Three and a half years ago I wrote up a thank you to Tony Robinson and the crew who produced the TV series Time Team which ran for 20 years on BBC’s Channel 4. It’s a very rare thing for a TV show anywhere in the world to run for 20 years. In the post I talk about my thoughts on why it lasted so long in production and why it’s still popular enough to reemerge as a new series in 2021/22.
Most shows will build a formula for their success. Time Team wasn’t any different. Archeology is not India Jones. In many cases it’s looking at different colors of dirt in the ground and understanding the significance between brown and a lighter brown. How would you make that interesting?
Well, one way to make something interesting that otherwise feels boring is to create a sense of urgency. We see this all the time in advertisements. Stuff is on sale, but only this weekend! When we let the logical side of our brains think about it that stuff doesn’t have to only be on sale for a weekend. It could be on sale longer, but the time constraint creates a sense of scarcity.
That scarcity can also have practical implications from the perspective of the retailer. It’s not always just a marketing trick. It might be easier for the retailer to staff up for a weekend in response to many quick sales to turn over inventory than it would be if the retailer had to spread those sales out over a longer time period.
Time Team followed similar logic. The premise of the show was that a collection of archaeologists, historians, and other experts could surge and converge on a particular location and spend 3 days learning as much as they can about it. During those three days you’d see the land transform from turf and shrubbery to squared off trenches revealing walls, post holes, and graves. This creates a sense of urgency with the team and the helps keep the audience engaged. It also works out well for practical purposes as the archeology professors could find a three day gap from their scheduled classes to be able to contribute to a dig.
With only three days to spend, one of the great challenges for any site is to make sure that the people digging are digging in the right place. It’s important for the show that they find the different colored brown marks in the ground once they start digging. It’s also important to understand why those brown marks are significant. With only three days they can’t easily dig up a lot of acreage and reveal the whole site in context. Instead they would leverage a landscape archeologist and a geophysics team.
The landscape archeologist most present in the series is Stewart Ainsworth. When I talk about Time Team with my friends at work there’s more than one of them who’d love to have Stewart’s job. Stuart would make an initial contribution based upon existing landscape features and then spend the rest of the weekend understanding the larger context, digging through old maps, and experiencing the landscape of the past. There are entire episodes where it appears he spent the afternoon riding a bicycle around to explore the countryside. It sounds idyllic, but his job was significantly important to the team in helping them understand the context of the archeology they were working with.
After Stewart’s initial input the geophysics team would have a go. Geophysics isn’t a term we use a lot in the states, and it’s not a field that has a lot of demand here either. It’s the process of using electronic signals to see what’s under the ground. See here is a bit of a relative term. The results are not photographic quality. The closest thing I remember to seeing about it was in the book/movie of Jurassic Park at the beginning where they’re learning how to find dinosaur bones with an early technique of the day. Of course, the Jurassic Park version was highly fictional. The movie, and Time Team were both released the same year and so it’s a good time capsule of what was possible compared to what Hollywood was able to share with users. Throughout the 20 seasons the team led by John Gater never quite got to Hollywood fiction but they certainly advanced the field considerably more than the opening moments of Jurassic Park.
One of the other aspects of the show was that they would often involve re-creation, reenactment, or even immersion to help the audience understand the period or technology being highlighted in that episode. Sometimes this involves recreating the process for Roman coin stamping, pouring an iron wheel at a site early in the industrial revolution, or creating a kiln and firing pottery. In other episodes we saw archeologists live the life of monks, prisoners, or iron collectors. These immersions and reenactments help bring home the reality of earlier times and I always felt more appreciative of the lives we enjoy today.
One of the initial aspects of the show that threw me off was the ability of the archeologists to date things using the smallest shards of pottery. The pottery in Europe has been so well catalogued that people can look at a tiny piece of a pot and tell the audience with confidence where it came from and give a date range for its use.
I have watched a lot of British television over the years. I have seen some rather clever game shows from the country, but never have I seen a show that quizzes people on pottery. Certainly those who’ve developed such a skill must be dedicated to the task.
You’ll see this hinted at in the main title sequence of the show and while it seems odd at first it’s an amazing part of our humanity. On Time Team it’s fun to see it in action.
I recently fell ill with a stomach bug and that meant I was going to spend a lot of time in bed lying still as my body recovered. I’m pleased to report that I’m feeling much better. I can also report that I binged watched Season 10 which I would highly recommend as a starting point for anyone curious about the show.
The show aired during a time in my life when I was coming of age and the technology I’ve built my living from was coming of age as well. It’s neat to see generation after generation of the teams computers, software, and communications equipment evolve from season to season. The show adopted 3D computer generated graphics early on and these quickly transitioned from wireframes to more textured graphics. The computers they used do tend to be large clunky devices by today’s standard but that’s to be expected considering the show ended its initial run before ultrabooks and the MacBook Air changed the laptop market.
If you think a 20 year initial run is an impressive feat you’ll be pleased to learn that the show is being resurrected. Tim Taylor, the producer has decided to adopt YouTube as their primary means of distribution and they’re producing content teasing upcoming full length episodes while also encouraging the exploration of the past. The modern cast and crew have a great legacy to carry forward, and I’m excited to see how things shape up in the future.
Want to learn more? Head to timeteamdigital.com to learn more.
One thing not easily visible on the website is how to volunteer. I’m not sure if I’d make the cut, but if they ever need a digger from the states for a future episode, or just someone to do the dishes after the crew has a good meal, I’d be happy to volunteer.