A brief history of Time Team

Everybody knows the story of how Time Team started: one ex-teacher turned TV producer, a couple of quirky archaeologists, and a fortuitous meeting in the Mediterranean with one of Britain’s best-loved actors combined to create the most successful archaeology programme ever on British television.

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My how you’ve changed! The original Time Team members, from left: Tony Robinson, Victor Ambrus, Carenza Lewis, the late and much-missed Robin Bush, Phil Harding and Mick Aston.

Tim Taylor is excited. He is just back from a day viewing sites somewhere in the Mediterranean (he won’t give an exact location), where he has seen Neolithic shelters containing the bones of pygmy hippopotami, Roman tombs eroding out of an exposed cliff, and an early Christian area ‘carpeted’ by a nearly untouched mosaic. He is clearly blown away by the archaeology, and most of all by the potential opportunity to film there and share what he has seen with the viewing public. As we chat briefly about the show, it becomes very clear that Tim is entirely focused on the future; far from being over, far from being a tired format, far from having reached the end of the road, Time Team has plenty of new action in store. And they have only got three days…

Tim Taylor, creator and Series Producer of Time Team, with Mick Aston, who inspired the original idea.

On the other end of the phone line, behind my desk, I cannot help but hate him. Of course, it is all in a day’s work for the creator and Series Producer of Time Team, and he has earned his perks after 18-plus years with the show. But I am jealous of the archaeology he is visiting, and most of all, I am curious about what is coming next. Tim’s priorities are clear: incorporating new technologies; engaging a new group of science-focused archaeologists; reaching out to new audiences and giving them even greater access to the digs; moving into new media platforms; and, finally, to find a way to interact with the ‘next generation’ of viewers.

But what is so important about Time Team, after all? What is really left to say, after all the shows, books, DVDs, interviews and other media paraphernalia? One possible answer is clear: where would archaeology be, in the United Kingdom, without Time Team? Obviously, academic, research, and commercial archaeology have always been very successful; but the contribution the show has made to public awareness is huge. What does this equate to, in human terms? How many people have signed up for a university course, entered the profession, booked a digging holiday (great for families!), joined a local society, or otherwise had their lives enriched by archaeology as a result of having seen Time Team? Whether you love it or hate it, you cannot ignore the impact of the show.

This takes the cake: Tony Robinson celebrates the 200th episode.

Time Team’s turf

Everybody knows the story of how Time Team started: one ex-teacher turned TV producer, a couple of quirky archaeologists, and a fortuitous meeting in the Mediterranean with one of Britain’s best-loved actors combined to create the most successful archaeology programme ever on British television. Nearly 20 years later, the ‘little show that could’, has battled back its critics and is still pulling in the numbers, averaging over two million viewers per episode.

Long before Big Brother, Time Team was Britain’s original ‘reality’ television show. One of the most visible factors contributing to the rise in popularity of archaeology in Britain, the start of the programme in the early 1990’s coincided with the point in time when the amateur archaeology tradition in Britain faced a stiff challenge from the newly-born, strict guidelines of PPG 16, making access to archaeological sites more difficult for non-professional archaeologists and the interested public. Additionally, the academic format of archaeological documentaries, such as the BBC’s Chronicle, was losing relevance with viewers; coupled with changing television agendas, fewer programmes in the genre were being commissioned. Time Team switched it up: by inviting viewers to stand trench-side with the archaeologists and participate in the thrill of discovery, the show revitalised a subject that had grown stale.

Tony Robinson in season one, with some essential reading.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the show has had many strong critics over the years, mostly stemming from dissatisfaction with the format. ‘Real’ archaeology does not happen in just three days, and thus the programme was accused of a false portrayal of processes and realistic outcomes, deliberately misleading viewers as to the seriousness and necessary resources that doing archaeology actually requires. This may have been a valid assessment in the very early years when the format was finding its balance, but the show’s producers have met the challenge through hiring qualified staff (between them, Time Team archaeologists have over 150 years of digging experience, at least ten PhD’s and have worked all over the globe on some of the world’s most important sites), investing in specialists, reaching out to experts in each locale, and providing publicly-accessible post-excavation reports for all their sites.

Francis Pryor and Raksha Dave at Tottisford, Devon. Evidence from this trench confirmed the existence of a ceremonial path to a nearby stone circle. Photo: Steve Shearns.

In any case, the show does not seek to replicate research projects, which obviously take several years to complete and several more years to publish. Time Team is basically a unit that excavates evaluation trenches based on geophysical survey, in essentially the same way, and in the same time frame, as a professional unit. It will be interesting to see whether, in the fullness of time, any of the sites Time Team has excavated are revisited with a full research design. With a solid, basic interpretation already completed, this would seem like a fantastic, and obvious, opportunity. If it has not happened yet, one wonders – why not?

Salisbury Cathedral, September 2008. Interested visitors to the site stand, quite literally, trench-side while the archaeologists work and film the show. It was the translation of the excitement of this experience which led to the show’s instant popularity. Photo: Mick Aston.

The Time Team machine

But it is not just a love-in for no reason: archaeology has benefited and received significant results out of the show. Time Team has completed over 200 excavations (not including the documentaries and live programmes), around 50 of which were Scheduled Ancient Monuments, and a number were World Heritage Sites. Many of these sites would not have been excavated without the array of skills and resources that Time Team has to offer. Wessex Archaeology staff complete the post-excavation analysis on site, and then each report is published online (www.wessexarch.co.uk/timeteam/reports), and the geophysics archive contains information on some of the UK’s most important and restricted sites.

But it is not just about the time – it is also about the money. The Time Team machine is a massive financial investment in archaeology. Production expenses for each episode are high, partly because of the costs of archaeological research, excavation, expertise, and post-excavation services (post-ex alone can be up to £9,000 of each episode’s budget). Together, this adds up to over £300,000 investment in archaeology every year – over £4m in total throughout the programme’s existence – which does not come from the public purse. Time Team currently stands as the largest private funding body of archaeology in Britain.

The historical re-enactments on Time Team (called ‘cameos’) are an audience favourite, and a good laugh for the cast members as well. Here, Matt Williams spent a day eating, drinking and dressing like an Irish navvy for the Risehill episode, and Raksha Dave had the rather surreal experience of attending her own cremation in West Langton, near Market Harborough.

This investment is not immune to the winds of financial change, however, and the economic downturn has affected both the television industry and the show. In 2010, Channel 4 rearranged the viewing schedule, which meant the Time Team season was split, with one episode still remaining to be screened later in the year – causing some concern over the future of the show. Additionally, the 2010 shooting schedule dropped from 13 sites to 10, with the three digs replaced by an in-depth look at an existing project (Bamburgh Castle) and two ‘highlights’ programmes, a formula which will be carried forward into the 2011 shooting season.

The need to adjust financially as well as to breathe new life into the show is also evident in other big changes at Time Team. The 200th episode celebration party coincided with the relocation of the production offices from London to Cardiff, and the welcome news that Channel 4 has commissioned Time Team for a further two years (including 2011).

Breaking new ground

Other changes and growth are on the way for Time Team, most immediately in the form of international versions of the show. As it stands, Time Team is broadcast in 34 countries and enjoys huge popularity in certain areas, most notably Australia. This translates into a worldwide audience of millions; and, according to Tim Taylor, interest levels are on the rise in terms of other countries wanting to do their own programmes.

Time Team has benefitted enormously from the support of our colleagues – in universities, local government, and throughout the heritage sector. Many of them have backed us in the face of more conservative opinions, and these great relationships are essential to our success. We have developed a new protocol with English Heritage, which will prove to be a great basis for working together in the future; and we now have our own dedicated EH inspector to make the relationship as productive as possible.

Mick Aston

For example, in 2009, five episodes of Time Team America were produced in partnership with the Public Broadcasting Service. The show received good reviews, and became the most-viewed programme on the PBS website – though the jury is still out on whether another season will be made. Additionally, a series of eight programmes was produced for Catalonian television in Spain, called Sotto Terra, which garnered the largest audiences ever achieved for the network. In light of all this, Tim Taylor’s jaunty days out in the Med suddenly take on a whole new meaning; but, when questioned about whether all this potential international glamour will push the British show into the background, Taylor responds: ‘The British show is the key proving ground for all the new stuff. We are able to engage with the absolute top experts on our home ground, and that quality is what drives the show forward and makes it important. Everything else grows from that.’

Tony Robinson films on site at Risehill in the Yorkshire Dales.

For now, Time Team is focussing on the future: on advancing technologies, including radar, LIDAR, and microdetection; on new experts with a science-based approach; on greater public interaction with the programme through social media, behind-the-scenes blogs, and a Time Team Academy (for more information on these, check out Time Team’s official Facebook); and on possible exotic foreign locales. Certainly, the thrill of discovery is still fresh for Tim Taylor, who counts among the most exciting moments in his life that moment in Time Team, when ‘…an excavation reveals a truth that nothing else could’. With such enthusiasm and commitment at its core, Time Team will remain as dynamic as ever.

We each have our own story to tell over the three days. Probably the most interesting thing for me is to see how the programme ends up on-screen. And I do watch the show – mainly because I want to see what everybody else has been up to! I might be in a trench digging a feature or looking at stratigraphy, and meanwhile Helen is in the incident room doing a riveting bit of documentary research. It is so full-on over three days that sometimes you don’t know what is going on in the next trench. There are so many different stories to tell about each site.

Phil Harding

The Top 10 Time Team episodes

10. Alfred the Great’s Abbey, Athelney, Somerset, Series 1, 1994
The first Time Team programme did not involve any digging, but did see the team united for the first time. The growing relationships and Tony’s story-telling ability led to confidence that field archaeology could make entertaining television.

9. Village of the Templars, Temple Combe, Somerset, Series 3, 1996
Problems with vital research material that had not been provided, resulted in Mick being visibly angry with members of the team. A small but defining moment in the Time Team’s history, this programme showed that the presenters were real people, and that the format was not faked.

8. The Spitfire, Wierre Effory, France, Series 7, 2000
This sombre dig was emotional for everyone who worked on the programme. Excavating the evidence of a tragic crash connected with a pivotal moment in British history and became ‘real’ when the personal effects and some remains of the pilot were discovered. These were buried with due ceremony. Wierre Effroy showed clearly how archaeology resonates with people today.

7. Garden Secrets, Raunds, Norfolk, Series 10, 2003
Sites suggested by the public have long been a feature of Time Team, as have digs in back gardens. Raunds, in Norfolk, was a perfect example of both – although the family concerned probably did not expect a team of archaeologists to move their rockery and uncover an Anglo-Saxon cemetery! What made the site special was the reaction of the family, who were extremely moved by the presence of well-preserved ancestors in their back garden.

6. A Saintly Site, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Series 17, 2010
Tobermory was a classic site suggestion from the public, which turned out to be more than anyone expected. Going in, the team had been concerned that the visible structures were cattle enclosures. Nothing could have been further from the truth – a small chapel became a hermitage, which grew into a previously undiscovered monastic complex. But it was the discovery of the burial of a saint, below the chapel altar, that made the Isle of Mull such an incredibly special dig.

5. The Celtic Spring, Llygadwy, Wales, Series 8, 2001
LLagadwy is a firm fan favourite, because of the controversy involved. The site seemed too good to be true, and, as it transpired, it was. A poor attempt to fake a multi-period site was rumbled by the team, after a head-scratching couple of days. Carenza’s anger, when she discovered a genuine Bronze Age sword had been deliberately reburied as part of the con, was a firm example of the team’s principles. Teamwork resolved the mystery, and produced a compelling programme.

4. Mosaics, Mosaics, Mosaics, Dinnington, Somerset, Series 10, 2003
The discovery of tesserae that had been spread across a farmer’s field at Dinnington seemed to suggest the existence of a fairly straightforward villa site. On excavation, however, Dinnington proved anything but. As well as being one of the largest villas recorded in Britain, the site revealed some of the most beautiful and well-preserved mosaics ever seen on the programme. The moment when a wet sponge was wiped across the surface of a mosaic to reveal the bright colours not seen for 15 centuries was truly special, and inspired the programme’s return to Dinnington for ‘The Big Roman Dig’.

3. Seven Buckets and a Buckle, Braemore, Hampshire, Series 9, 2002
Braemore originated as a live investigation of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Finding a large number of double burials – some of which were of an unusual, even unique type – was exciting enough; but the find of the series was an extraordinary set of Anglo-Saxon buckets that had been elaborately decorated and then buried with a tribal leader.

2. No Stone Unturned, Warburton, Series 14, 2007
This is the surely inevitable programme where we did not find anything! We opened more trenches than ever before and still did not manage to locate a single feature or find. At the end of Day 2, Tony commented that he hoped we would not find anything, as it would spoil the programme! Looking back, it is amazing that it took 14 series for this to finally happen.

1. Turkdean LIVE, Gloucestershire, 1997
Picking a top Time Team moment is pretty much impossible, but something has to be at number 1! There were plenty of sceptics when the production team first suggested a live broadcast. Live archaeology? It could not possibly work. Turkdean proved that live archaeology could be done, and that an interested audience existed. The programme laid the foundation for future live broadcasts, which would go on to include Buckingham Palace.

Many of these episodes can be viewed at: www.channel4.com/programmes/time-team.

Further information
Official Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/Time-Team/106806216059667.
All photos: Time Team unless otherwise noted.