The End of Archaeology?

Hardcore archaeologists – TT digging a navvie camp hut at Risehill, Cumbria, in the rain, hail, and wind at c. 400m above sea level.

The double-dip recession and the new age of austerity have seemingly claimed yet another UK victim. To add to the roughly 2000 archaeology jobs lost in the professional, local government, and museum worlds since 2007, the closure of major contracting units such as ARCUS, Birmingham Archaeology, and UMAU, and the dismemberment of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at Birmingham University, we can now add Channel 4’s Time Team.

‘So what’ said many commentators, official and unofficial, in paper and on the web. It’s just another reality-format television programme. It wasn’t real archaeology anyway: that involves months if not years of research. And in any case the 250-odd episodes will be repeated on cable and satellite channels for years to come, so what’s all the excitement about?

Yet Time Team wasn’t, indeed isn’t, just another TV programme. In terms of its cultural impact it ranks with the pioneering archaeology TV programmes ‘Animal, Vegetable and Mineral’ and ‘Chronicle’ in bringing the excitement of archaeology to a huge audience. Its cast became recognisable names and faces within the profession and more importantly outside it: the subject of on-line YouTube spoofs, Radio 4 comedy sketches and even a parody for the children’s television series ‘Horrible Histories’ – there are few higher compliments in our media-obsessed early 21st-century society. Oh, and it regularly had a weekly audience of 2.5 million for most of its 20 series.

At this point I should declare an interest – I was, occasionally, one of the experts called upon to assist with the programme, but so were many professional archaeologists. I was never amongst those academics and professionals who sniffily declared the programme unrealistic and bad archaeology.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t poor programmes, but during its 20 series Time Team has regularly innovated, provoked, and debated. What other documentary series would be brave enough to screen a 50 minute show at the end of which the archaeologists found nothing (well not a lot)? At last, yelled thousands of professional archaeologists – that happens to us all the time. It popularised a range of archaeological scientific techniques from geophysical survey and mineral analysis on human bones, to GIS, DNA and radio-carbon dating. Time Team also undertook the first serious archaeological investigation of many important sites: I was lucky enough to be involved in several of these episodes (Manchester’s first textile mill, the excavation of a railway navvie hut, and Liberty’s Print Works). It was also amongst the first archaeological units, for that is what it became and perhaps was ultimately part of the reason for its demise, to use the internet as a source of information and a forum for debate. Many of its excavation reports are available to download from the Wessex Archaeology website (long-term collaborators with the series), and the programme has had its own website and facebook pages for many years. Time Team thus leaves a solid legacy of fieldwork and public engagement.

The life-cycle of Time Team might be seen as a metaphor for the rise and fall of UK archaeology during the long boom years of 1992 to 2007 and the subsequent recessions of 2007 to 2012, when the numbers of professional archaeologists and undergraduate archaeologists both soared, and then collapsed. In contrast the number of voluntary archaeologists, as recorded by the CBA1, has continued to rise. Time Team must take some of the credit for this during a period when most universities were closing their extra-mural departments, for so long bastions of practical fieldwork, and partially out of which the Time Team concept came. Demand for participatory archaeology remains very strong beyond the voluntary society groups, as we have found at Salford University through the Dig Greater Manchester project: nearly all of our volunteers have heard of the programme and it remains a touchstone for popularising the discipline.

So, whilst it may be the end for Time Team2 it’s by no means the end of popular archaeology, nor of history, on TV. How long we will have to wait for another such innovative programme is impossible to say, but it will surely involve an even more interactive approach courtesy of the web and social media. Time Team consistently captured the excitement of discovery – an excitement not for kings or queens, nor for gold or silver, but for the objects of the everyday past: pottery fragments, stone tools, glass sherds, and clay pipes, untouched by a human hand for hundreds or thousands of years. Archaeology is a subversive discipline, overturning our preconceptions of the past and undermining the hierarchies of history, and Time Team at its best captured that sense of a world turned upside down by the rediscovery of the material culture of our ancestors.

1) Thomas S, 2010, Community Archaeology in the UK: Recent Findings. Council for British Archaeology, York.

2) In its current format, although spin offs on the web are promised, and Channel 4 have promised a short series of legacy programmes for 2014.

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