Time Team was a show that spent most of the time staring at the ground…and Melissa Cranenburgh really dug it.
There’s an ancient burial ground on the sandy embankment leading to a beach in Northumberland, England. “This whole slope could have bodies in it,” explains Time Team show host, Tony Robinson (perhaps better known as Baldrick to fans of British historical farce, Blackadder). “But,” Robinson continues with a theatrical flourish, “one more storm and the whole thing could be washed away. So archaeologists are racing against time to try and excavate it…before it’s too late.” (Cue dramatic music.)
This set-up was typical fare for Time Team. The show – which ran for 20 years (from 1994 until its cancellation last year) – was based around the flash-mob-style endeavours of a crack team of archaeologists, mostly led by the beardy Professor Mick Aston (who died in 2013, aged 66), with on-and-under-the-ground help from field archaeologist Phil Harding, and his ubiquitous hat. The show was an endearingly hokey mix of genuine historical inquiry and completely spurious race-against-the-clock pressures. Digs always had to be completed in three days, a format presumably designed to ratchet up the tension in lieu of any Raiders of the Lost Ark-style villains, booby traps or imminent death by bone-crushing boulder. And I loved it.
Developed for Britain’s Channel 4, it aired in Australia at 6pm weeknights, on good old Aunty (ABC) – and, for me, it became a nerdy after-work pleasure. The ever-so-British show was adept at turning the sod in some of the most seemingly anodyne parts of England and dragging audiences into the drama of the past: whether that be digging up the dirt on the soldiers who guarded Hadrian’s Wall (the great fence that divided Roman Britain from the Scottish wildlands – centuries before the first season of Game of Thrones), or stripping back an innocent looking Dorset field to discover an Iron Age round house. It was hard not to be lured into the over-the-top excitement when an ancient bone fragment was discovered on day three; the jubilation when the Geo-Phys (the cute term used for ‘geophysical survey’, a high-tech scan for buried structures) revealed what may just be the wall of a Roman bathhouse. Of course, the show had its detractors. The three-day time frame could lead to a frustrating anticlimax, and must have had many archaeologists tearing their hair out over the lack of respect for the slow, methodical cataloguing their exacting profession demands.
But for a layperson like me – sitting in her lounge room crunching a packet of chips – it was a way to reawaken the childish desire to travel back in time. To spend 45 minutes watching the professionals get their feet dusty, waiting for the historical money shot.
I was gutted when the series ended last year. One can only wonder, though, what future generations would make of the whole funny episode.
» Melissa Cranenburgh is the Associate Editor of The Big Issue.