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Beyond Stone & Bone

What’s the Hurry, Time Team?
by Heather Pringle
May 1, 2009

391px-harold_bayeux_tapestry1Let me get my confession out of the way first.  I don’t spend much time in front of the television set and, until just a few days ago, I had never laid eyes on the immensely popular British show, Time Team.   Last week, however, I learned that this archaeological series is about to jump over the Atlantic:  Time Team America will be premiering on PBS in July.   To introduce the new series, the Time Team people were out in force at the Society of American Archaeology meeting in Atlanta last week, so I decided to hunt down an episode on YouTube and see what the hoopla is all about.

 For those who have missed it, Time Team is a kind of reality television show about archaeology.   Each week, the producers send a team of professional archaeologists on a dig somewhere in the U.K. , and they ratchet up the tension and drama for viewers by giving the excavators a huge deadline –three days to complete the entire dig.  In the episode I watched, team members conducted extensive geophysical surveying, got out the earth-moving equipment, dug numerous trenches, excavated a big chunk of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, removed ten bodies,  and analyzed some of the grave goods—all in 72 hours flat.   I felt exhausted just watching them. 

I want to be fair here.  There were a few things I liked about Time Team.  I think the basic idea of showing an archaeological team working in the field is superb. And I really appreciated the producers’ efforts to explain to viewers some of the fundamentals  of archaeology—how finding a sherd from a 2nd century A.D. Samian bowl allows archaeologists to date part of a site or how physical anthropologists can tell whether a human skeleton is male or female.  This is good stuff.  

But why impose such an insane deadline on the excavations?  Archaeologists don’t work this way, except under extreme conditions, because it’s just so easy to miss or overlook vital data.  The only dig I can think of that approached this kind of timeline took place in Iraq during the insurgency in 2005:  there an international archaeological team risked their lives to excavate a mass grave for a war crimes trial in eight days.  The longer they stayed at the grave, the more likely they were to be killed by insurgents.   Short of a situation like that, I can’t think of any acceptable reason to ramp up a dig so radically.  Excavation is a destructive process:  you don’t get a second chance to make good on your mistakes.

The relentless ticking of the clock in Time Team often gave the program a kind of surreal, Monty Python tone.  At one point, for example, we see the team’s geophysicist poring over his data, desperately trying to pinpoint the location of the suspected Anglo-Saxon cemetery.   But the data was ambivalent and the poor man was clearly mystified.  In real life, that would be a cue to stop and think things over.  Not on Time Team.  The chief archaeologist just waved him off and picked a spot blindly for excavation.  “John [the geophysicist] is clearly not happy, but we have to get on, so we’re going to strip the area to the left of where the pipe is supposed to be,” the presenter notes blithely. 

I hear from a colleague that newer episodes unfold at a more leisurely pace.   I’ll catch one when I can and let you know what I think  in a future blog.   But from what I’ve seen so far,  I don’t think Time Team is doing archaeology any favors.  

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

16 comments for "What’s the Hurry, Time Team?"

  • Reply posted by Daniel Molitor (May 2, 2009, 6:19 am):

    Well, I probably watch less TV than you, but I hear quite a lot, as the tube is on almost constantly in the next room. Unfortunately, given what I hear of American “reality” shows, it can only get worse for a New World version of Time Team. I can see it now: the clock ticking…the archies sweating…spades flying like mad…the narrator breathlessly warning that time is running out…and those deep-pocketed American production values kicking in as we cut to the shot of the huge earth mover revving its engine, ready to level everything for a new freeway bypass. Oh, the humanity! Oh, the commercial break! (Oops…PBS. Oh, the corporate promotional video!) Won’t someone think of the children!

    Bah! Why does “exciting” science have to translate to fast-paced TV time? Why can’t it be based on the fun (yes, fun!) of actually doing good science? History Detectives does a pretty good job of it, showing step by step the process of solving a historical mystery.

    Of course, shameless confession. In my first archaeological novel, I open with a character whose job is “rescue” archaeology, racing ahead of…sighhhh….an earthmover digging a subway station in Athens. Oh, the shame of it all. Hollywood…? I’m waiting!


  • Reply posted by Rob Sternberg (May 2, 2009, 1:00 pm):

    Is that your final answer, Time Team?

    Time Team has apparently done some great geophysics (my field), although I’ve never seen the show. But regarding that geophysicist’s ambivalence: I’ve been reading lab reports, and I am having my usual grading dilemma on what to say to my students (all of them) who use “data” as a singular noun. My wife, who is a linguist, always reminds me that language changes over time, and this is one usage that I’d say has already changed. But still …


  • Reply posted by Asa Larsson (May 3, 2009, 5:19 am):

    Well, I have to disagree about the time stress part. For me the “normal” TV shows about archaeology is all about lazily dusting off an important find as if you have all the time in the world. Research excavations might be like that but rescue excavations sure as hell are NOT. In Scandinavia at least, most excavations are of the latter kind and the time press IS monstrous. The builders are waiting at our backs and anything not excavated and examined within the time frame is literally gone for good. Sure, we usually have more than three days, but then we usually have to cover a much larger area as well.

    While one might argue that the time pressures are a bit arbitrary in the program, I for one like the way it shows how fast we sometimes have to be to figure out where to dig, how to dig and what to make of it – with a restricted budget. Most people still think we archaeologists excavate with brushes, when we use machines and shovels, don’t really know what we find and end up digging in the wrong place to begin with…

    So I guess they won’t hav ‘Baldrick’ hosting in the US (a shame) – who will it be?


  • Reply posted by Lindsay Hasluck (May 3, 2009, 4:55 pm):

    I have not seen the program but have no difficulty in imagining it. What a shame that such a costly thing as an excavation is made to be a rush job, and that UK archaeology is presented as bieng so tiresome that it needs to be turned into a race to hold the viewers attention.


  • Reply posted by J Eric Deetz (May 4, 2009, 5:35 pm):

    Time Team America was intended to and hopefully reflects methods used by American Archaeologists. Out of the five initial sites we visited we used a machine on two. In both cases it was for the removal of wind blown soils that had deposited on the sites after they were abandoned.
    While we still had the “three day” format we were teaming up with existing archaeological projects where work had gone on before and will continue after our departure. Episode I is on line at


  • Reply posted by Heather (May 4, 2009, 7:55 pm):


    That sounds like a much better format! I’ll check out the new American show when I have a bit of time.


  • Reply posted by Icy (May 5, 2009, 6:39 pm):

    Disclaimer: I regularly watch Time Team, but have no involvement in archaeology apart from my interest in history and studying Ancient History in school.

    Time Team is an enjoyable show aimed at the general public and those interested in history. Most of the episodes I have seen suit the three day format as they either excavate a previously investigated site (along with local experts), excavate in back gardens or school grounds or business lawns(who wants their gardens ripped up for more than 3 days), or similar.

    England has so much buried history that not all sites can be allocated proper investigation. If Time Team find something interesting and pass it on for further analysis, surely that is a good thing?


  • Reply posted by Dale P (May 7, 2009, 8:02 am):

    “But why impose such an insane deadline on the excavations?” Obviously because each episode has a fixed budget and the producers primary purpose is the create an entertainment vehicle for commercial TV and not to achieve any academic archaeological notices. Nevertheless, as a history nut, I enjoy most episodes immensely even though the 3 day schedule isn’t that conducive for through archaeology. I’d rather watch Time Team then Big Brother any day.


  • Reply posted by Steph (May 11, 2009, 1:56 am):

    Speaking as a Brit, I can say that Time Team has been something of a phenomenon over here. It has been going for years and the three day format has been there from series one. The only exceptions to that are some of the specials they have done. The Canterbury one I’m sure covered a longer time frame.

    As a professional archaeologist, I would say that amongst my colleagues there are mixed feelings. On the one hand, it brings archaeology to the general public. This is good. They also often investigate sites which otherwise probably wouldn’t get investigated for whatever reason. Also good. Is it entirely realistic? No, of course not, but then neither are some of the terribly leisurely archaeology documentaries either. They go to the other extreme and are almost too laid back.

    At least Time Team does make it clear that there might be issues with things like the status of the site and so on. It’s not going to be the first time that they’ve had debates about whether the site should be excavated at all or what to do if it’s a protected monument. What we have to remember is that this is television, and yes that may well mean a little poetic licence is taken sometimes. Compared to some shows (Extreme Archaeology springs to mind), Time Team is great.


  • Reply posted by Erik Petersen (May 12, 2009, 10:15 pm):

    I am an Australian. We first got Time Team a few years ago, though it has been shown in the UK for 15 years. I love the format for the robust discussions between the different experts with differing interpretations, and the no nonsense approach. One of my favorites was a large field packed full of artifacts but no buildings, the confusion that caused, and the argument over whether it was a religious site for a periodic event, or a regional seasonal fair and market. The latest show shown here, Friars Wash, was a typical Time Team, following up on an aerial photo from the 1970s showing probable Roman Temples that no one had ever excavated. Each show typically involves geophysics, environmental studies to determine landscape changes, aerial flyovers, contemporary document study, involvement of relevant experts, and occasionally reconstructive experiments trying to understand how something was made or used, etc. They also make great use of computer graphics, showing how a discovered pottery shard could have looked in the entire pot, or showing what the building could have looked like in the field setting, etc. On the Friars Walsh show, some of the items needed subsequent analysis, and while there is some detail on the web site, , I actually discovered that full field reports are produced with all the details of what was found and recommending further study if needed.

    In my limited experience, digs in Australia are often with a time limit as part of a heritage study before highrise or building redevelopments occur. I love TimeTeam! Anyone who has worked on large modern projects in IT or similar areas can strongly relate to the ticking clock!!!


  • Reply posted by Mark Ryan (June 6, 2009, 7:58 pm):

    Being a complete novice in the field a archeology, I would like to make an observation. Firstly, I have immense respect for anyone who is able to take part in this fascinating field of scientific exploration. Since High School I have held a fascination for Human History of all sorts and in all areas.
    Secondly I feel that there has been a failure to understand the fundamental ideas behind a show like Time Team, that is, to create good television, to bring entertainment to people, and to create an interest in the otherwise boring field of archeology!(from an average TV viewers perspective) How many people have become amateur archeologists because of this show? How many children have entered the field as a result of viewing, or being involved in the show? Time Team regularly involves local school children and local communities in their activities. Time Team brings history to our living rooms, in an entertaining and informative format. It creates an interest, and by showing that not all archeologists are self important, old windbags as remote from real life as their subject matter.
    Anything that creates an interest and discussion about history must be good, surely?


  • Reply posted by Jean Manco (June 10, 2009, 5:17 am):

    Time Team can work effectively at that pace because it
    a) selects sites that are suitable for a short dig.
    b) is rich in resources and experience. It can afford geophysics on every dig, and other techniques such as dendrochronology as required. It can have specialists standing by, rather than having to wait months for a specialist’s report. That makes it far easier to understand what is being found on the spot. Most importantly, the core team had long and varied experience in the field behind them when Time Team began.


  • Reply posted by Leanne S. (June 12, 2009, 4:01 pm):

    I think the show is effective in bridging the gap that seems to be between the public and professionals. Although there are some things in the show that are debatable, like the timeline, I think that it is the best media depiction of archaeology thus far (it’s not Laura Croft or Indy Jones). I am no fan of reality shows and am only a student taking an intro archaeology class, but I did find it interesting and the excavation methods to be realistic. Also, the dig is not over in three days, thats simply the duration that Time Team is there. After the team leaves other archaeologists can further the excavation, so there’s no real rush. I think that it is best to watch the show first before making statements about it. The link to an episode of the American version is located below.


  • Reply posted by Thomas (September 27, 2009, 12:42 pm):

    I’m not an archeologist, just a programmer but I work very similar to Time Team.
    I often create prototypes of software that might not fullfill all requirements and features but will do the job. And that method is just like the work of Time Team.

    They pick up a task, bring in a lot more equipment and people you usually would have (I bet if you sum it up you have at least a thousand hours of work during these three days, not accounting the film crew) and if they finish in time it’s ok if not they make sure that others can continue their work.

    There are actually a few episodes of Time Team where they discover things on the last day and don’t more than a test dig as it wouldn’t be a proper job.

    Btw, according to Wikipedia the archaeologists involved with Time Team have published more scientific papers on excavations carried out in the series than all British university archaeology departments put together over the same period.


  • Reply posted by NickB (May 30, 2012, 2:59 pm):

    I can’t really see another way this programme could have been made other than dragging digs over multiple programmes, which would make for some frustrating and dull viewing, it may not be realistic but in the end it’s a TV programme and the subject has to be adapted to that format.


  • Reply posted by Mike Sheppard (October 19, 2012, 6:28 am):

    As a firm devotee of time team uk in all its formats, I can see how people might worry that much evidence may be lost by the methods employed in such a short time, but as has been pointed out often after time team have packed up and moved to the next site, local archaeology services can continue the dig at a more sedate pace . Its often viewers themselves who have suggested possible sites for the team to explore and without sounding superior to the usa, we have a very long time line of the uk being occupied so virtually everywhere is a potential archaelogical site evindenced by the number of finds brought up by the plough or nowadays by
    searchers with electronic aids several coin hoards have been discovered in this way.

    Anything which sparks a interest in your nations history is a good thing in my opinion and long may time team go on exciting our minds and encouraging us to research our long and eventful past


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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