Time Team Series 20, my Fourth Episode. Reflections: Research and Development

Yes, the making of a Time Team does produce a huge amount of paperwork, and yes, we all get fed-up with it. BUT (and I mean it!) we couldn’t do without it. In actual fact I would rate the preparation of the archaeological paperwork as important as the health-and-safety assessment: if we’re going to be asked to dangle from a zip-wire or find our way deep into a dis-used mine-shaft, then I need to be quite certain there’s a serious purpose behind it. And that’s where the programme research comes in. I was aware that it didn’t come across very well on the screen, as rather too much emphasis was given to the zip-wire and other silliness, but that dig at Gateholm in the last series did actually produce some very important academic conclusions: the so-called Dark Age monastic site, a sort of south Welsh Tintagel, was proved to be nothing of the sort. It turned out to be a prehistoric and Romano-British settlement and in a part of the world where the Roman presence wasn’t believed to have been very influential. So that was a very important result – and I can think of dozens of others, including the one we’ve just filmed. I can’t let the cat out of the bag, but in Phil’s trench they found a piece of pottery that might just have re-dated a large part of a castle and in another trench we revealed details of the site’s wholly unexpected origins. But sorry, but you’ll have to wait till the new year to discover more (you can be such a tease, Francis).

In my last Reflections at the end of the shoot I stressed Time Team’s reality. This time I want to make a plea for its research and authenticity.  Put another way, we don’t just strut around and pose: there’s an important purpose behind what we do and the archaeological and even touristic benefits can be long-lasting. I strongly suspect that our latest exploit in Northern Ireland will lead to a an important research report, hugely improved on-site display boards, a beefed-up website and hopefully greatly increased visitor numbers – which in turn will benefit the local community. But none of this could happen if we didn’t do very thorough research before each dig. That’s the job of Jim Mower (himself an established archaeologist), our Development Producer: he sifts through literally hundreds of sites, suggested by professionals and amateurs all over the British Isles. He has to judge which have the best potential. Jim is guided by two all-important considerations:  first, they must be archaeologically exciting and, second, they must tell a good story. Without the latter you wouldn’t have a TV show.

And that selection process involves the drawing-up of a lengthy Project Design (PD). This is mostly Jim’s work, but it will also involve local archaeologists, the programme’s Archaeological Director (often my role), with lots of input from the Series Producer and other high-ups on the TV side. It can take two or three weeks to produce a good PD. The PD forms the ultimate basis for the script, which is written by the film’s Director, again with help from Jim, myself (if it’s one of my shows) and the programme’s Producers. I’m aware that the script is mostly relevant for the first day or two, but without it none of the main archaeological research goals would be achieved, because there’s a huge danger that the cameras only follow what is visually exciting and often rather ephemeral, as I’m afraid we saw at Gateholm. The PD and the script are essential when we’re digging a protected site such as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, where the law of the land demands that we stick to certain rules: no standing walls and other in situ relics may be disturbed and our trenches mustn’t  go above a certain limit. At the Irish castle site it was 100 square metres and I’m delighted to say that in the event we made our film and achieved our archaeological objectives using less than half our allocation. Of course that won’t appear on the screen, but I was well chuffed, because professionally, ethically and personally, I won’t knock unnecessary holes in preserved ancient sites; but in this instance I think we did the site and the public a big favour. And again, what we did was authentic and well researched. And why? Because of that dreary paperwork – and a man called Jim Mower, working away quietly behind the scenes. Thanks Jim!

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