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In profile: the life of Time Team archaeologist Mick Aston

By Emcfarnon  |  Posted: June 25, 2013

Mick Aston launched Somerset County Museum's fundraising campaign in Taunton in 2007

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Time Team archaeologist Professor Mick Aston has died aged 66.

Professor Aston, who lived in Somerset, was a presenter on the Channel 4 show from its inception in 1994 until 2011.

Somerset's premier archaeologist and one of the best in the country, the death of Prof Aston has shocked close friends and colleagues.

Former Time Team colleague Phil Harding, 62, said although Prof Aston had suffered health problems, his death had come as a shock.

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"It just seems so incredible, like a bad dream, but unfortunately this is no dream," he said.

The archaeologist said Prof Aston was a "unique man" who "everybody loved".

"He just had a way with people. I cannot believe there was anybody who disliked him, he just had such a relaxed way," he said

"He had incredible knowledge and an effortless way of making archaeology accessible to people."

Born and raised in Oldbury in the West Midlands, Prof Aston studied Geography with a subsidiary in Archaeology at the University of Birmingham.

A passionate believer in communicating archaeology to the public, he went on to work at the Oxford City and County Museum, and taught a number of classes at the University of Oxford.

His next move was to Taunton, to become the first County Archaeologist for Somerset. It was a role through which he oversaw one of the most widespread archaeological projects in Somerset's history: the installation of the M5, which uncovered numerous sites of archaeological interest.

In 1978 Prof Aston became a full-time tutor in local studies at the Oxford University External Studies Department. Then in 1979 he returned to the West Country as a tutor in archaeology at the University of Bristol Extra-Mural Department.

In 1988 Aston, who had a long-running radio series on Radio Oxford, was invited by producer Tim Taylor to work on a new four-episode television series for Channel 4 called Time Signs, broadcast in 1991.

The duo then began working together on a new archaeology-based television series, devising the format for Time Team. Aston convinced actor and television presenter Tony Robinson, who he had met on an archaeological course in Greece, to participate, and Time Team was first broadcast in 1994.

“We need to make people realise how interesting it is, and we succeeded,” Prof Aston last year told Current Archaeology.

“But even though Time Team built up an incredible audience, the archaeological world never really ran with it. All the public interest generated in that first 15 year period was wasted.

“Our colleagues were too busy saying ‘you can’t do it in three days’, or ‘I don’t like the way you’ve done that.’ Nit picking really, but it could get nasty.

“If you went to a pub and mentioned Time Team to a bunch of archaeologists you’d instantly have a fight on your hands.”

In February 2012 it emerged Prof Aston had quit Time Team. He wrote in the Western Daily Press: “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.”

He went on: “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.”

Eight months later Channel 4 announced Time Team would not return as a regular series. The channel announced series 20 of the programme, due to be broadcast in 2013, would be the last in the regular three-day-dig format.

“The decline of the show was typified by Professor Mick Aston’s public withdrawal from the programme earlier this year,” said Heritage Daily.

“Even though he no longer appeared in every programme, for many people Mick Aston was Time Team; after all he did co-create the format with film maker Tim Taylor and without his presence and with his parting shots at the TV Executives who insisted on ‘a lot less archaeological content and a lot more pratting about’ it was clear all was not well and the prognosis poor.”

Prof Aston, who joined the University of Bristol in 1979, organising and promoting lifelong learning and continuing education in archaeology, was awarded a personal chair in 1996.

Until 2004 he was professor of landscape archaeology at the University, later becoming an emeritus professor in the same subject. He was also an honorary visiting professor at Exeter and Durham.

In July 2012 he received a lifetime achievement award at the British Archaeological Awards, a showcase for the best in UK archaeology.

A vegetarian and a naturist, Prof Aston told archaeology.co.uk. last year, months before Channel 4 called time on Time Team: “There’ll be no legacy because the profession never picked up on it – cashed in if you like – and developed what we did with Time Team. It’s the same with extramural teaching. So it all feels like a waste of time.

“All the public education I’ve done will come to a grinding halt with me. So there is no legacy. And that really makes me angry and sad. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years looking for someone to replace me and I can’t find anyone.

“No one leaps out as the one to be the next celebrity archaeologist, if you like.”

Thousands have turned to social networking site Twitter to pay tribute to Prof Aston. User @irishacw said: “Very sad to learn Professor Mick Aston has passed away. His creation of Time Team was a fantastic moment for archaeology #rip”.

And @DrTonyPollard wrote: “Sad news about the passing of Mick Aston of Time Team fame. A pioneer in adult education and the popularisation of archaeology.”

Meanwhile @hilaryc1989 tweeted: “So sad to hear of Mick Aston's death. Used to love watching time team with my dad #nostalgia”.

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  • Listener  |  June 25 2013, 11:36AM

    So sad to hear of his passing. Maybe someone should bury a time capsule in his memory. Anyone up for it? I am sure he would be. David in Lincolnshire.

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