Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dig It!

This is yet another article - in somewhat extended form - which yer actual Keith Telly Topping wrote for the Intergalactic Enquirer magazine in the US. It was written around the spring of 2003 I believe (note the seemingly contemporary reference to Ten Years Of Time Team). I've also included a couple of 2006 post-scripts.

This blogger deeply loves Time Team and the opportunity to celebrate the wonderful eccentricities of such a quintessentially British show to a completely fresh (US) audience proved too good an opportunity to miss. I'm told that the article itself was a popular one with some very positive feeback from readers.
I was pleased to discover a couple of weeks ago that one of my favourite British shows of the last decade has finally turned up on American TV (albeit, on a very obscure part of it). When asked, recently, what she watched for pleasure, Buffy The Vampire Slayer writer Jane Espenson mentioned ‘an oddball English thing’ on the History International Channel called Time Team. A woman of great taste, clearly (then again, we knew that anyway). However, for ‘oddball’, that really should read ‘eccentric British genius.’

Time Team has done for archaeology what Michael Palin’s various travel series did for their subject; that is, to turn a potentially deadly dull television format into something genuinely watchable. The series began in 1993 and has produced over one hundred and fifty shows in the decade since, all fronted by The Black Adder's Tony Robinson, himself a keen amateur archaeologist.

(2006 note: I have to say that I love the way many of my comedy heroes have managed to turn their hobbies into new careers over the last few years - Palin through his travel shows, Bill Oddie rapidly becoming the BBC's foremost wildlife expert, Eddie Izzard producing madcap social history programmes for the Discovery Channel, Stephen Fry's effortlessly affecting humanity turning an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? into a life-affirming statement on survival. Anyway, back to 2003...)
The 'hook' of the series is that the team - a variety of genuine archaeologists and expects in different historical fields - will be invited to dig a particularly site (often something as simple as somebody’s back garden) and discover all that they can about it, in just three days (the timescale was determined back at the beginning of the show simply by the fact that most of those involved beside Robinson have, you know, 'proper jobs' to do elsewhere so they tended to film the shows over Bank Holiday weekends, et cetera.) That, in and of itself, doesn’t sound especially radical, but it’s the glorious characters that populate the Time Team universe who make it all so enjoyable. These include the dry, seen-it-all Black Country professor Mick Aston, Roman expert Guy de la Bédoyère, droll field surveyor Stewart Ainsworth, John Gater and Chris Gaffney the frequently put-upon Geophys experts, gregarious, Al Murray-lookalike pottery expert Paul Blinkiron, genial historian Robin Bush, the goddess of punk archaeology Doctor Alice Roberts and a trio of drop-dead gorgeous site-archaeologists Carenza Lewis, Jenni Butterworth and Katie Hurst (think Lara Croft-crossed-with Bernice Summerfield and you're getting the general idea).
Best of all, however, there's Phil Harding, a man whose absolutely infectious enthusiasm for his subject and for the task at hand is impossible not to be affected by. Dear old Phil, he shovels his muck and he likes his beer - although, as Tony Robinson is keen to point out, his friend Harding is, also, a quite brilliant, internationally renowned archaeologist - something often overlooked by the show's critics. In this company, Robinson - a lovely, astute, humane and down-to-Earth guy anyway - acts as a kind-of voice for the viewer, regularly asking 'what does that mean?' whenever the discussions start to get too technical or jargon-filled. And, of course, he’s always ready to throw in the odd Baldrick-ism when the situation calls for it.

Relaxing, and very easy on the eye, the series is shot over the summer mostly in the English (or Scottish, or occasionally Welsh) countryside - excavating anything from a Neolithic bone cave in the Cotswolds to a field in France where a Spitfire crashed just sixty years ago. They've done underwater digs on the wrecks of Spanish galleons, visited Hadrian's Wall and Holy Island, dug numerous Roman villas in the West Country (those at Turkden and Dinnington were especially memorable), Iron Age round-houses on Salisbury Plain, Coventry's lost Medieval cathedral and a Viking boat burial in the Outer Hebrides. They've also done a few overseas digs (in Maryland, in Nevis in the West Indies and in Spain). The Roman sites are often the most visually interesting, as the viewer can actually see walls, floors and other structures emerging from the dirt - notably at digs at Cirencester in 1999, Greenwich Park in 2000, Ancaster in 2001 and Bath and Whitestaunton in 2003. On other occasions, it’s just the odd bone fragment or piece of pot that convinces the experts - and, via them, us - that something like fifteen hundred years ago, someone actually lived on this ground beneath their feet. When that occurs - as it does in most episodes - it is, I have to confess, often quite a humbling moment. We are all of us transitory, we're for a very brief time (in relative terms) and, once we're gone, all that we will leave behind is, like the post holes and robbed out walls that the Time Team excavate, mere shadows in the dirt.
The series has achieved a genuine cult popularity in Britain, with Sunday night audiences around the three million mark and celebrity fans who include the Prime Minister, Eddie Izzard and Bill Wyman, all of whom have appeared on the series. Time Team is an example of the same kind of mad British consciousness that can produce something like Top Gear (another show which I've got a lot of time for. Largely, again, because of the enthusiasm with which Clarkson, Hammond and May present it). The two series may seem to be absolute polar opposites in many ways (one being, basically, a bunch of hippies digging in a field[*], the other about a trio of grinning petrolheads cheerfully destroying the environment) but there's no other country in the world than Britain that would produce two shows like these and give them equal prominence and which would both be tremendously popular. And, as an interesting sidebar, have many members of the same audience.

[*]As Tony Robinson himself noted in a revealing interview included on the DVD Time Team In Your Garden (2005) "It's a bunch of old hippies digging in a field, looking for 'Woodstock' under the ground in pottery! How could that possibly be a success? Only in Britain!"

There is no doubt that Time Team has substantially - significantly - raised public awareness and understanding about archaeology. Time Team contributor and Bronze Age expert Francis Pryor has written: "Before the first series in 1993, it was hard work starting an excavation. I can remember arriving at a building site in Fengate, where I was to cut some exploratory trial trenches. When I announced that I was an archaeologist, some wit in a JCB quipped that I had lost my way to Egypt. After Time Team that same chap would be asking when I was planning to bring in the geophysics."
A documentary on Time Team's tenth anniversary (Time Team: The First Ten Years - broadcast in April 2003) nakedly revealed that the archaeological establishment is somewhat split over whether Time Team, which has increased archaeology’s profile tenfold in the UK, is beneficial or not. Like similar debates in the music world and other fields over previous decades, there is a suspicion over something new, populist, down to earth and fun amongst the cognoscenti. Something that lets the great unwashed public into the hallowed world of esoteric and mysterious knowledge. How dare they explain something to "normal people" that had previously been the province of a select few academics. (Aside from some clear professional jealousies such criticisms are, sad to report, often seemingly class-based. Yes, I know it's the Twenty First Century but, apparently, in parts of the archaeological community, we're still stuck knee-deepin the Dark Ages.)

Ultimately, however, I think it's just great some of the establishment are scared of Time Team. Like punk rock and independent movies, Time Team thumbs a metaphorical provocative nose at something dusty and ancient and says ‘fuck you - this is for everyone.’ Long may it, and other maverick examples of such delightful eccentricity, continue and prosper.

Six Great Time Team Moments:

6. In the middle of a - very entertaining - Iron Age and Medieval dig at Waddon, quite unexpectedly Stewart gets them to explore a bump in a field which turns out to be a previously undocumented henge site.

5. Phil, Margaret Cox and Guy discovering the carved "Viridios" inscription inside a Kist sarcophagus at Ancaster.

4. Mick Aston losing his temper and swearing his head off when discovering that they'd all been digging in the wrong place for two days in a site at Templecombe in 1995.

3. Tony's sheer joy at Carenza's uncovering a Roman mosaic floor in a garden in Cirencester ("Yes! First one in fifty programmes!")

2. The remarkable episode at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall in 1999 and the discovery of an completely in-tact Roman cremation ern.

1. One of TV's most remarkable fifty minutes, the 'Celtic Spring' episode at Llygadwy (filmed in the summer of 2000 and broadcast in early 2001) which saw the team using their forensic expertise to expose what appeared to be an elaborate archaeological hoax. There were any number of great moments in this - Phil and Francis proving that a Neolithic standing stone is nothing of the sort; Guy, Mick The Dig and Richard Reece sorting through the numerous Roman finds that the landowner claimed to have discovered in the so-called 'spring' and establishing, via the lack of any pottery on the site, that all of the coins and other artefacts had been deposited quite recently; Barney Sloane's casual reply to Mick Aston's question about whether a structure is Norman: "Uncle Norman, possibly!" Stewart's discovery of aerial photographs from the 1960s which show the 'Celtic spring' conspicuous by its absence. But, the bit that will probably be most remembered by viewers was the discovery of an Iron Age La Tène sword in a shallow ditch. Carenza is genuinely excited by the artefact it and of itself but both Mick and Jenni are clearly bothered about the context in which it was found, so close to the surface yet, apparently, completely undamaged by ploughing. And, they're ultimately proved to be correct when a little later, they discover that the sword is actually lying on top of a piece of - very definitely Twentieth Century - barbed-wired. "That is BLOODY CRIMINAL!" shouts Carenza, almost incandescent with rage. Proof, if any were needed, that despite what the more bug-up-their-own-arse traditionalist end of the archaeological community might like to believe, these people are not only very skilled at their jobs, but they really care about what they're doing too.
2006 postscript: Time Team recently completed its thirteenth series and filming is currently underway of a further thirteen episodes - plus a couple of specials - to be shown in 2007. Carenza and Guy have now left the show for other challenges (Guy has something in development with the Discovery Channel apparently) and Mick Aston only does about half of the digs these days (his place as site supervisor for those episodes he's not involved with usually being taken by either Francis, Jonathan Foyle or Neil Holbrook). Carenza's replacement is Helen Geake. Some of the faces change - except for Tony and Phil, of course - but the series', delightfully, goes on.

Keith Topping
Merrie Albion