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Professor Mick Aston: Why I quit Time Team, and the danger of losing touch with our history

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: February 13, 2012

Professor Mick Aston

Mick Aston, in his Time Team pomp, checks the contents of a trench during a dig in Kemerton, Worcestershire. He believes the erosion of Time Team’s core principles is bad news for archaeology at large

Comments (3)

I’ve decided to quit Time Team because Channel 4 decided to alter the format. There is a lot less archaeological content and a lot more pratting about. I was the archaeological consultant but they decided to get rid of half the archaeological team, without consulting me.

I think it has dumbed down. Let me explain why that is bad for archaeology in general.

Stuart Ainsworth, the surveyor, is used a lot less in the current series of Time Team. It is the same with Helen Geake who does history and finds, and with Victor Ambrus, the illustrator.

Computer-generated images are fine and we can fly round buildings with it and go through arches but archaeologists have always taken the view that you need both illustrations and computer images.

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Victor has years of knowledge. I am really angry that they felt they could make these big decisions which have a direct result on the archaeology without consulting me.

Almost immediately that we began to make the series we didn’t have Stuart and it made things difficult. We were filming at Clipstone in Nottinghamshire, site of a King John’s hunting lodge, and we put a trench across what we thought was a big perimeter ditch but it turned out to be a field boundary.

Stuart would have realised that within the first five minutes and we wouldn’t have wasted time digging the trench.

We had a very embarrassing situation at Castle Hill, near Crewkerne. They didn’t have Helen, who works for the portable antiquities scheme, and they didn’t have anyone else to deal with finds.

The local portable antiquities lady was ill so we had things coming out of the ground and not being able to say there and then what they were and we had the embarrassing situation where a volunteer member of the public actually identified finds.

They said the changes were for ‘televisual reasons’ but it is important to have, and to show, the archaeological process. The people are there because they know what they are talking about and everyone has a role. I am not against change of course, but it has to be for a reason. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

They have been saying for some years that the viewing figures have been going down and that’s partly why they engineered this. But they never advertised Time Team in between other programmes as they do with some other programmes, and they are always mucking about with the times it is shown. It is no wonder that the viewing figures are lower.

They had a meeting which they didn’t invite me to and said the BBC’s Countryfile was the model. To me that is a programme which went from being a programme presented by farmers and people who knew about the countryside to one in which there is only one farmer and is full of cliché-ridden pap. The countryside is always picturesque in Countryfile.

I don’t understand why if you have an audience of intelligent people you can’t play on that rather than change the audience. They don’t realise that a huge number of people have gone to university and got qualifications of one sort or another and want to be talked to about subjects they don’t know about at a level they know of their own subjects. I don’t think people want this dumbing down just because there are difficult issues and concepts.

When they sent me the rough cuts of the programmes for the current series I complained that there was a lot of faffing about. In the programme on Clipstone the two new presenters were shown with bows and arrows capering about in the woods. I complained bitterly about that and they said they would take it out.

They sent me a long letter listing the bits they had taken out but I see that some have still appeared. I will be interested to see if the bows and arrows are back. I have left Time Team because I don’t like what is going on.

I don’t know anyone else in TV who has left voluntarily like this. I shall miss all my friends there, including Tim Taylor, the series producer, and the very interesting pieces of archaeology, and although we never got paid a fortune, I shall certainly miss the money.

I don’t think the people at Channel 4 really understand what we were trying to do. I was in the extra-mural department of Bristol University for 25 years to put on courses of interest to the general public and to my view a programme that could reach three million viewers rather than 30 in a village hall was a very good thing. We were not in it for fame.

Archaeology is not something that is essential, like running the health service or building houses and unless people find it interesting and want to see it happen then it is vulnerable.

There is no legislation, for example, that says you must employ archaeologists and have sites excavated nor that there should be a county museum or county record office – and these things are very vulnerable now the forces of darkness and evil are stalking the land.

Organisations such as Somerset Heritage Service and the new Museum of Somerset are fantastically important, not just for archaeology but for the economy of Somerset.

People come to Somerset to see Glastonbury Tor and Wells Cathedral and the Levels, not to see factories, and they do that because the expertise and the records are there to inform them.

When I came to Somerset in 1974 I was its first county archaeologist.

The work done over 40 years by others has made its heritage service one of the best in the country. Heritage services everywhere need support . Dumbing down will not help them.

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3 comments

  • Visor  |  June 25 2013, 3:50PM

    Isn't it amazing that someone hated Time Team so much that they wrote a scathing dissertation about archaeologists in the media? It's really Time Team that started off the whole archaeologists-in-the-media thing. So far TT is indirectly accountable for someone's PhD, quite a few spinoffs and knock-offs in Britain and around the world, and the disenfranchisement of a few archaeologists. My point of view is that archaeology in the media was well presented by TT, especially in the early days. If it wasn't for TT I, as a person who isn't an archaeologist, wouldn't even know how archaeologists work, or what they do. I think it was a great TV show, that declined over time as it became shinier. Probably the reason I began to watch TT is because it was an escape from the fake people and fake shininess of programs on other channels at the same time.

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  • randgubaby31  |  May 14 2013, 10:32AM

    I want to put a different slant on the TT issue, I am an 82 year old man and I move to Australia 50 years ago. I was born in an industrial town in Scotland and moved to London when I was 5. Once again; I was in a deprive miserable condition, smoke, smog, cold and little money. I was 8 when WW2 broke out; strangely for me, it was the beginning of a wonderful adventure. I was evacuated to Somerset and now I was in an environment I could never have dreamed of. Behind the first house I lived in on the Mendip Hills; were the ancient Roman led mines. I spent many hours roaming the sites alone and being a dreamer I fought every invader who set foot on the British Isles. In my role of Robin Hood; I slew many a Norman. My mother and I moved to a small village a few miles from Glastonbury called Meare and later to a town called Street. Every square inch of land in that region was steeped it history, it was heaven. I was physically in school but never in mind, I was always somewhere else. In Glastonbury Abbey, on Sedgemoor; where one of the major battles of Civil Way was fought Now to Time Team; I have watch every episode shown here, unfortunately many of them over and over, because; Foxtel has a propensity to have rerun after rerun. One of the lesson I have learned from watching the Show, is that no longer do you need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth or to speak with a plumb in your cheek, to be exemplary in your field. Phil, Mick and Stewart all have a distinct regional accent and I believe have a working class background and all are excellent in their field. It was particularly warming to hear that Stewart Ainsworth' mother was a Mill Girl, how proud of him she must be. As for Phil; what can you say, other than he is a rough diamond and a three thousand carat one at that. From what I have read, it seems he has done most of his learning on the job and what a brilliant analytically mind he has. Victor Ambrus; what wonderful depiction, how on earth could they drop him, he was the one that brought everything to life. As for the much maligned Tony; it was obvious to me from the beginning that his roll was as the Devils Advocate and Doubting Thomas. All done to bring it down to the level of the uninitiated and not have it too highbrow. Finally; the show would have never been the same without the banter between all the main characters. I only hope that there is enough of a ground swell, for some enlighten company to take up the gauntlet and re-introduce this wonderful show. It is the things that dreams are made of.

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  • oOrotavatorOo  |  April 24 2013, 4:31PM

    time team ..... its history

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  • BChurchill  |  January 29 2013, 8:44AM

    I live in Australia and watch TT as often as possible. The viewing time can change from season to season and I'm never sure if it will be on the following week or not. Stuart Ainsworth is one of my fav his methods and theories often get the team out of trouble. Sorry to say but the American TT is awful. If the producers start changing the format then they may find the viewing drop further because the committed fans will be put off. Don't dumb it down...just do what you do with other programs and advertise it. Make the public more aware of the program. Especially overseas......

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  • Quintaine  |  March 12 2012, 6:35PM

    Good luck in your job hunt but be aware, archies have one other attribute in common with meerkats, they are fiercely territorial, especially lately. They will try any available means to rid themselves of competitors in the workplace, not by setting South American tribes on them or burying them in an ancient Egyptian tomb but by more subtle yet no less effective means such as circulating malicious rumours designed to make them look good and you look bad, believe me, it's an archy-eat-archy world out there. You would probably find my dissertation hits on much the same conclusions as Mick hit on, except I realised it in 2010 when I left Uni. Here it is read it and weep: http://tinyurl.com/6nqyvj8

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  • Quintaine  |  March 12 2012, 6:23PM

    You would find my dissertation follows the same line as Mick Aston's conclusions, only I made mine in 2010. http://tinyurl.com/6nqyvj8 I suffered through writing it, it's only fair others suffer reading it. Good luck in finding a position in community archaeology, be aware that archaeologists, especially in these turbulent economic times, share one more attribute with meerkats, they are very territorial and would try any available means to eliminate competitors in the work place, not by killing them, or setting South American tribes on them but by more subtle yet equally effective means of circulating malicious gossip to make you look bad and them look good, I've seen it first hand, believe me.

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  • Tiffanyb  |  March 12 2012, 5:44PM

    why is the word t u r d s deleted? it's middle-english - not swearing!! whatever next?!

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  • Tiffanyb  |  March 12 2012, 5:42PM

    well.... I have been known to cavort and caper on-site on occasion..... I am looking for suitable paid post in community archaeology..... perhaps I should apply to channel 4!!! (sadly I'm not sure I fulfil the media luvvy criteria for women on telly!). The trouble is though in reality that many people watch such programs for the gloss and lack of geeky presenters hence Tony Robinson - just geeky enough but a 'personality' to carry the show (personally, I'd rather see a number of other far better informed and interesting people lead the show who would be no less entertaining but much more intellectually engaging at the same time). It's all a balancing act really and as you say, when a show slides into 'reality' mode all is then lost to utter mediocrity and what is really an exercise in polishing metaphorical ****s.

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  • Quintaine  |  March 12 2012, 3:18PM

    You should see Time Team America, they say that kind of stuff all the time. I do not doubt the good intentions archaeologists have when taking part in programs however they almost always misread the relationship between them and the media. They go into a show thinking the site is the star and set about explaining it, the producers on the otherhand approach it with the idea that the archaeologists are the stars, in much the same way as the meerkats of meerkat manor are the stars, cavorting, capering, annoying and throwing hissy-fits at each other- in other words so -called reality TV. Most archaeologists, however, entering TV land with the best of intentions, are easily corrupted by the prospect of fame and MONEY and soon end up dancing through hoops, enter Alex Langlands who had great promise but sadly traded his principles for "show business". In a few months he'll be writing "Why I left Time Team".

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  • Tiffanyb  |  March 12 2012, 1:59PM

    I see what you are saying!! but I must admit (despite not being a very regular viewer of TT) I never heard anyone on the programme utter the line "don't mess with me... I'm an archaeologist"!! I still laugh out loud now when I remember that one single episode of Bone Kickers that I watched!! In seriousness though, perhaps what these programs really need to be brave enough to entertain with relevance and to use presenters and professionals who have a natural ability to share their passions with wider audiences, in my experience that is often enough to engage others. One other question though is why if Character is everything did they have to employ an archaeologist who looks like he urinates in his hat?!

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