I love Time Team. I know that nothing happens. I know they never find anything. I know it’s sixty minutes of watching somebody dig a hole in a field and then cover it back up. I know, if I’m honest, that most people find it boring. Because often nothing much happens. For an hour. But that’s the point. Or part of it, at least. It’s expansive TV. It’s TV to lounge in front of on a lazy Sunday afternoon. With my feet stretched out on the sofa. It’s the televisual equivalent of cricket. Which I also enjoy watching. And in which nothing much happens either.
Obviously, you need an interest in history to get anything out of Time Team. To be curious about the past and the people who populated it. The personalities and the stories. About the landscape they occupied. But what makes Time Team as a programme is the characters. Roly-poly Robin peering over some dusty diary from the local archives. Darby like a beach ball. The text book librarian’s bow tie. The buttons of his waistcoat a constant worry to the Health and Safety Executive. If they go, they could have someone’s eye out. He chuckles. He smiles. He draws us in with the salacious details. The historical gossip. Well, he was a bit of a rotter, was old Sir Aethelstan. He shut his rather naughty wife up in a chastity belt and pulled her lover’s todger off with red hot tongs! And then made her eat it, fried for breakfast with quail’s eggs and bread soldiers! Gerrin! Cider-quaffing Phil Harding with his wisps of long ginger hair and cowboy hat with a feather in it, talking away about soil stratification like one of the Wurzels. The ins and outs of pre-historic flint napping. Wrestling with the complexities of an Anglo-Saxon dyke. It’s fair got me flummoxed, Tony! Always in shorts even when its minus fifteen and the wind’s coming in from the Urals across some barren field in the Lincolnshire flatlands like a rampaging Mongol army. Tony, I think I’ve got a Cromwellian brick kiln! he roars, waving his trowel in the air. Pass me a pint! There’s Bridget and Raksha filmed from above in strappy vest tops giving us a glimpse of bouncing cleavage as they bend over to trowel some clay. A couple of points of interest in this trench, Tony. Cheeky look up to camera. A thumbs up from Tony. Cheers, girls. That’ll have the blokes watching from the couch after Sunday lunch and a few pints down at the Dog & Partridge. I love the visits to the pub for flagons of Old Swipe, maps laid out, Geo-fizz arguing with everybody but in particular Phil, over a print out that just looks like the photocopier is faulty. Definitely an enclosed ditch. I’m thinking domestic habitation, says John Gator. John with his tinted lenses and his repressed ego. Oh, right. An enclosed ditch. I’m on the sofa, wiggling my toes and reaching out for another Hob Nob. No it isn’t, argues Phil, slamming down his scrumpy. The Hob Nob pauses above my coffee. It just means the toner’s getting low! Laughs all ‘round, daggers drawn. All held together by pocket-sized Tony Robinson with benevolent eye from the big chief archaeologist Birmingham-born Mick Aston.
I went to Vindolanda in May 2006. Up beyond Hexham in Northumbria. They’ve just got electricity. They fear a Scottish invasion. Midway on the A69 between Newcastle on one coast and Carlisle on the other. The A69 laid down in the 1990s that runs parallel with the old Roman military road. Now the B6318. Straight as a dye, taking no notice of the dips in the landscape. Watch your exhaust. Vindolanda lies just south of Hadrian’s Wall, near the tree where Kevin Costner fights Guy of Gisbourne in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. You can see it on your left as you drive down to the site. I did a week’s digging, staying at nearby Bardon Mill. Vindolanda is the site of several Roman forts, built one on top of the other during the occupation, and famous for the Vindolanda tablets. The tablets are Roman post-it notes. Brief letters and messages written on tiny wooden plates that were discarded two thousand years ago. Now they’ve been dug up and read via x-ray. They are wonderful. In 2004 they were voted Britain’s greatest treasure. Above the Snettisham Hoard, the Mold Cape and Bruce Forsyth. One of the most famous tablets is the birthday invitation from the garrison commander’s wife, Claudia Severa, to her sister Sulpicia Lepidina. Written some time around 100 AD, it reads: ‘Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.’ The power of the written word to reach down millennia. To leave something of ourselves behind. A moment. A thought. A memory.
During my time at Vindolanda I found a bit of russet-coloured Samian ware. A millstone. I got a tan. I ate and drank in the Twice Brewed. I met Robin Birley, the man who first discovered the tablets – jovial and chain smoking. A voice that rumbled like Jove across the vast Northumbrian moors. I walked a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall. I visited the wall fort at Housesteads, now sentried by sheep. I touched the physical past. All because of Time Team.
I’ve been a fan since it was first broadcast one Sunday evening in January 1994. I enjoy its picaresque quality. The tour of the country. The views. The good weather and the bad weather. I like to watch Tony rushing from one trench to another trying to drum up a bit of excitement. His little legs in wellies, arms flaying, talking through the third wall. Speaking to us like an old pal. The morning of day two and this could be the find that opens up this site! Out of breath, he puffs up to trench three and gets handed a plastic bag with a bit of pot in it. You see his face. He stares. For a moment he can’t speak. Incredulous. Is this it? You’ve radio’d me to jog over here for THIS? Tony wants gold. He wants torcs. He w
ants hoards of Roman coins. He wants Sutton Hoo. He wants Fishbourne Palace. Tony wants a chariot burial complete with silver armour and Boadicea on a battle stallion. Tony wants Excalibur. Tony wants the Holy Grail.
Tony is Time Team’s Everyman. Like Martin in The Office. Like Dr. Watson in the investigations of Sherlock Holmes. He’s there, trudging around in the dirt and the broken footings, on our behalf. Enthusiastic. Sceptical. Disillusioned. Gullible. Optimistic. Infuriated. Loving every minute of it. The sun. The deep prospect across the countryside that’s reinterpreted for him by landscape archaeologist Stewart Ainsworth. Well, Tony, what you’re looking at is the result of Norman strip farming. The dimensions also gave us the standard English cricket pitch… The wind. The driving rain. The mud and the mystery. Picking bits of jargon up along the way. So this post hole could mean we have a ring ditch? But I sense that Tony realizes that the programme is on borrowed time. That they have to have something to show the accountants and the commissioners at Channel 4. They need finds. They need glitter and gold. Because modern TV is all about sound bites. Power pills of adrenaline that last a few moments and are gone. Sensationalism. Tabloidism. Shite. Time Team is a relic of another age. It is television that wanders off the path. It’s TV where nothing much is allowed to happen for an hour. It’s a more literate version of reality TV. Television doesn’t get much better than this. The programme begins. Tony’s stood in a copse. England over his shoulder. Mick strolls over, stripy jumper, a matching woolly hat if it’s a bit cold. Brummie accent. ’Ere, Tony, that’s a bit of all right, innit?! Tony says: ‘Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t We just have three days to find out..’ And I know that I’ve got sixty minutes of comfort before me.
And did you know that Hollywood blockbuster Stargate, featuring a flat-topped Kurt Russell and geeky hieroglyph expert James Spader, was based on a real-life episode from the biography of Time Team stalwart Mick Aston? Digging the past. For marketing purposes the action was shifted to Egypt and America, though the actual Stargate was discovered just outside Nether Stowey in Somerset by Aston in 1974. On the same dig Mick also excavated a small shard of pre-Romanic pottery, which the bearded, stripy jumper-wearing Archaeologist says he prizes more than the galaxy-hopping portal as it really shows how people lived in those days.
With lottery funding it is anticipated that the Stargate discovered by Mick could be up and running again sometime in the near future.
This week Tony and the team are in Wiltshire investigating a field outside Salisbury. The farmer’s ploughed up some interesting stuff and then got in touch with the programme. The site’s possibly Roman. Possibly a temple complex. I’m thinking mosaics. Hypocaust system. It could be interesting. Bridget’s got a tight, low-cut top on. Nice one, Tony.