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Time Team archaeologists open two excavation units at New Philadelphia, an Illinois town founded in 1836 by a former slave known as Free Frank. (Laurance Johnson)

Archaeology documentaries are usually about everything except the actual work archaeologists do. Time Team America, however, puts the spotlight on the researchers at some of North America's most interesting excavations. The show follows the formula of the successful British Time Team program, which has been on the air since 1997. Six archaeologists, a geophysicist, and an artist bring their expertise and a suite of remote-sensing equipment to ongoing archaeological projects at each site for three days of intense fieldwork. The team tries to answer specific questions and provide data that will advance ongoing research.

At Roanoke Island in North Carolina the team uncovers artifacts from the Lost Colony, a British settlement founded in 1587 and wiped out or abandoned sometime before 1590. A tiny fragment of pottery provokes genuine enthusiasm in one of the project's archaeologists who recognizes the type. "This is Martincamp!" she says, holding the potsherd in her hand. "This is French! This is cool!" The fragment probably came from a ceramic flask carried by one of the British soldiers garrisoned on the island before the colony was settled. The scene also reveals what the program does best, showing how a seemingly insignificant find can have a major impact on what is known about a site. Excitement builds throughout the episode as more artifacts are excavated and the data begin to create a picture of the site's history.

The first season of Time Team only runs for five shows, but all are about interesting and controversial sites. In addition to Roanoke, the team visits New Philadelphia, Illinois, the nation's first town founded by an African American; Range Creek, Utah, a valley full of undamaged villages left behind by the Fremont culture 1,000 years ago; Fort James, South Dakota, a Wild West frontier fort; and South Carolina's Topper site, a flint quarry with a large number of 13,000-year-old Clovis artifacts and evidence of human activity that may date as early as 50,000 years ago. Each episode is an accurate depiction of what work on an excavation is really like. The show also proves something many of us have long suspected--archaeology doesn't need hokey reenactments and fake quests for lost civilizations to be interesting.

Time Team America premieres Wednesday, July 8, at 8:00 p.m./7:00 p.m. Central on PBS. The first episode is also available online at www.pbs.org.

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