Review of Time Team (1994)

Seen in 2021.

I’ve watched everything through season 2 and scattered later episodes.

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

A strong concept. There is no shortage 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 experts get to do their thing and explain how it’s done: Landscape archaelogy, experimental archaelogy, geophysics, historical illustration, archival research etc. The depth of the subject matter is limited only by the arbitrary 3-day premise and Tony Robinson trying to keep it breezy, which he does very well. The inclusion of bad weather, ordinary-looking people, disappointments and overall failures adds an important level of realism to the popular, commercial format. Its success was so profound that by 2013, Robinson claimed 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. This structure is relaxed starting in the second season. The show ran for long enough that technology improved a great deal along the way, starting 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. The great Victor Ambrus works with bottleneck glasses and an early digital tablet, stationary and wired to its pen before Wacom popularized wireless models. It’s nice to see the tools improve as an extra layer of history.

Robinson is a member of the Labour Party, but starting with a couple of trips to Wiltshire in the second season, he makes himself an 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 archaelogical 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 and Lewis left the show after the following season.

Similarly, in “Prehistoric Fogou” (1996), Robinson insists on hiring a dowser as an alternative to legitimate geophysics, and apparently buys into the dowser’s obvious bullshit about not being able to control the movement of the rods in his hands. Mick Aston is admirably firm and polite as the voice of scientific skepticism, but this sort of populist provocation does not belong in a show about experts using proven, explainable techniques.

Aston, the show’s longest-serving expert, 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 hurry. This hurry was of course a direct result of 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 is visibly crushed that the uncovering of a wreck, possibly from the Spanish Armada, has to be cut short because of the arbitrary deadline.

If it’s true that Time Team, at its height, was the biggest funder of field archaeology in the country, this was not an undivided triumph for archaeology. Even so, and even under its artificial pressures, the show managed to give a pretty accurate impression of the discipline, far more so than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) or the pulps it was based on, which followed Howard Carter’s rediscovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

moving picture non-fiction series