‘I thought that it was all theatre, cooked up in the edit suite… but it really is as chaotic as it looks!’ Dr Gus Casely-Hayford joked on a sunny late September day in 2021. Sitting in a field of turnips in rural Oxfordshire, Gus – the inaugural Director of V&A East – was reflecting on his very first experience of filming a Time Team excavation. Just two weeks earlier, he had been exploring an Iron Age souterrain, or fogou, in Cornwall (of which more below), and now the Team were investigating the site of a large Romano-British villa on the estate of Broughton Castle, near Banbury in Oxfordshire.
Despite the rural tranquillity of the setting, the scene before him was a hive of activity, with almost a hundred people darting in all directions, variously armed with trowels, cameras, metal-detectors, drones, or walkie-talkies. This flurry of movement was the result of months of careful planning coming to fruition, with each individual purposefully setting out on a specific task – which, of course, needed to be accomplished over the traditional three-day span.
The digs also marked a significant milestone, representing the first new Time Team excavations in a decade. First airing in 1994, Time Team quickly became a Sunday teatime staple and a celebrated British institution. The flagship Channel 4 series produced 20 series, over 230 episodes, and countless spin-offs and specials, before finally drawing to an end in 2014 (see CA 274). Its success saw Channel 4 essentially ploughing £4 million directly into British archaeology during the show’s run, and the post-excavation reports that were produced by Wessex Archaeology represent a significant body of research that is a remarkable archaeological legacy in itself.
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic posed serious problems for archaeological fieldwork, though, it sparked a global renaissance for Time Team, as locked-down fans began to reconnect with old episodes, or to discover them anew on YouTube. Today, the Time Team Classics channel (see ‘Further information’ on p.29) receives two million views a month. The path was set for a long-anticipated return – and one that would take a thoroughly 21st-century approach, actively involving fans in the process (CA 375). Thanks to the support of thousands of fans worldwide on Patreon (an online funding platform where supporters, or ‘patrons’, pledge monthly donations to projects in exchange for exclusive access to extra content and other benefits), Time Team is currently premiering two brand new, three-part episodes on YouTube. And that’s just the start, with two new partnerships set to shed light on Sutton Hoo (CA 383), and more potential sites currently in development for further excavations this year.
The new approach brought an entirely novel set of challenges, in sharing the production process as much as the finished ‘product’. Previously, the viewer was first introduced to the site only when watching the completed episode on TV. The Patreon model flips the script entirely, with fans directly interacting in development from Day Zero, even helping to decide which sites to take forward to excavation. One fan likened it (with evident glee) to ‘flying the plane while still building it’. Patrons also enjoyed unrivalled behind-the-scenes access during the excavations, with a daily virtual ‘walkabout’ of the site, Q&A sessions with the team, and 3D models to explore.
The first episode, set in Cornwall, captures the nervous excitement of getting the band back together. It was like the first day back at school after the long summer holidays: old friends reuniting and sharing trench talk, while new bonds are being forged with fresh arrivals, revelling in wide-eyed anticipation of experiencing a ‘Time Team’. Everyone was finding their feet, settling into a rhythm – but come Dig Two in Oxfordshire, the process was already starting to feel like a well-oiled machine. So, what did the Team find?
The Cornish fogou at Boden
Time Team has a long-standing association with Cornish prehistoric archaeology. In 1995, the Team investigated the site of another fogou (a kind of underground, dry-stone structure) at Boleigh, and six years later they uncovered the remains of a prehistoric settlement complete with several roundhouses at Gear Farm, just a stone’s throw from their current site at Boden on the Lizard Peninsula.
The Boden fogou is under the thriving custodianship of Meneage Archaeology Group (MAG), led by James Gossip of Cornwall Archaeological Unit. The site has yielded some interesting finds over the years, including a bronze dagger (now held at Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro) and sherds of imported pottery originating from the distant shores of North Africa. To build on this, one of the key aims for Time Team’s dig was to get a greater understanding of the fogou’s plan and extent. Earlier excavations by James Gossip and MAG have unearthed a significant L-shaped passage – but, in keeping with other contemporaneous fogous that open out into larger chambers, there was evidence (including partially revealed cavities) to suggest that these subterranean spaces once extended further into the surrounding area. In one section, excavated steps had been cut into the bedrock to descend deeper underground beneath the field.
A wider (though, by nature, more elusive) aim was to shed further light on the original function of fogous – a debate that has raged since these mysterious spaces were first investigated by Victorian antiquarians. Were they intended as a defensive refuge, a spiritual space, or simply a place for storing food? They certainly represent monumental feats of engineering. Witnessing one first-hand and walking its passages, you really appreciate how its construction involved shifting tons of earth, lifting huge capping stones, and selecting fine stones according to their aesthetic qualities. As James Gossip highlighted, the endeavour that went into its construction and the peculiarities of its design clearly imply a status that’s elevated beyond a purely utilitarian purpose alone.
Classicist Natalie Haynes (who joins Gus as one of Time Team’s new presenters) has remarked on the sense of clearly defined spaces within the fogou, describing it as a ‘liminal’ moment, an ancient Greek idea evoking the threshold (physical, symbolic, or spiritual) from one world into another. Do functional practicality and some deeper ceremonial purpose need to be mutually exclusive, though? Could a fogou be both cathedral and grain store? Throughout history, a bad harvest could be disastrous for any community; grain was quite literally the giver of life – a valuable resource that demanded protection, respect, perhaps even reverence.
It could be prescient that a broken quern stone (used for grinding cereal) was discovered during Time Team’s dig, just metres from the fogou, inside a deep pit that has speculatively been identified as a ‘ritual shaft’ or well. One theory is that important items were deliberately deposited into the ‘well’ as offerings in a symbolic or spiritual gesture, as was common practice in the ancient world.
There were more surprises to come: showing up, clear as day, in John Gater’s new geophysics results was a rigidly square-shaped anomaly, stamped among the swirly, fluid curves that characterise this prehistoric landscape. Everything about its uniform, ordered, rectilinear footprint screamed: ‘Roman’. The word ‘temple’ was mooted tentatively in hushed tones – such a structure would be a significant discovery anywhere in Britain, but particularly rare and ground-breaking in far west Cornwall. Evidence of late Roman influence had already been discovered on the site, including a colossal sherd of Gaulish Samian-ware – but you will have to watch the full episode to discover whether Time Team was able to settle the question of this strange geophysical anomaly.
The villa at Broughton
As for the second site, that of a Romano-British villa in rural Oxfordshire, its story began long before Time Team arrived on the scene. In the early 1960s, a farmer had made the surprising discovery of a lead-lined limestone sarcophagus, buried in a gently sloping field in Broughton. The burial was that of a woman, late Roman, evidently of high status, and was unlikely to have occurred in isolation. As local metal-detectorist and amateur archaeologist Keith Westcott correctly postulated, there was probably a wider accompanying context, perhaps even a private residence nearby. Sure enough, geophysical surveys in 2017 indicated the presence of a probable villa – something that was confirmed by excavations carried out by Oxford Archaeology under the management of CgMs Heritage. It was now clear that the Broughton Castle estate was home to the remains of a large courtyard villa that could be as much as 85m square – dimensions that would make it one of the largest found in Britain, comparable to those at Chedworth and Woodchester in Gloucestershire, Bignor in Sussex, and Brading on the Isle of Wight.
Keith was one several people from the original discovery and subsequent evaluation of the Roman villa who was actively involved in Time Team’s excavation, joined by members of the Itinerary Triangle History and Archaeological Society (ITHAS). Senior archaeologist Paul Booth, recently retired from the Oxford Archaeological Unit, who co-wrote the original evaluation report, also returned with his trowel, and the excavation was supported by professionals from Cotswold Archaeology, led by site director Neil Holbrook, who has excavated many a Roman villa with Time Team over the years. As Neil has previously acknowledged, Time Team’s investigation of Cotswold villas (including at Turkdean, Waltham Field, Withington, and Cirencester) represents a valuable case study of Roman Britain.
As it turned out, it was a wonder the villa had not been discovered earlier. While walking the site on the eve of excavation, we found the ground was littered with surface finds – mainly small sherds of pottery, including a lovely piece of Samian ware that looked as shiny and fresh as the day it was smashed and discarded some 1,700 years earlier. There was also plenty of CBM (ceramic building material), and even some larger faced stone.
For this dig, a key aim was to resolve the plan of the villa. We hoped to establish whether the quadrangle impression (visible to the naked eye) was indeed comprised of four enclosed ranges, as suggested by some evidence – or, as the GPR results and subsequent excavation indicate, was in fact characterised by an L- or U-shaped set of ranges, with at least one side either left ‘open’ or completed by a border. It is useful to remember that any building in use for a century or more – as the Broughton villa apparently was – will expand, contract, and transform with various alterations over generations. This longevity and shifting outline was seemingly confirmed by the coin distribution. Distinct zones of increased activity according to timeframe suggest a discernible shift in focus that might represent areas in use at different stages – perhaps an earlier structure falling into disrepair to be replaced with a new one.
During the dig, further clues emerged: box-flue tiles from a hypocaust system; flat and semi-cylindrical imbrex and tegula (overlapping roof tiles), of a type still seen today across the Mediterranean; and even a tile that had been marked with a dog’s paw print when a wandering canine stood on it while the surface was still wet. There were also some interesting, but most likely post-medieval, finds that were nonetheless in keeping with the region’s traditional economy of sheep-rearing: a small crotal bell and a horn, possibly used by a shepherd to herd the flock or for hunting.
Time Team’s investigation was equally concerned with the broader estate economy: how the principal villa structure functioned and related to other features or ancillary buildings within its wider context. During the dig, various finds hinted at the usual trappings of Roman luxury and leisure: painted wall plaster, glazed windows, underfloor heating, tesserae from a mosaic floor. Then there were more personal items, such as a small and delicate decorated copper-alloy disc, later revealed in post-excavation to be the back of a hand-held mirror. Yet, while country villas were built to impress and they reflect the wealth, status, and power of their owners, the archaeology at Broughton supports the notion that they simultaneously functioned as working estates, as much devoted to agriculture or other more industrial practices.
The Romans’ knack for advanced water engineering is well documented, and landscape archaeologist Stewart Ainsworth’s investigation of the surrounding topography also revealed intriguing earthworks that appeared to be a complex of terraced ponds or pools running down the slope, above and adjacent to the villa. Though perhaps designed with aesthetics in mind, the system seemed to be much more than just ornamental. Supported by LiDAR, geophysics, and excavation, a picture emerges of pools at differing levels connected by channels and tapped off to serve the various functions of the villa complex – the kitchens, a bathhouse, and so on. But it could be that the estate’s main economy – at least in the latter phase of its lifespan – was centred around this system of water-management, perhaps facilitating a fishery or some other industrial practice. It is too big a question to be resolved conclusively in the allotted three days, but the results had laid valuable groundwork for further investigation. Adding further colour to the picture is the exciting discovery of a distinctive deposit of animal bone, apparently placed quite deliberately into one of the lower pools, which may have had some ‘ritual’ significance.
New tech and the Data Dome
Returning to excavate new sites was exciting enough, but Time Team’s new digs have also provided a real showcase for the technology now at the fingertips of today’s archaeologists, including drone-mounted photogrammetry, GPR, LiDAR, portable XRF analysis (which was invaluable in helping to identify an extremely corroded coin at Boden), and 360º cameras. Many of these technologies have been available for a while, but they are becoming increasingly portable and accessible, meaning more data can be processed instantaneously on-site, allowing instant feedback and opportunities to respond to and test results.
Together with this cutting-edge kit, a comparatively low-tech but invaluable addition to our archaeological arsenal was the flotation tank marshalled by environmental archaeologist Naomi Sewpaul. Essentially, flotation is a process for separating and filtering out different constituents from a sample of earth, that might otherwise be undetectable to the naked eye through excavation alone. This can include surprisingly large sherds of pottery or bone, but equally minuscule fragments of pottery, or ‘ecofacts’ like individual carbonised grains, that can provide useful environmental information.
‘It’s not washing the soil,’ Naomi explained. ‘I prefer to call it excavation through water. It gives archaeologists another roll of the dice.’ This powerful tool is typically confined to post-excavation analysis in the lab, and it is less common to have a tank set up on-site, floating the soil samples in real-time direct from the trenches. It’s this as-it-happens, in-the-moment interaction between experts and specialisms that makes Time Team such a unique proposition. Ideas and theories can be mooted, challenged, and tested right then and there.
It is crucial to have a clear process for the handling, cataloguing, and storage of finds unearthed during a dig, and such clarity is no less necessary for the amount of data generated. Any data is worthless unless it can be readily accessed and interrogated and, of course, real humans are still required to interpret and make sense of the information. Enter the ‘Data Dome’, Time Team’s new mobile information hub – a nerve-centre where data collected throughout the dig is brought together, assimilated, and visualised on a large touchscreen and rugged tablets (supplied by Dell Technologies).
Visualisation has come on in leaps and bounds too, and fans on Patreon have had the opportunity to explore 3D models shared on the Sketchfab platform, which they look at, interrogate, and fly-through themselves. One of the most touching moments of the dig weekend was when Lord and Lady Saye and Sele, the current custodians of Broughton Castle Estate, paid a visit to the site with their son, Martin Fiennes, to witness a virtual ‘flyover’ of their Elizabethan moated manor house, which had been captured earlier by aerial mounted photogrammetry.
From its very first episode, Time Team has always showcased the newest technology. In 1994, that meant on-site ‘geofizz’ results from a dot-matrix printer in the back of a van. In 2021, it means donning a virtual-reality headset to explore the site and peel back layers of data. Time Team fans have already shifted from viewers to active participants. It won’t be long before fans all around the world will get to explore an entire Time Team archaeological site like never before, virtually from the comfort of their own homes. As Neil Holbrook said with wonder, standing in the Data Dome and wearing his VR goggles: ‘I guess this is the future of the past.’ What an exciting prospect that is.
Podcast On the latest episode of The PastCast, Time Team’s ‘geophys whizz’ John Gater discusses the return of the show – what’s changed and what’s stayed the same, some of the highlights of the newest digs, and the vital role of the pub in the show’s production schedule. Listen to the episode here.
The new episodes are available worldwide on the Time Team Official YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/c/timeteamofficial), while additional interviews, 3D models, insights, and live events can be found on the member platform Patreon.
Plans are already under way for 2022’s excavations, with a list of potential sites that patrons will feed back on through online ‘Site Wrestle’ sessions with the Team. Time Team has also forged two partnerships that will help to shed new light on Sutton Hoo: working with the National Trust, Time Team has conducted a new, high-tech geophysics and aerial survey of the Royal Burial Ground and adjacent cemeteries; in addition, Time Team is working with the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company to film their reconstruction of the famous ship at the centre of the burial.