Time Team returns: how an archaeological institution rose to dig again

For 20 years, Time Team was an archaeological household name – and, while the show came to an end in 2013, its popularity has soared once again during lockdown. In the last two months alone, over two million people in more than 40 countries have tuned into the Time Team Classics YouTube channel. Now the show is set to return with a pair of new digs to explore the secrets beneath our feet, as Felix Rowe reports.

Start

For millions of families around the UK and beyond, Channel 4’s flagship archaeology series, Time Team, was a Sunday teatime staple – as familiar, comforting, and intrinsically ‘British’ as crumpets and tea. Led by the inspirational Professor Mick Aston and featuring immediately recognisable figures like Phil Harding and Tony Robinson, the show evaluated hundreds of sites over the course of 20 series, several live shows, and countless specials, helping hugely to popularise the field of archaeology before it finally drew to an end in 2013 (see CA 274).

In the first lockdown of spring 2020, that Sunday tradition was revived with weekly ‘Time Team Teatime’ online watch-alongs of classic episodes, as well as sharing new interviews, behind-the-scenes commentaries, and Q&As with fans via the Time Team Official channel on YouTube (see ‘Further information’ box on p.54). Engagement soared in the ensuing months, both from those reconnecting with a programme as familiar as an old friend, and from others stumbling on it for the first time. Clearly an appetite still existed – not just for more insights, but for new fieldwork. A tantalising question kept returning: what could a revived Time Team achieve with the technology and techniques now at our disposal? Now – thanks to both the determination of Time Team’s creator and Series Producer, Tim Taylor, and the backing of thousands of fans on Patreon (a funding platform where supporters pledge monthly donations to projects in exchange for exclusive access to extra content and other benefits) – that question is going to be answered: Time Team has officially announced its return with two major digs, scheduled to take place this year if COVID-19 conditions allow.

Eight years after the long-running archaeology series stopped filming, Time Team is set to return with two new excavations scheduled for later this year. This photograph was taken at a recent catch-up with some of the Team: John Gater, Helen Geake, Carenza Lewis, Tim Taylor, Dani Wootton, Jim Mower, and Stewart Ainsworth, all of whom are involved in the new endeavour.

Time Team always had international appeal: during its 20-year run, the show was exported abroad, and today more than half its online audience is coming from the USA and Canada. Since launching on Patreon last December, Time Team has reached all three of its successive goals ahead of target, with ‘Patrons’ from five continents pledging their support. Appropriately, given the show’s famous format, 1,000 supporters signed up in just three days, but by the end of March their numbers had swelled to more than 5,000. A new target has been set to reach 7,000 Patrons by 18 July, which will expand the show’s accessibility to fans during filming, and in the research and development stage.

As the original show grew from an unlikely underdog to a national institution, each series in the original run was a product of its time – whether evaluating a Romano-British villa or the final refuge of druids, the tussle between continuity and change was at the centre of each episode. Time Team 2021 looks to reflect the way that people interact and engage with media today – since the last series was filmed, one considerable shift is that creators and audiences can now connect much more fluidly.

‘Fans can now engage in the show in ways that were simply unimaginable when we started out,’ Tim Taylor says. ‘There’s a real thirst for deeper information and greater access. Audiences want to go beyond the confines of a standard episode format. We can now offer that, with extra insights, technical information, masterclasses, and so on. We’re exploring the idea of greater interactivity with live-feeds during filming itself, putting the fans in the heart of the action.’

A changing landscape

Looking back at past episodes, Time Team’s natural charm is self-evident. Compared to the glitz and glamour of its contemporaries, this show was the antithesis: experts standing knee-deep in ditchwater, getting excited over a slight variation in soil colour.

Time Team’s popularity lay not only in the fascinating sites that it explored, but in the familiar figures who fronted it, including Mick Aston (1946-2013) and Phil Harding.

But Time Team also tapped into a major cultural change taking place: character-driven television, with unscripted banter, natural camaraderie, and an honest fly-on-the-wall approach gaining favour among millions. GPR surveyor Jimmy Adcock recently called it ‘reality TV with brains’, while Mick ‘the Dig’ Worthington – an excavator on early series who was later dubbed ‘Mick the Twig’ when he returned as a dendrochronologist – also noted how Time Team went against the grain, saying: ‘Documentaries up to this point tended to tell you what to think.’ Time Team did not condescend – rather, viewers felt part of the team, shouting at their television sets to join in with arguments over where to put the first trench.

The key to the show’s success, though, was a focus on the process and not just the end result. Theories were mooted, refuted, and sometimes rebooted. What might begin as a Roman bathhouse on Day 1 could easily become a Victorian cowshed by Day 3, and debates around the significance of a find could be as enlightening as the find itself. Equally profound was Time Team’s role in changing the public perception of archaeology. Lay people learnt about geophysics, stratigraphy, context, and ‘lumps and bumps’. Prehistorian Francis Pryor summed up Time Team’s legacy neatly in a recent interview with Tim Taylor on the Time Team Official channel. When the archaeologist first began work in the Fens, the locals joked that he must have got lost on the way to Egypt. Returning a decade or so later, they simply nodded sagely and said: ‘You must be here to do some geophys.’

above The success of the series led to excavations at hard-to-access sites – here, the programme’s creator and Series Producer Tim Taylor and Mick Aston stand on the lawn of Buckingham Palace during the Big Royal Dig in 2006.

At the heart of the programme was the feeling that even the most unassuming back garden could conceal incredible secrets just below the ground – whether a 1,700-year-old mosaic or an Anglo-Saxon burial hidden beneath an ornamental pond. This has been echoed in the huge spike of activity on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website during lockdown, as more time spent in gardens yielded a wealth of archaeological finds, from flint arrowheads to a Tudor-era coin hoard (see CA 372).

A lasting legacy

One of the more hotly debated aspects of the show was the three-day format. While this was, to some extent, born out of production necessities, members of the Team who came from a commercial archaeology background have noted that this fast pace replicated the realities of much day-to-day archaeology. A significant proportion of archaeological work is reactive rescue archaeology, with teams called in to quickly evaluate and record a site against a ticking clock, before it is lost forever to a housing development, a new train line such as HS2, or a natural threat like coastal erosion.

Phil Harding and osteoarchaeologist Jackie McKinley excavating graves at Westminster Abbey.

This speed did not compromise the integrity of the Team’s archaeological work: more than 200 published reports produced by Wessex Archaeology highlight the considerable contribution the show made to archaeological literature, and while the programme was filming it was second only to English Heritage as a funder of archaeology in the UK. Several sites have been scheduled as a direct result of the Team’s work, while their excavation at Blaenavon, near Pontypool, assisted in the industrial site achieving World Heritage Site status in 2000. Moreover, one of Time Team’s excavations abroad, investigating a Roman barge in Utrecht, is currently part of a wider application under consideration by UNESCO.

Francis Pryor and Phil Harding are pictured filming at the Roman fort at Brancaster (Branodunum), Norfolk, during Time Team’s final series in 2013.
Francis holds a sherd of pottery discovered on the site.

From the past to the present, the way in which the media – and social media – works today will enable Time Team to provide much greater understanding of the whole process of a dig, and fans are already engaging directly in the development of the new programmes. Patrons receive unique insights, watching over the shoulder of the team as they debate the merits of potential sites, as Tim Taylor describes: ‘Fans love the “Site Wrestles”. Team members, our professional colleagues, and even some Patrons pitch their site contenders and face the wrath of their colleagues, before being awarded marks out of ten. It can get quite heated at times! Geophysicist John Gater’s chief concern seems to be the site’s proximity to a CAMRA-recommended pub serving local real ale.’

Entertainment value aside, there is a serious point to these sessions. ‘When you are pitching a potential site to others,’ Tim says, ‘it really helps to focus your argument and ensure that it stands up to scrutiny. Tough questions make you reconsider your position, and this all feeds into the development.’

The new digs

Time Team is delighted to announce that two new excavations have now been confirmed: a huge Roman villa in Oxfordshire, and an Iron Age settlement in Cornwall. The villa sits on the Broughton estate owned by the Fiennes family, and was initially investigated by Oxford Archaeology (under the management of CgMs Heritage) after its location was discovered by amateur archaeologist Keith Westcott. It sits between the Fosse Way and Watling Street, within the influence of the major Roman town Corinium (modern Cirencester). Preliminary estimates suggest that this grand country residence could have been almost the size of Buckingham Palace, which would make it one of the largest villas discovered in Britain. The landscape it occupies is equally enticing, with evidence of features spanning from prehistory to the present 14th-century moated manor house and beyond, providing scope for future digs – there is clearly a fantastic story to tell about this site, and we are excited to help bring it to light.

Time Team also visited Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain, where Operation Nightingale and Wessex Archaeology had uncovered Anglo-Saxon burials (see CA 306 and 343).

The Iron Age site in far west Cornwall is equally intriguing, not least due to the presence of a fogou – a subterranean chamber akin to passages known as souterrains outside Cornwall (see CA 263). Time Team dug another fogou at nearby Boleigh in the early days, and an Iron Age settlement at Gear Farm on the Helford River. A tantalising teaser as to what this new site might reveal came in the form of a large sherd of high-status Gaulish Samian ware, which may hint at Cornwall’s ancient trade links with continental Europe.

When people sit down to watch the new Time Team, many of them will have actually helped to fund its return, which may well be a first for British television.

Original members of the team Carenza Lewis, Helen Geake, Stewart Ainsworth, and John Gater have already been confirmed to return with the new episodes, and more team members – both familiar faces and some new ones – are to be announced soon. Carenza Lewis, now Professor for the Public Understanding of Research at the University of Lincoln, has said: ‘It feels exciting, like those early days when Time Team was just starting out. I can’t wait to get started.’

The new digs will also make the most of technological advances that have been made since the show was last filming. Time Team’s industrial contacts are helping to create a fully immersive and interactive 3D model for each site, while John Gater and long-term GPR expert Jimmy Adcock are eager to show what their latest geophysics gear can do. Their findings will be combined with other techniques – including photogrammetry, LiDAR, and XRF analysis – to provide a comprehensive suite of tools to inform the excavation, while the Team will also be working closely with colleagues at the Universities of Birmingham, Nottingham, and Bournemouth to bring the latest academic approaches to each site.

below A group shot of the excavation team and production crew, taken early in Time Team’s history.
below A group shot of the excavation team and production crew, taken early in Time Team’s history.

COVID-19 allowing, filming is due to take place in the late summer and autumn of this year, with the shows airing on YouTube via the Time Team Official channel before the end of 2021 – watch for more information in a future issue of CA. Tim Taylor says: ‘It’s amazing to think that when people sit down to watch the new Time Team, many of them will have actually helped to fund its return, which may well be a first for British television.’

Carenza Lewis shares her memories of Time Team in its original format and what she’s looking forward to when it returns on the latest episode of the PastCast, presented by Calum Henderson and Carly Hilts.
Further information
You can support Time Team on Patreon by visiting this link. The Time Team Official YouTube channel can be found here. The Time Team Classics YouTube channel can be found here.