Reviews of Time Signs (1991) and related work

Time Signs (1991Moving picture, 120 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Archaeological work in a valley in Devon, set to be flooded by a new dam under construction.

The English countryside is perhaps richer than any other in the visual evidence of the past, and yet it is a strange fact that we know more about historic castles and churches than we do about the small villages, hamlets and farmsteads where the majority of our ancestors lived.

Beautiful, meditative and sophisticated. It’s built in contrasting layers, with archaeological work proceeding from the surface—field walking and buildings abandoned due to recent urbanization—to the deep earth, narrated as it is performed but uncovering a sequence reversed in time. The accounts of history and prehistory thus proceed backward, all the way back to the clearing of the land in the Stone Age, described in the last episode, all while the valley is being flooded, the water moving up as the archaeologists move down. This is not a new trick; the Aswan High Dam buried a lot of fantastic archaeology in Egypt, as noted for instance in Medeltid (1968).

moving picture non-fiction fiction series

Time Team (1994Moving picture, 183 hours)

Seen in 2021.

This review covers the main series, not the specials aired separately, not the thematic highlight reels toward the end of the last couple of seasons of the original run, and not the 2022 reboot after a 10-year hiatus.

Three-day archaeological investigations at sites throughout the British Isles and occasionally abroad, from the Stone Age through WW2.

A strong concept, but not as strong as Time Signs. The basic idea is the same: There are plenty of sites in the isles, where national pride and strong patterns in education have produced broad interest in and awareness of the major historical eras. The sheer density and layering of history in the landscape is inspiring. For example, in “The Inter-City Villa” (a 2001 episode), the team discovers that an entire Roman villa’s foundations were wilfully destroyed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the most iconic engineer of the industrial age, in the building of the Great Western Railway through Berkshire. In “Garden Secrets” (2003), a woman is touchingly awed to learn more about an Anglo-Saxon skeleton (“Henry”) she dug up in her own garden. In “Tower Blocks and Togas” (2005), while the UK is fighting a war in Iraq, new presenter Tony Robinson is fascinated to learn that Roman troops from the Tigris—that is modern-day Iraq—participated in the military conquest of Iron-Age Britain; a brief air of The Heart of Darkness (1899).

Time Signs was narrated off screen by actor Ray Brooks, who is absent here. It was presented on screen by professor Mick Aston, who returns in almost every episode of Time Team along with Phil Harding, but doesn’t present the show. On Time Team, the experts are less prominent, but they still get to do their thing and explain how it’s done: Landscape archaeology, experimental archaeology, geophysics, historical illustration, archival research etc. The most impressive are the various pottery experts, and Margaret Cox; she can whip out amazing observations about little pieces of bone. There isn’t much theory, but theorists on site occasionally argue over the interpretation of the evidence. The depth of the subject matter is limited only by the arbitrary three-day premise and presenter Robinson trying to keep it breezy, which he does openly and well. The inclusion of bad weather, ordinary-looking people, disappointments, health problems and overall failures adds an important level of realism to the popular, commercial format. In “Steptoe Et Filius” (2002), the crack team takes half a day just to locate a water pipe placed two years before, despite a local archaeologist noting its location. The slices of archaeologist life dovetail with Time Signs’s deliberate focus on common humanity over “castles and churches”, though the latter are frequent targets here. The show’s success was so profound that by 2013, Robinson claimed—not on the show—that Time Team had become the biggest funder of field archaeology in the country.

All the episodes of the first season are based on letters sent by future viewers and culminate in local exhibitions on the third day of recorded work. This structure is relaxed starting in the second season, eventually resurfacing quite rarely. The sixth-season finale saw the first time the three-day limit itself was relaxed, in a double episode in the Caribbean, where the historians pay due attention to British slaves and indigenous people as well as British sugar-cane industry.

The earlier show was poetic with its frequent backlit shots, occasional slow-motion photography and carefully crafted off-screen narration. Time Team, which aired on the same channel, has none of those virtues or pretentions, but it adds to the layers of Time Signs because it’s long enough that technology improved a great deal along the way. It starts with slow dot-matrix printers, CRT screens and helicopter rides instead of drones, in an era where GPS and the Internet were not yet ubiquitous. Seasons 2 through 5 used a pair of opening title sequences where one of many composite shots is just a table of numbers, likely from a geophysical instrument, just before such things became taboo on popular television. The first drone appears in “Steam-Powered Mint” (1997) and is then called a “remote control helicamera”; its appearance there is appropriate since the episode is the first to range as close to the present as the industrial revolution in Birmingham. The great Victor Ambrus initially works with bottleneck glasses and an early digital tablet, stationary and wired to its pen before Wacom popularized wireless models; an Intuos 2 shows up in season 13. Chroma key is thankfully rare, but does make an awkward appearance in season 14. In “Back to Our Roots” (2003), a tenth-anniversary special for the 100th episode, it is obvious that the team itself has gotten as much older as its tools have gotten younger.

Tony Blair makes a celebrity appearance in “A View to a Kiln (2003)”. Robinson is a member of the Labour Party. Starting with a couple of trips to Wiltshire in the second season, Robinson makes himself a Blair-style New Labour advocate against “political correctness”, in the form of regulations protecting historical sites. In “The Saxon Graves” (1995) he tries to ensure that a local landowner can develop a grave site without having to pay for the requisite archaeological work. The landowner’s financial and marital difficulties, though likely real, add a touch of proto-reality TV. In the next episode, “The Lost Villa”, Robinson decries Carenza Lewis’s decision to consult the English Heritage Trust before digging into a major hitherto undiscovered site, because this might add one extra day to the proceedings. It doesn’t add an extra day. Robinson’s volatility, presented as a populist feature of the show, is the biggest difference of all from the original. In “Scotch Broch” (2006), he spends half the episode pestering a team of experts about the uninteresting question of whether a site represents a broch or some other type of stone tower; thirteen years of archaeology have not taught him patience.

In the following episode, the extraordinary “Finds on the Fairway” (2007), Robinson calls Mick Aston “agnostic bordering on atheist”, as if this should dampen the professor’s interest in Christianization. In a much earlier episode, “Prehistoric Fogou” (1996), Robinson insists on hiring a dowser as an alternative to legitimate geophysics, and he apparently thinks the dowser cannot control the movement of the rods in his hands. Aston is admirably firm and polite as the voice of scientific skepticism, but another dowser is hired in “Garden Secrets” (2003), to even less effect. Robinson’s credulity does not belong in a show about experts. “The Celtic Spring” (2001) is devoted to an open-minded examination of all aspects of a suspect site in Llygadwy, Powys, rejecting them all as fakes from various periods; an excellent episode. Superficially, it looks a bit like the opening of They Came from Beyond Space (1967), but real scientists find the truth in short order.

Aston, the show’s longest-serving expert returning from the original, wears less formal attire as a gag about crowd-pleasing television. He makes a mistake in “Village of the Templars” (1996), where digging gets underway before the team studies a medieval tithe map that would have revealed a better place to dig. Aston assumes responsibility for this error but his anger about it makes sense only with the explanation he gives: The team was in too much of a hurry. This hurry was of course a direct result of the revised concept, as well as the television production model where each day must have enough visual pleasure and action to fill the fifteen minutes between two commercial breaks. Similarly, in the episode after that, Phil Harding—who always looks and sounds amazing—is visibly crushed that the uncovering of a wreck, possibly from the Spanish Armada, has to be cut short because of the arbitrary deadline. In “Not a Blot on the Landscape” (2003), the team makes a whole series of bad decisions simply because they did not take the time to obtain a decent map from the archives ahead of time, as they would have done on a real job.

Stress is ever present. The title theme is so martial that at one point, it’s played to spice up a competition of longbow vs. crossbow. Time Signs, with its mellow flute, was a hit, but the shift in emphasis to Time Team’s spectacle and drums paid off. Between the two shows, now lost in the Channel 4 vault, there was an even more stressful pilot project patterned after a treasure-hunting quiz show. A 2012 retrospective feature article in Current Archaeology described that pilot for Time Team as follows: “Envelopes hidden at strategic points would set challenges along the lines of ‘find the Medieval high street in two hours’.” I am happy that crashed.

Reworked after its failed pilot, Time Team built up to real popularity around 1997, which saw the first of many Time Team Live events broadcasting from a dig site. The footage was edited down to a regular episode (“Roman Villa”, the last of season 4) with special T-shirts and an unusual amount of boom mics in shot. Season 6 (1999) has fans attending multiple digs on site. By 2008, the length of each season had tripled from 4 to 13 episodes, each one reaching 2.5 million viewers, eventually peaking at about 3.5 million. To sustain its success, Channel 4 invested £4 million into British archaeology over 20 years. According to the retrospective in Current Archaeology, “It is to the Channel’s credit that it did this despite much of that outlay being channelled into post-excavation work that never appeared onscreen”, though some of it does get mentioned in voice-over. Curiously, the work of re-filling trenches and tidying up ravaged lawns is never shown.

The rate of scientific publication was high, and under its artificial pressures haunting it like a ghost from the pilot episode, the show managed to give a pretty accurate impression of the discipline. This was not an undivided triumph for archaeology. Time Team had a painful ending, with Aston finally leaving the show over his objections to additional format changes that did further harm to scholarly fidelity. For example, a trip to the Channel Islands in 2011 shows a prurient interest in pretty Faye Simpson’s fear of old German munitions, and in the episode before that, Matt Williams gets to play at slavery, in the form of doing modern chores around the set without being allowed to speak. Robinson relishes the opportuny to push Williams around, but this is not informative. The 2012 season brought more pretty co-hosts. Having done the right thing and ensured a positive legacy for the show, Aston died just a few months after leaving it, preventing even a return to the initial, more gentle format.

Stewart Ainsworth and John Gater must be some of the least telegenic people ever to feature in a popular TV program, and they feature heavily, which is to their credit and the producer’s. The cameras do catch a lot of good character moments, like Robinson breathlessly prancing across a lawn in 1998 where Richmond Palace used to be, a scene that is then reshot from a distance—without a camera person following him on foot—for a concluding cutaway. My favourite scene is a simple one, also from 1998: Carenza Lewis tries to use a new comb, made with Viking techniques and materials, on Phil Harding’s magnificent sideburns. That was on Sanday, a place the Vikings invaded and kept because, the archaeologists believe, it was less shit than Scandinavia, and it certainly looks like Tolkienesque fantasy material. Tolkien’s fascination with the Saxons is a good mental background for the show.

There’s a lovely moment in “Reservoir Rituals” (2011), the 200th dig on the show, where digging is made possible at Tottiford by the draining of an artificial reservoir. There is no comment on it, but the situation reverses Time Signs, where digging was necessitated by the creation of an artificial reservoir. The biggest improvements of Time Team from the original are, in descending order of importance, the addition of Ambrus; the humorous mixture of exact technical terms with the very opposite (“blobs” in the landscape from “geophysing”; archaeologists who “started having a rummage”; a Roman who “wasn’t short of a bob or two” and could therefore build mosaic floors; a copper-alloy coin accurately described as a “grotty ass”, soil that’s “loose and quiet” as opposed to “scrunchy” to indicate a boundary, a fortified village that is “stuck on a pointy-out bit” meaning a cliff etc.); and finally, Harding’s whoops.

Usually overcoming its added flaws, the show succeeded in mixing a sincere celebration of real archaeology in all its forms with popular entertainment. It must have drawn more competent people to the discipline than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) or the pulps that film was ultimately based on, which followed Howard Carter’s rediscovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

References here: Mythbusters (2003), “The Fujimi Highland Is Fascinating” (2002/2004), Among Others (2011), Megapolis: The Ancient World Revealed (2020).

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