So that’s it. Unless the campaign to produce one last dig in memory of Mick Aston succeeds, this Sunday’s documentary special on ‘The Boats That Built Britain’ looks set to be the last new Time Team episode ever.
Sad, but does that mean we’re about to return to the bad old days when there was no archaeology at all on telly? I hope not. Here’s four things that the next generation of archaeological programming would be absolutely mad to miss out on:
True to form, this last episode on Bronze Age Britain focuses not on its elaborate treasures, decorative armour or monumental structures, but instead on the discovery of a 3,500 year old oak-plank boat six feet below the streets of Dover. It unlocks the story of its pioneering seafarers who straddled English Channel while Stonehenge was still in use and before King Tut reigned in Egypt.
Instead of talking heads focusing on classical civilisations, Time Team shifted attention to the less glamorous, but no less fascinating, archaeology we might find in our own back yards. There are great stories in the everyday too, and that’s something I hope programmers don’t forget. There won’t be a King under every car park, or enough dead celebrities of any kind worth digging up to keep the public tuning in. This country is a layer cake of amazing archaeology, everywhere.
The power of Time Team was that it completely de-mystified archaeology as an academic discipline. It was like archaeology reality TV; it was about the characters and how they came to their conclusions.
In this last episode we see Tony Robinson and Phil Harding join the team attempting to reconstruct and, after a couple of failed attempts, successfully launch the Dover Boat. Things can go wrong, they don’t always have the answers, but you do always see the process they use to try and work things out. Expertise isn’t just about ‘knowing’ and ‘telling’; ‘showing’ is just as important as anything else. One of the things we’ve learned through our work at DigVentures is that people want to know more about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of archaeology than we ever realised – archaeological programmers mustn’t assume that a big reveal at the end is the only thing that holds any interest.
Back to the subject of the final episode – seafaring is just a small part of Britain’s Bronze Age boat-building history. As the Bronze Age dawned, rising waters were gradually inundating the area around Flag Fen where I was working with DigVentures in 2012.
The emergence of this new wetland environment did not displace people, it produced a new way of life – as the ground became increasingly waterlogged and impassable on foot, causeways, platforms and man-made walkways – the features that are so uniquely ‘Flag Fen’ – started to appear.
In fact, we were just getting ready to start digging when, no more than a mile down the road at Must Farm, archaeologists from Cambridge Archaeological Unit made an incredible discovery: six submerged boats. Both sites represent adaptations to a landscape fast disappearing beneath rising waters, and provide compelling evidence of a mass colonisation of the recently formed wetlands, which made me think:
Archaeological projects are increasingly producing their own videos, blogs, and other ways of sharing what goes on behind-the-scenes online. They are taking a DIY approach and colonising a new environment. The era of televised excavations is not over, but is beginning all over again by other means. And if we can do it, so too, surely, can the major broadcasters.
But perhaps the most important piece of Time Team’s legacy is the fact that people don’t just want to watch archaeology, they want to take part.
Time Team was the first to pioneer public engagement in archaeology, often encouraging people to dig test pits in their own gardens. At the time many professionals hailed it as irresponsible – how could the public possibly be trusted with a trowel?! But now, it’s common practice and you can’t run an archaeological project, not even a commercial one, without involving the public. You can even see the impact on TV in other subject areas – programmes like Springwatch and Sky at Night all encourage people to have a go and to get involved in ‘citizen science’.
Fortunately, there’s an increasing number of ways you can get stuck in with archaeology, whether that’s joining a community dig, supporting crowdfunded projects or helping out with crowdsourced research online. DigVentures’ recent project, Digital Dig Team, was all about encouraging participation in archaeology – whether on site digging with us, or from the comfort of your home or wherever else you can access the internet.
So, if broadcasters have any sense, this won’t be the end of such programmes for archaeology, it’s more a question of what new formats will spring up in its wake and how long a hiatus there will be before broadcasters remember how important, and popular, archaeological programming really is.
Time Team: The Boats That Built Britain will air on Channel 4 at 8:00pm Sunday 7th September 2014
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