Time Team: the only true ‘reality’ show

Let’s start with a simple question: what is reality? Being an archaeologist, I like old things; so I turned to my copy of that first dictionary of the English language, by the great Dr. Samuel Johnson (my version is a later edition, first published in 1843 and re-published by Studio Editions of London, in 1994). Johnson defined reality as ‘Truth; verity; what is, not what merely seems.’ And it’s that last bit that’s crucial here: what is, not what merely seems. The fact is that all ‘reality’ television is about what merely seems. Yes, I’d agree those over-paid half-wits living in a phoney house somewhere in TV-land are ‘real’ in that they are playing-out a version of life that their producers think viewers want to see; but in no way can it be said to be anything more than what merely seems. Their antics have nothing to do with life as we all lead it, nor with any real truth, or verity.

But what about Time Team, you might ask: surely, that’s completely phoney? After all, it’s a dreamed-up television ‘format’ and as such bears no relation to any reality, let alone an archaeological one. But I would disagree for two reasons. In fact, I would go further than that: I believe that over its twenty-year existence Time Team has accurately reflected ourselves and our  times. Fifty years from now, social historians will come to regard it as an incredibly rich source on life as it was lived at the turn of the twenty-first century. But back to those two reasons.

The first is that the three-day format, originally conceived by its inventor, Tim Taylor, as a means of injecting urgency into the quest, has actually turned out to be a true reflection of reality. There are many professional archaeological units who are now used to being asked to do very rapid assessments of potential sites for development. Developers don’t want to find themselves lumbered with huge excavation expenses when a few well-placed trial trenches could tell them precisely where, and where not, to place their development. I’ve taken part in such assessment projects that have taken one or two days, let alone three. And then you’re lucky to get a week to produce the client’s report – at Time Team we are able to take very much longer; so we can await the arrival of radiocarbon dates, environmentalists’ results and so on.

The other objection I frequently hear is that the sites that Time Team investigate are somehow non-typical of Britain as a whole. Because so much of television today is phoney, people have come to believe that our sites are somehow better-than-average. Sadly this view has become widespread. But it’s wrong. The fact remains that there is at least one archaeological site in every square quarter-mile of Great Britain. Of course some of these are fairly mundane, but even so, every season reveals huge surprises. Who’d have thought, for example, that a brick-pit on the outskirts of Peterborough could have produced half a dozen Bronze Age boats? If I’d said that down in the pub two years ago, you’d have heard the laughter from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. But yes, it is true that we do get to work on some well-known monuments, but again, there’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary in that: every year dozens of famous sites are investigated or re-examined. Stonehenge is a case in point. No, there’s nothing unusual in that: it’s how knowledge increases. But think about it: there’s no point in protecting ancient places if you don’t understand what precisely it is you are trying to preserve: it would be like taking a jarful of smelly mud from the bottom of a pond on the off-chance it might hold a frog. A sensible person would try to find out what was in it.

Shude Mill cellar house

A cellar house at Shude cotton mill, Manchester. The basement floor of the late 18th or early 19th century building would have housed a worker’s family. The bedrooms would have been on the first floor. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, landlords would squeeze two or more families into these buildings.

Over the years, Time Team has taken on new challenges. We’ve started to do more modern sites, especially industrial ones. And I have to admit, they’re some of my favourites. They seem so very relevant to a country where until very recently politicians believed that we didn’t need to have a manufacturing sector. If only Mrs Thatcher had been able to watch our programme about Richard Arkwright’s factory at Shude Mill in Manchester (see my Modern Britain, p.158-9), she’d have realised that you can’t have huge financial services if there’s nothing productive for them to fund: they’ll end up fuelling a bubble, which of course is precisely what happened. Even today, most politicians don’t realise that history has vital lessons to teach us. For them, a week is a long time. And if Thatcher was bad, Blair was worse… But I hear a hobby-horse galloping into the room.

Television ‘reality’ shows are safe. You put a group of celebs (slebs I call them) into a room, a jungle or whatever, pay them heaps and turn on the cameras. The sleb magazines and websites will lap it up, and then, sadly, their readers will hang on everything they see there. That’s life, I’m afraid – and it’s a sad reflection on our education system. The point is, there’s no risk attached to the making of such programmes. OK, occasionally some sleb is bound to spout some racist or homophobic rubbish, but even that creates publicity and then the ratings soar. Again, it’s sad.

Another approach is to invent magazine formats. These are also safe – and even cheaper to make. You get a sleb or a semi-sleb to front it (and yes, you have to pay him or her, I concede) and then you visit excavations and university research projects in search of material. And you don’t even have to pay these people expenses – they’re all so keen to get their work screened on national television. The magazine series can then take much of the credit for their work (‘First Revealed on Ancient Britain Today!!!’). The result is certainly far more real than the reality shows, but again, it’s absolutely safe. There’re no risk attached. So for my money there’s also no real tension. It’s like watching an encyclopaedia. Myself, I’d rather be reading a ripping yarn.

Time Team at Warburton, near Wallingford, Cheshire.

The two diggers at the start of the Warburton project

But that’s not how Time Team operates. For a start, we’re not cheap. Even though our shows only last three days, there are three camera crews, a huge aerial platform, a helicopter, two JCBs, five or six on-line graphics computers, a mass of geophysics equipment, GPS survey instruments, etc. etc. In all, Production have to find hotel accommodation for about fifty people. And of course all those people and things have to be transported to wherever the site is – like 1200 feet up a hillside in the north Yorkshire Dales.

So Time Team can be risky, but in the process I would suggest we come face-to-face with something that obsesses modern people: the difference between success and failure. Again, in the popular press this is always a simple matter, especially in sport. But in life, what seems like failure can actually provide important insights for the people who have ‘failed’. For a start, they learn more about themselves and often gain inner strength. The disgraced ex-Cabinet Minister, John Profumo was a prime example who ended-up doing much good for society as a whole. Taken as a whole, his life was a great success.  Mindful of this, I’d like to give a brief example of a supposed Time Team ‘failure’ that I was involved with some years ago.

Time Team at Warburton, near Wallingford, Cheshire.

Empty trial trenches as far as the eye can see.

It was May, 2006 to be precise, I was asked to be the archaeological director of a programme to be shot in a part of rural Cheshire, near a little village called Warburton. We’d been asked to investigate three or so fields by two metal-detectorists who had found a huge number of Roman bronze objects (mostly coins and brooches) there. When taken out of their boxes, they covered two table-tops. Quite reasonably, they reckoned there was a site somewhere out in those fields. So we did geophys, but it showed little and John Gater reckoned it might have something to do with the geology. So what the hell, we started digging trenches. Anyhow, to cut a very long story short, we dug well over a hundred metres of trenches and didn’t find so much as a Roman post-hole. At the end of Day Three our biggest discovery was a three century-old lynchet – a low bank that had been formed at the point where the plough turns at the edges of a field.

Time Team at Warburton, near Wallingford, Cheshire.

Our only discovery: an eighteenth century plough lynchet – a thin spread of pale soil in the edge of the trench at the crest of the rise

So had Warburton been a failure? I personally don’t think so. For a start, the film itself was excellent. It showed the lengths archaeologists are prepared to go to – and the thoroughness of our work. But more importantly it demonstrated that there is a huge ‘background noise’ of Roman material out there in the British countryside. And the importance of that is quite simple. It shows that Roman objects were far more widely used and accepted by the average Briton than had been generally believed up until then. But did it also mean that the native Brits were far more Romanised than we had suspected? That was what we discussed at length in the pub, but sadly none of it found its way onto the screen: in those days ideas like Romanisation were considered a bit ‘difficult’ for the great British public. But it’s worth reconsidering now.

The thing is, I think we can see a similar process happening today. Hundreds of millions of Chinese regularly drink Coke and eat McDonalds burgers. Their wrappers must be almost ubiquitous in Chinese roadside ditches. So let’s imagine an archaeologist, working in a thousand years’ time, had just trowelled his way through the nuclear destruction levels of AD 2105. Next, he’d come across those bottles and wrappers – the future equivalent of our Roman coins and brooches. At that point he’d pause and scratch his head: were they evidence that the early twenty-first century Chinese population wanted to be American? Or are they simply telling us there was a gradual switch towards a more western diet? I know which I’d choose – and that applies to those Roman brooches too.

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