The end of an era? The cancellation of Time Team presents both problems and opportunities for the development of the public perception of archaeology.
Whatever one may think about the format or content of the show it is not possible to deny that Time Team succeeded in exposing the general public to archaeology and its fascinating intricacies. Since 1994 Time Team has served to inform and inspire generations of people who may not have had any other exposure to archaeology. As such and at a time when Time Team is coming to an end I feel that it is important to comment upon the show’s educational value and to commemorate its success which has lasted for almost two decades.
In 2005 my first excavation experience brought me face to face with the ‘glamorous’ world of archaeology TV – Time Team’s ‘Big Roman Dig’ chose Llandeilo Roman Forts as one of its five featured sites which made up a series of 5 live broadcast programs over a week. I certainly got the digging bug and learnt first hand that things didn’t always go to plan whilst filming, especially when it’s being broadcast live – there are no second chances or re-takes!
And to make thing even more fun there were 8 trenches covering a combined excavated area of 534 square meters and all the trenches were spread over a very large field. There were many occasions where presenters and experts had 30 seconds to run from one end of the site to the other and sometimes they didn’t quite make it resulting in scenes showing out of breath excavators and presenters.
Then, last year (2011) I encountered the infamous Time Team again, this time at a Cardiff University run excavation of Caerleon’s recently discovered Canabae (PDF information booklet). Seeing a different side to the program I learnt more about the presentation of archaeology to the public and quite a lot about the complications surrounding creating a coherent TV show about an excavation which takes place over only three days, especially when it rains as much as it does in Caerleon! We also learnt a lot about the production and creation of the show from Raksha and Matt, two of the Time Team archaeologists who were camping with us in a nearby field.
As part of this little memorial to Time Team I have managed to speak to Jim Mower, producer of the show from 2007 to 2012, who has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about his thoughts on the team and the show’s value.
Q – It’s the end of an era but it was an era with a legacy; In your opinion what did Time Team do for the public perception of archaeology?
A – Primarily Time Team gave people a sense that their past was accessible in their own back gardens. Being about process the programme demonstrated how archaeologists think and solve problems. Of course, the technology used in Time Team, such as geophysics, was certainly new to audiences in 1993. I’ve heard lots of apocryphal stories relating to the fact that TTs coverage of techniques and technology has had a positive effect for the heritage sector – developers and members of the public undoubtedly have a much better understanding of what archaeologists do and why…
Q – As Time Team has evidently had a great impact on the popularity of archaeology do you think the public will lose interest in the subject once the show has stopped?
A – I think TT has created a critical mass… The British have a peculiar fondness for their past so no, I don’t think this interest will stop, it’s just that visibility of the subject (which isn’t taught in schools) will diminish. This is a worrying problem as public support for archaeology is vital if we’re to convince politicians that this fragile and finite resource is worth protecting…
Q – What has been the most memorable episode of Time Team that you have produced?
A – For me the most memorable episode was Westminster Abbey. I worked extremely hard to secure access to the site and negotiate with the many agencies and authorities with varying interests in the location. I’m sure you can imagine that mounting an archaeological dig yards from the Houses of Parliament wasn’t exactly easy! The Abbey authorities were a delight to work with and I ended up being given private tours of areas of the Abbey not accessible to the public. Archaeologically we achieved a great deal, including solid evidence of Edward the Confessors earlier Abbey building. Trying to film scenes with Phil as the public shouted at him from behind our temporary fencing was a challenge! Certainly it’s the achievement I’m most proud of from my time on the programme.
Q – What are you planning for the future?
A – Plans for the future are uncertain at the moment. I’ve a good number of projects I’d be keen to get off the ground, but it has become harder to get solid factual programming made in today’s television landscape. I’m excited by the potential of a key project being undertaken by the Ministry of Defence… but you’ll just have to wait and see if I can convince the broadcasters to go for it!
Q – Is there anything that you’d like to say to the fans of Time Team?
A – I’ve met many fans of Time Team over the years and found them to be intelligent, interesting people with a real passion for archaeology and a fondness for the programme. I’d like to thank everyone who has stayed loyal to Time Team for 20 years – we couldn’t have done it without you!
Thanks Jim and good luck to the rest of the team!