the Roadford Reservoir, Devon, this came about after Tim Taylor approached Mick Aston to present the series. With Phil Harding also on board, three members of the future Time Team core were in place. Yet despite bringing the past to life using the familiar ingredients of excavation, landscape survey and reconstructions — including Phil felling a tree with a flint axe — Timesigns is a very different beast.
Available to view on 4oD (www.channel4.com/programmes/timesigns/4oD), watching it now provides a salutatory lesson in just how revolutionary the Time Team format was. Slower paced, Timesigns has Mick talking directly to the camera in a style more akin to a history documentary or Open University broadcast. There is a focus on interesting, previously discovered, artefacts, while pipe music lends an almost mystical air to proceedings. Jim Mower (development producer, see his opinion piece here) believes that Phil Harding’s material was among the most innovative. Shots of him in woodland seeking out raw materials for a reconstructed axe allowed the audience to witness the hands-on practical process. Placing viewers at the heart of the action would become a Time Team hallmark.
While filming Timesigns, Tim and Mick regularly discussed other ways to bring archaeology to a television audience. What proved to be the fateful conversation took place in a Little Chef on the Okehampton bypass. 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. Struck by how much could be learnt in a few hours, Tim wondered what could be achieved in a few days. When he took this pitch to various studios, however, no one wanted to know.
It was not the first time that a chance conversation with Mick had got someone thinking about television archaeology. A few years earlier Tony Robinson had joined a trip Mick was leading to Santorini as part of his adult education work for Bristol University. The pair bonded on the idyllic Greek island, where 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 equally intransient.
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 as radically different to Timesigns as it was to later Time Team episodes.
Envisioned as a quiz show in the vein of Challenge Anneka — running on BBC 1 from 1989 to 1995 — the team were called on to solve archaeological mysteries while 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.
Instead Time Team‘s format was radically overhauled. Shades of the quiz-show concept do survive into early episodes of Time Team proper. The onscreen introduction of 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. Meanwhile Tony’s role transformed from a quiz master to translator of all things archaeological for a general audience.
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 apocraphal burnt cakes, the site was scheduled, precluding excavation. Instead John Gater, the programme’s ‘geophys’ wizard (see CA 252), 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.
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 outstanding moments in the forthcoming season 20. The breathtaking 3D model it produced of the buried structures persuaded 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, for example, was harnassed after his artwork caught Tim Taylor’s eye in Readers’ Digest. 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 has sometimes been accused of peddling stereotypes to the public, but anyone who has met the archaeologists will know that they are not cynical media-savvy operators adopting false personas for the camera. Indeed, the only affectation on Time Team was Mick’s famous stripy 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.
If there had been a mission statement for the show during those early days, it would have been the democratisation of archaeology. Rather than targeting the palaces and castles of the rich and famous, individual episodes modestly sought to solve simple, local questions. This was 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. Such an approach was perfectly realised by Graham Dixon, the director of the first few seasons. Schooled in observational documentaries, Graham followed the digs as they evolved. His technique fostered a sense of immediacy for viewers, placing them on the trench edge when discoveries happened and making them privy to key discussions.
Tim Taylor recalls that ‘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 a mere three days. Such speed was certainly not ideally suited to showcase all of the techniques available to modern archaeologists. Hundreds of pounds would be spent on scientific dating such as C14, 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 echoed contemporary changes underway in the profession. The implementation of Planning Policy Guidance 16 in 1990 enshrined archaeology within the development process and paved the way for today’s professional units. 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 1, aired in 1994, had four episodes, while season 2 followed with five, and season 3 boasted six.
Seasons 9-12 are often seen as Time Team‘s golden age. Screening 13 episodes a year, as well as live digs and specials the programme was ubiquitous. Tapped into the national zeitgeist, its stars were household names and at its zenith Time Team was pulling in audiences of 3 — 3.5 million viewers. Now the format was safely established the programme was increasingly able to capitalise on its fame and access big name sites — ultimately even Buckingham Palace. While the allure of such sites created a powerful television spectacle, it also marked a move away from the programme’s humble local archaeology origins.
Time Team‘s status as a staple of the television schedule also wrought changes behind the scenes. The big step-change in output came between series 5 and 6 — in 1998 and 1999 — when the annual number of episodes leapt from 8 to 13. Such mass-production was only possible with more rigorous processes guiding filming. With the archaeologists at the height of their game, by now the team was so confident of the three-day regime that development producer Jim Mower describes their appearance on site as ‘like getting the A Team in’. Many a critic was silenced by seeing the team in action.
Even after its star began to wane Time Team remained popular. An audience study in 2006 indicated that 20 million people watched at least one show that year. As late as season 18 the programme was pulling in a respectable audience of 1.1 million, partly because it had built up a loyal following, and partly because the team were still digging great sites. It was season 19 that changed everything. In 2011 the production centre for the programme moved from London to Cardiff. A political gesture aimed at building up regional television, Time Team was picked because it seemed a safe pair of hands. Jim describes this miscalculation as a ‘death blow’, which cost the show almost all of its behind the scenes staff. Expertise honed over 15 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.
The 2006 audience survey also identified that Time Team‘s core audience consisted of families and people aged over 45 / 50. With Channel 4 keen to attract more supposedly affluent viewers in their 20s and 30s, season 19 also tinkered with the format. A number of archaeological old hands were sacrificed in favour of more youthful presenters. Disgusted, Mick walked out, explaining later ‘For some reason they didn’t think “oh, we’d better run that past Mick.” He’s the archaeological consultant, he might have an opinion about that’ (see CA 271). The changes proved too much, too fast, and viewing figures crashed to 700,000. While the yet-to-air season 20 promises a return to more-traditional Time Team values, it was too late. By the summer of 2012 Channel 4 no longer wanted ‘old’ Time Team. Jim summed up their approach as ‘messing with something perfectly fine, and when it wasn’t a success, blaming the people trying to make it work.’
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 20 years Channel 4 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 onscreen. The money was well spent, and today only five Time Team sites remain unpublished — a record that shames many UK units and academics. Tim Taylor explains ‘because we’ve involved Wessex Archaeology in our work for the last 10 or so years the reports are really good quality. In terms of Cotswolds villas Time Team has probably covered more of them than anyone else. We’ve also done the landscapes around them, so if you want additional information then the Time Team reports contain that.’
And in the end
Time Team’s legacy leaves 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 17 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. 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 research project that is still in rude health (see CA 263).
Tony Robinson is proud of the programme’s success in making archaeology accessible. ‘I think we’ve brought it into the forefront of people’s attention. Prior to us, by and large archaeology was something you could only really appreciate if you read books with long words in them. Now everyone knows the word “geophys”. We always joke about that, but I think it’s indicative of how people understand archaeology is a process. People understand it isn’t treasure hunting — well, we probably still have some way to go with that one!’ Tim points to ‘Over 230 films that have been seen in 36 countries. People seem to enjoy them. So we manage to get something enjoyable, which at the same time is also useful. That’s fairly unusual.’
Anyone who visited one of their digs while shooting was underway will have seen the devotion it inspired in members of the public. And the journey is not quite over yet. With Season 20 airing next year, and a series of one-off specials running into 2014, there is still new Time Team on the way. While viewing it might be a bittersweet experience we should enjoy the moment while we can. We may not see its like again.
This feature was published in Current Archaeology issue 274.
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