Digging with the Time Team

What is archaeology alongside a film crew like? Matthew Symonds found out.

There is something a bit different about a Time Team dig. Excavations normally have an air of calm, with people quietly trowelling, sectioning features or wrestling with drawing frames. The hustle and bustle comes at teatime, when diggers compete for the best biscuits and plot their evening’s entertainment. Not so with Time Team. Visitors are announced with a burst of walkie-talkie static, before being ushered onto a scene of intense activity. A fleet of buggies, land rovers, and minibuses ferry archaeologists, crew, and cameras around, while JCB drivers await the order to strip the topsoil from a new trench. Up above, cameras mounted on cranes capture arcing shots of the trenches. And yet the archaeology under way at the eye of this storm is instantly recognisable.

opposite page Phil’s trench: a Medieval burgage or house plot, and the outer defences at Kenfig.
Phil’s trench: a Medieval burgage or house plot, and the outer defences at Kenfig.

I first came across Time Team as an impressionable 15 year old, when the series made me realise that archaeology was not just something you read about in books – it was something you could go out and do. The programme also captured the excitement of a subject where success depends on research and preparation going hand in hand with good fortune. The Time Team approach to archaeology certainly struck a chord, and the programme has been going strong since 1994. Last summer I was invited to spend a day digging with them at Kenfig, in Southern Wales. This was to be the last episode recorded in Season 19, and despite approaching the end of a long shoot the team were in good spirits, and still enthusing about the previous site where they had to zip-wire onto an island.

Kings of the castle

Kenfig is a Medieval site in the Vale of Glamorgan. In the 1140s this was border territory, and a castle was founded on a low knoll overlooking the Cynfig River. This English enclave at Kenfig proved an affront to the Welsh, who repeatedly sacked the stronghold in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. Despite this chequered track record, a town flourished in a defended enclosure beside the castle, spilling out beyond its fortifications. Ultimately it was not the Welsh but sand that did for the Medieval settlement: the dunes gradually overran the defences, until by 1665 only a single cottage remained.

BELOW Tim Taylor and Phil Harding talk tactics at Kenfig.
Tim Taylor and Phil Harding talk tactics at Kenfig.

Arriving on site for the second of the trademark three days I was met by Tim Taylor, Series Producer and unseen mastermind of Time Team. Despite not appearing on screen, he is central to the show’s success, developing the original format and guiding events on the ground. Proud of the extent to which Time Team has permeated popular culture, Tim noted that large numbers of under- graduate students credit the show as their inspiration to study archaeology. I had already been shown a detailed project design that summarised all the earlier work at this site, and explained how the research aims of the Time Team excavations fit into regional research frameworks. Tim also pointed out that the team is essentially a survey unit, backing up John Gater’s magnificent geophysical surveys (see CA 252) with trial excavation.

And then it was on to the current trial excavation. I was put in a trench with Raksha Dave, where geophysics predicted a road and building frontage. Previous experience has taught me that seemingly promising deserted Medieval villages can prove disappointing. This was different. The sand lifted away cleanly to reveal a hard metalled surface and rubble wall. Once the cameras were gone, ranging poles and a planning board appeared as Naomi Hall from Wessex Archaeology tackled the recording work. Meanwhile, more and more spectators were silhouetted against the skyline of a dune overlooking the site. They looked like a Zulu pastiche, but came armed with rugs and picnics, determined to enjoy the spectacle, no matter what the Welsh weather threw at them.

Once the cameras have moved on, the ranging poles come out, as the trenches are carefully recorded.

Lunch brought an opportunity to chat with the rest of the team, and a refreshing change from the cheese sandwiches usually an excavator’s lot. Matt Williams and Alex Langlands engaged in good-natured rivalry about who would win their afternoon showdown, when they were competing to fire flaming arrows. Afterwards a full meeting brought everyone up to date about progress. A coin that had just been discovered in Phil Harding’s trench caused particular excitement. The assembled experts were quizzed on its likely significance, and a strategy developed on the spot.

The day ended with a trip to the incident room in a replica Medieval hall over the Prince of Wales pub. Here the regulars reflected on what had happened in front of the cameras. The director went for five takes – partly scripted and partly ad-libbed – and it was fascinating to watch the scene evolve. As Tony Robinson found new ways to inject humour, the landlord of the Prince of Wales kept the Time Team tankards charged. ‘The archaeology is great’, Raksha chipped in as her contribution to the end-of-day scene. Yes it is.

Dig by Wire – 22 Jan Gateholm, Pembrokeshire
A Village Affair – 29 Jan Bitterley, Shropshire
The Drowned Town – 5 Feb Dunwich, Suffolk
The First King of Racing – 12 Feb Newmarket, Suffolk
Chapel of Secrets – 19 Feb Beadnell, Co. Durham
A Copper Bottomed Dig – 26 Feb Swansea
The Only Earl is Essex – 4 Mar Earls Colne, Essex
Secrets of the Dunes – 11 Mar Kenfig, Bridgend
Rome’s Wild West – 18 Mar Caerleon, Newport
How to Lose a Castle – 25 Mar Crewkerne, Somerset
King John’s Lost Palace – 1 Apr Clipstone, Nottinghamshire
Time Team Guide to Burial – 8 Apr compilation
Time Team Greatest Discoveries – 15 Apr compilation