Time Team: The 20th Series Starts next Sunday – And We’re Going Down with a Pang … or should that be BANG!

The first episode of the 20th, and last, Time Team series is going to be screened next Sunday, January 6th at 5.25 on Channel 4. As is the usual practice of broadcasters, they’re going to be showing the best one first – that way, you catch as many viewers as possible. As far as I was concerned last year, the film we’re all going to see next Sunday was my last episode; we filmed it in the late summer and then we all went our separate ways, some of us nursing slightly thick heads after the Wrap Party, just outside King’s Lynn. In fact, it wasn’t just my last episode, it was THE last episode. And did we go out with a bang!

If you want to see what I wrote at the time, look at the four posts I did back in August, under the heading ‘Time Team Series 20, My Sixth Episode’.  But as you’ll discover shortly, they only told half the real story. Now I don’t want to give anything away, but this was a most remarkable shoot – in my mind it’s up there with the really good ones: the navvy camp at Risehill, in Yorkshire, the strange skull-duggery at Llygadwy, in south Wales and that remarkable dig behind the German lines on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Gateholm was good, if under-realised, and at least two others from the 20th Series were up there with the great ones – including that remarkable investigation of the WW1 Machine Gun Corps training camp at Belton House, near Grantham; but it was a great shame the channel screened it so early on Remembrance Sunday afternoon/evening: everyone I’ve since spoken to managed to miss it (including myself!).

Time Team: Brancaster

The view from the Roman fort today. In Roman times the sea would have lapped a few yards from the camera; this was where the stones used in the fort would have been unloaded. Today the coastline has moved just beyond the buildings on the horizon.

To be honest, I was rather daunted by the task that confronted us: for a start, Roman military archaeology is unbelievably complex and being a mere prehistorian, I knew it could easily be a mess-up, unless I listened carefully to what the many experts around me were saying. Fortunately, David Gurney, the County Archaeologist for Norfolk, was the main expert and he and I had worked closely together in the very early days of Flag Fen – in fact he was a part of the small team (six of us, I think) who did the initial dig there, back in 1982. A small select band, if ever there was one. So I had good advice, but I also knew that we had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we had to make something of it.

But there was something else, too. The site in question was a Scheduled Ancient Monument, which meant that it was protected by Act of Parliament. Scheduling, as it’s known, doesn’t mean that archaeologists cannot do anything, but it does mean that whatever they do must have specific, clearly defined, aims, which must be approved by English Heritage – the site’s guardians, as set out by Parliament. So our research objectives were all about understanding the site better, in order to assure its survival into the future. Put another way, you can’t protect something if you don’t know what it is, or was. And as this is the 21st century, the various research themes, plus the detailed methods we used to achieve them, were all written down and agreed, in a document known as a Scheduled Monuments Consent form. I was the designated Archaeological Director, and at the bottom of this document was my signature. So if things went wrong, and we didn’t do what we said we’d do, I’d be the one banged up for life in the Tower of London, or Dartmoor. Worse still, my reputation would be in tatters.

Anyhow, the dig started and it went very well. But while trenches were being opened, John Gator and his merry men (and women) were carrying out an extraordinary rapid and detailed geophysical survey. By now readers will know that I’m a huge fan of John and his small team, but this time they were to excel themselves. Now again, I can’t say what it was they revealed towards the end of Day 2, but believe me it was astonishing. Mind-blowing, in fact.

Meanwhile, Phil and his group in the main trench were digging ever-deeper and finding extraordinary stuff as they worked. But apart from the initial stripping of the topsoil (which had been disturbed earlier in the last century by shallow ploughing), our Scheduled Monuments Consent agreement specifically forbade us from digging any archaeological feature with a machine. And just as well they did, or we’d have missed some extraordinary finds – but again, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the film to see what they were. What made these finds remarkable was that they were all Roman – and military – but were found amongst stone rubble that had once formed the core of massive stone walls. These had collapsed in the 18th and 19th centuries when the nicely-dressed masonry blocks were removed to be used in houses and farm buildings. Bear in mind that this part of Norfolk doesn’t have good building stone; so it made sense for locals to pinch the stuff brought here in the late third and fourth centuries AD, by ships employed by the Roman Army. You can still spot Roman masonry today in some older buildings round about the fort.

Time Team: Brancaster

Phil Harding stands beside his trench on Day 2. By the end of day 3 it was over a metre deeper in places. Note the labelled wheelbarrow full of finds (and for a close-up of those finds see my earlier post: Time Team Series 20, My Sixth Episode: Afterthoughts).

Late in the afternoon of Day 2, it was suggested that the next day we should open a new trench to investigate the discoveries made by geophys. Originally a five-metre square was proposed – which I vetoed out-of-hand. I didn’t agree with what was being proposed, but then I didn’t say no, either. I suppose it was weak or indecisive of me, but in fairness to myself, I was under a huge amount of pressure to say Yes – and in my heart-of-hearts I was aware we shouldn’t. The thing is, we knew by then that the undisturbed Roman levels could only be reached by digging through over a metre of rubble. And we had one day in which to do it. By hand. So a three by five metre trench was suggested.  Again, I dithered, but was aware from later conversation that evening, that I’d given the impression I’d agreed. But I hadn’t. Bloody Hell! Talk about the horns of a dilemma…

I retreated to my room early and watched something mindless on telly. That night I lay awake. I simply couldn’t sleep. I knew that at some point tomorrow morning someone would suggest that we should take a machine to the new trench, and although I hoped English Heritage wouldn’t agree, we’re all human, and those geophys results were absolutely superb…

Eventually, I drifted off to sleep, but awoke with a bang around four in the morning. While I’d been dreaming, my sub-conscious had worked out that even the smaller trench they’d proposed would involve the hand-removal of a minimum of fifteen tonnes of material.  That was crazy! Even with a digger, you’d be hard pressed to do it with any care at all – and anyhow, I doubted if the big machine could work with stone rubble in such a small trench. And the sides would be bound to collapse. No, the more I thought about it, the more the idea seemed, to put it politely, misguided.

I got up early for breakfast. As usual Phil was there – like me he’s an early riser. He pleaded with me not to transfer him out of his trench, which his team were just getting to grips with. He was aware that the plan had been to put him in charge of the new, ‘star’ trench. That did it for me. I was now in no doubt what I had to do: at last, the worm had turned. Whatever else might happen that day, the new trench wasn’t going in. End of. So I delivered an ultimatum, and thank heavens, the-powers-that-be saw sense.  Eventually everyone, even the proponents and supporters of the new trench, agreed that we’d made the correct decision, but I have to admit my last day ever on a Time Team excavation was (how shall I put it?) tense. To be honest, it took the edge off my appreciation and enjoyment of the excavation. Anyhow, I can confess now, that at the Wrap Party, that evening, I drank far too much.

I saw the final edit of the film a few weeks ago and sadly, I don’t think any of that behind-the-scenes tension came across; instead, everything seems as usual: loads of enthusiasm and get-up-and-go. And of course fabulous finds and archaeology. But believe me, on that particular occasion it was rather different, and you could have cut the atmosphere on the morning of Day 3 with a knife. Oh yes, come to think of it: it would have made a cracking real reality television film…

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