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?

Hanging up their hats: Time Team's on-screen personalities have become instantly recognisable - as has Phil Harding's hatTime 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.

Mick Aston's departure from the show prompted mudslinging from certain sections of the press, but Time Team's legacy has enduredTime 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.

Tony Robinson and Time Team's Series Producer, Tim Taylor, discuss the plan of action on-siteIn 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

12 Comments

  1. Christopher Liddle
    April 3, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    Reading the Article about Time Team’s Producer over the past 10 years makes me feel even worse, about the ending of the programme.!
    A poll or petition of regular and occasional viewers for bringing back a new series with the same Team and Mick Aston,, would no doubt prove overwhelming…
    Reconsider Channel 4, as Time Team is a British Institution and hence it’s popularity over so many years for the old and young alike.and contribution to Archaeological Importance as well as a damn good programme. Why end a winner, what’s wrong ?……Suggest a poll is conducted via ‘Current Archaeology’ and elsewhere! , then presented to the misguided people responsible for ending this amazing programme.

    Reply

  2. Graham
    April 3, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

    Time Team is dead;long live Time Team; It will rise again!

    Reply

  3. ian darling
    April 5, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Time Team should have been stuck with – given the very different media landscape from 1993 it seems to me to have maintained an audience rather
    well. Why don’t the BBC have a regular archaeology show – even Radio 4
    does not seem to have one-? Anyway the programme will be much missed and
    has done a great job to promote the subject to a popular audience.

    Reply

  4. Prisca Mather
    April 13, 2013 @ 7:49 am

    Time team, can’t believe ti has come to an end, I think Channel 4 need to reconsider, Time Team you will be sadly missed, so many hours of good enjoyment.

    Reply

  5. Kevin Ellis
    May 1, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    What a shame I have followed time team throughout the years in the last few years my daughter has watched it with me. She is 15 now and things still stop with me and her even for old episodes we sit together and after discus what you found we even go on line to find out more. She is fascinated by history and due to our joint interest wants to go on and study it. Her history teacher hates her due to the arguments she causes because of the things she/we find out. They only study more modern history at her school but we have enjoyed our time with Time Team together I hope we find something to sit and study together. Otherwise you have spoiled father/daughter time. What a shame don’t go

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  6. Becky Hawes
    May 6, 2013 @ 4:28 am

    This news makes me so upset. I am currently studying, all the way over here in New Zealand, to become an Archaeologist thanks to being introduced to this show when I was 11 or 12. I haven’t seen most of the episodes because its impossible to keep up with it over here, in saying that, it’s incredibly upsetting knowing that I won’t happen across a new episode while channel surfing. In all seriousness, if it wasn’t for this amazing show, I wouldn’t be studying what Archaeology, I actually have no idea what I would be doing.
    Awesomely someone has set up a petition to try and get it back! I have no idea if it will succeed, chances are it won’t, but here’s a link! Go sign it if you love it as much as I do.
    http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/time-team-should-continue-on-tv.html
    Thanks for everything Time Team
    If the petition doesn’t succeed, we will miss you.

    Reply

  7. Nancy Frey
    May 29, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    I’ve signed the Petition and posted it to my Facebook page. I have fingers crossed that Channel 4 will reconsider and come back with an updated Time Time soon. There are hundreds of backyards yet to be explored, and I really miss Tony, Mick & Phil as well as the ladies.

    Reply

  8. Martyn Franklin
    October 6, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    I along with no doubt lots of other people, grew up on this program, I feel I know the people on there personally and they have become friends. The program was warm, educational, and I loved every one I watched. I still watch them now on satellite, repeats or not I’ll watch every one again. I think they fall into my James Bond, Carry on films and Star Trek category, programs I will never tire of my entire life time.

    Truly one of the greatest groups of people ever to be gathered, we are blessed to of known them and their work.

    I shed a tear on June the 25th.

    I was blessed to meet Phil recently, just as towering a figure in person as on television.

    Truly a program that can never be replaced due to the people and the banter, but I would welcome another new series with a new cast. There’s a hole in my life I would welcomed to be back filled.
    With love and respect.
    Martyn

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  9. Phil Beaumont
    August 5, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

    Thank God for More Four & Yesterday in regular re-showings of the series inc the specials, undoubtedly the series got me interested in history, something my teachers never could!

    Reply

    • Jeremy St. Clare
      August 14, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

      Couldn’t agree more, am convalescing after an accident and timeframe on more4 and yesterday are really helping, timeframe was always a favourite. Hope another show of its ilk is at least attempted.

      Reply

  10. steve lokan
    December 19, 2017 @ 3:45 am

    boycott channel 4 until it grows a brain.

    Reply

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