Digging the past

25 Jun

When I was a kid I didn’t want to be a filmmaker, a writer or an artist. I wasn’t yet tainted by suggestions of the legal profession either. No, I wanted to be an archaeologist – and a dinosaur hunter at that. I was completely captivated by stories of gigantic creatures surviving in the soil as skeletons, and I spent hours telling folk about my plans.

By the time I left school at 18 I was set for a law degree, and by the time I started uni at 19 I was doing a drama degree.

But the thrill of digging the past hadn’t evaded me completely, and as part of my undergrad course I did a year of archaeology, before I found myself woefully arts-based and unable to get my head around the particular scientific leanings of that particular -ology. While my grades ensured I erected my tent firmly in the drama and film camps, I’ve never been able to shake my love of the subject, and so subscriptions to archaeology magazines continued to flap through the letterbox until very recently (a temporary hiatus only). Much of my artwork and photography continues to focus on the past, and indeed my publishing company specialises in a sort of literary archaeology (which is much less scientific, but no less structured).

More than anything though, my affection for archaeology has been sustained not by magazines and books – which are grand, but lack an immediacy and accessibility beyond the closed ranks of the professional or student – but by television, and one show more than any other reigned supreme – TIME TEAM.

The first episode aired in January 1994 on Channel 4 and quickly found its way into the national conciousness. Tony Robinson (best known then for his historically themed appearances as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and Baldrick in Blackadder, both on the BBC) fronted the show and proved a perfect interface between plebian and academic. But it would be the camaraderie between Robinson and digger Phil Harding (chap with huge sideburns and wonderful west-country accent) and overseer Professor Mick Aston (huge white beard, brightly coloured jumpers) which made us all want to dig with them.

I’d been watching since the earliest episodes, and remember the genuine thrill of the live Turkdean excavation in August 1997 when at the very end of the live dig, new geophysics results proved  the site to be bigger and more important than previously expected. I’m not sure they ever surpassed those dizzy heights, though as time went on they became household names.

The three-day excavation policy proved controversial, with the presence of JCB diggers being a particular bone of contention, and was an easy target for Eddie Izzard that same year when he took over Channel 4 (what do you mean you don’t remember Channel Izzard?!). Eventually though, Channel 4 tried to get hip, introduced a sexy new female presenter, incurred the wrath of viewers and production crew alike, and then killed off the beast. One can only hope that series originator Tim Taylor’s new project Dig Village can pick up where Time Team left off.

Professor Mick Aston’s presence was an integral part of Time Team, with his wisdom and insight guiding the show. He looked every part the eccentric professor, and sometimes incurred the wrath of his colleagues, but he was also humble onscreen, admitting defeat when he got it wrong, and never talking down to the audience at home. His continuation following a broken leg (still turning up on screen, physically limited, with leg in plaster) and a brain haemorrhage demonstrated his dedication to the outreach of the programme and his work in general. His sudden death at the age of 66 is a sad blow for archaeology in Britain, and educational television.


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