Raksha’s Site Diary: Time Team’s Lost Trenches

Our field archaeologist in residence is at it again! Where has she been? What’s she been diggin? And why does she have that look on her face? Read on…

Out and About with Raksha

Times Team’s Lost Trenches

And so it begins…the first episode of the last series of Time Team began last Sunday 5th January 2013. I do like watching episodes though – remembering of course the blood sweat and tears we all produced whilst making them!

And so this Sunday was the same as any for the past 10 years. In the dark, cold misery of January I sat clutching a cuppa on the couch with Fergus, Lisa and Brendon and listened to the familiar drum rolls from the opening credits.  It always makes me a little anxious, because we archaeologists never get to see the final edit before it screens: how will the director interpret the archaeology? Will I say something vaguely intelligent? Or how hung-over do we all look the night after a ‘pub-scene’?

As usual, these things are variable, and to be honest so completely peripheral, that only people in the show pick them up. There is, however, one thing that has consistently annoyed me for the past 10 years.  There is always (when I say always – I mean ALWAYS) one trench that never gets shown during a programme – or as I like to call it, ‘the lost trench’.

The lost trench is a phenomenon that only we in the inner circle know about. As you can imagine, it’s a bit frustrating to have been working on a trench for three days to then find out that you have been relegated to the ‘cutting room floor’ (CRF to those in the know)! The weird thing is that it isn’t always the trench that is the most boring. In fact it’s usually a trench that just doesn’t fit into the story that the director has constructed and edited for the programme. There’s nothing more disheartening than to find out that you and your trench haven’t made the final edit. The other interesting thing is that normally, these trenches are actually the key to understanding the archaeology of the site, and although they are not ‘good telly’, archaeologically they are often the missing link.

This year’s first episode was a case in point.  The Roman Fort at Brancaster is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, which means it is managed and curated by English Heritage. Excavation is inherently a destructive process, which means trenches have to be carefully planned before excavation (read Francis Pryor’s blog on this matter!). The restrictive nature of working on scheduled sites means that every square metre counts (and so it should!).

Early on in the shoot it was decided by English Heritage and Time Team that we would place a trench outside the Roman Fort and into the vicus,one of the mutually beneficial ad-hoc settlements that often spring up next to Roman forts. The geophysics results were in, and a trench was identified to be placed over a crossroads with what looked like shop fronts. The geofizz was so spectacular that you could almost pick up yards, and what’s more, the radar print-outs fitted perfectly over the aerial photograph survey that was produced in the 70s.

It all seemed pretty straightforward, and a couple of swings of the digger bucket should have produced what we were all predicting. Fast forward an hour or so, and to our dismay we revealed not very much at all. The archaeology had almost disappeared, excepting about 20cm of stratigraphy.  Deep agricultural ploughing carried out in the 80s and 90s had sliced the archaeology down to its bare nib.

This apparently doesn’t make good TV, but it does make for good archaeology. As with any research site, there is no substitute for excavation. Quantifying what you have, or have not, feeds into larger management questions for the site. In the case of Brancaster we learned that, rather sadly, the vicus was near enough destroyed – until the point of excavation, we couldn’t have known that. When the programme aired, the trench and its occupiers (me!) were never presented to the viewers.

The strange thing is that some of the lost trenches over the years have been pretty spectacular, and I’ve never quite understood the randomness of the selection criteria. But I’m just an archaeologist, not a director, and I know how I’d feel if a director tried to tell me how to dig – so I guess I’d better not second-guess how to make telly. And so now you know the secret: somewhere in a dusty warehouse (next to the Ark of the Covenant) lies hours of unseen footage. Perhaps there’s enough for a spin off? ‘Time Teams Lost Trenches’…at least I know for sure I’ll make the cut!

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Raksha Dave

Written by Raksha Dave

A long-time member of Channel 4's Time Team, Raksha Dave is one of the country's best loved archaeologists. Unequivocally, she has never, and will never, be married to Matt Williams.

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