Back to the future: visiting Time Team’s first new digs in a decade

6 mins read

The popular archaeology series Time Team has returned with its first new episodes in a decade. Felix Rowe took Current Archaeology behind the scenes at two very different excavations, investigating Iron Age Cornwall and Roman Oxfordshire.

‘I thought that it was all theatre, cooked up in the edit suite… but it really is as chaotic as it looks!’ Dr Gus Casely-Hayford joked on a sunny late September day in 2021. Sitting in a field of turnips in rural Oxfordshire, Gus – the inaugural Director of V&A East – was reflecting on his very first experience of filming a Time Team excavation. Just two weeks earlier, he had been exploring an Iron Age souterrain, or fogou, in Cornwall (of which more below), and now the Team were investigating the site of a large Romano-British villa on the estate of Broughton Castle, near Banbury in Oxfordshire.

Time Team stalwarts Carenza Lewis and John Gater examine a trench at Boden in Cornwall, where the Team have been investigating an Iron Age fogou. Photo: Charlie Newlands/Time Team.

Despite the rural tranquillity of the setting, the scene before him was a hive of activity, with almost a hundred people darting in all directions, variously armed with trowels, cameras, metal-detectors, drones, or walkie-talkies. This flurry of movement was the result of months of careful planning coming to fruition, with each individual purposefully setting out on a specific task – which, of course, needed to be accomplished over the traditional three-day span.

The digs also marked a significant milestone, representing the first new Time Team excavations in a decade. First airing in 1994, Time Team quickly became a Sunday teatime staple and a celebrated British institution. The flagship Channel 4 series produced 20 series, over 230 episodes, and countless spin-offs and specials, before finally drawing to an end in 2014 (see CA 274). Its success saw Channel 4 essentially ploughing £4 million directly into British archaeology during the show’s run, and the post-excavation reports that were produced by Wessex Archaeology represent a significant body of research that is a remarkable archaeological legacy in itself.

Following an ongoing crowdfunding campaign on Patreon, Time Team has completed its first new digs in a decade; here, excavation (and filming) is under way at Broughton Castle. Photo: Charlie Newlands/Time Team.

While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic posed serious problems for archaeological fieldwork, though, it sparked a global renaissance for Time Team, as locked-down fans began to reconnect with old episodes, or to discover them anew on YouTube. Today, the Time Team Classics channel (see ‘Further information’ on p.29) receives two million views a month. The path was set for a long-anticipated return – and one that would take a thoroughly 21st-century approach, actively involving fans in the process (CA 375). Thanks to the support of thousands of fans worldwide on Patreon (an online funding platform where supporters, or ‘patrons’, pledge monthly donations to projects in exchange for exclusive access to extra content and other benefits), Time Team is currently premiering two brand new, three-part episodes on YouTube. And that’s just the start, with two new partnerships set to shed light on Sutton Hoo (CA 383), and more potential sites currently in development for further excavations this year.

A digital reconstruction of how the Iron Age site may have looked. Image: Time Team/Shadow Tor Studios.

The new approach brought an entirely novel set of challenges, in sharing the production process as much as the finished ‘product’. Previously, the viewer was first introduced to the site only when watching the completed episode on TV. The Patreon model flips the script entirely, with fans directly interacting in development from Day Zero, even helping to decide which sites to take forward to excavation. One fan likened it (with evident glee) to ‘flying the plane while still building it’. Patrons also enjoyed unrivalled behind-the-scenes access during the excavations, with a daily virtual ‘walkabout’ of the site, Q&A sessions with the team, and 3D models to explore.

The first episode, set in Cornwall, captures the nervous excitement of getting the band back together. It was like the first day back at school after the long summer holidays: old friends reuniting and sharing trench talk, while new bonds are being forged with fresh arrivals, revelling in wide-eyed anticipation of experiencing a ‘Time Team’. Everyone was finding their feet, settling into a rhythm – but come Dig Two in Oxfordshire, the process was already starting to feel like a well-oiled machine. So, what did the Team find?

Aeriel-Cam’s photogrammetry image captures an aerial view of the Boden site, and the remains of the Cornish fogou that Time Team was investigating. Image: Time Team/Aerial-Cam.

The Cornish fogou at Boden

Time Team has a long-standing association with Cornish prehistoric archaeology. In 1995, the Team investigated the site of another fogou (a kind of underground, dry-stone structure) at Boleigh, and six years later they uncovered the remains of a prehistoric settlement complete with several roundhouses at Gear Farm, just a stone’s throw from their current site at Boden on the Lizard Peninsula.

The Boden fogou is under the thriving custodianship of Meneage Archaeology Group (MAG), led by James Gossip of Cornwall Archaeological Unit. The site has yielded some interesting finds over the years, including a bronze dagger (now held at Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro) and sherds of imported pottery originating from the distant shores of North Africa. To build on this, one of the key aims for Time Team’s dig was to get a greater understanding of the fogou’s plan and extent. Earlier excavations by James Gossip and MAG have unearthed a significant L-shaped passage – but, in keeping with other contemporaneous fogous that open out into larger chambers, there was evidence (including partially revealed cavities) to suggest that these subterranean spaces once extended further into the surrounding area. In one section, excavated steps had been cut into the bedrock to descend deeper underground beneath the field.

A wider (though, by nature, more elusive) aim was to shed further light on the original function of fogous – a debate that has raged since these mysterious spaces were first investigated by Victorian antiquarians. Were they intended as a defensive refuge, a spiritual space, or simply a place for storing food? They certainly represent monumental feats of engineering. Witnessing one first-hand and walking its passages, you really appreciate how its construction involved shifting tons of earth, lifting huge capping stones, and selecting fine stones according to their aesthetic qualities. As James Gossip highlighted, the endeavour that went into its construction and the peculiarities of its design clearly imply a status that’s elevated beyond a purely utilitarian purpose alone.

Classicist Natalie Haynes (who joins Gus as one of Time Team’s new presenters) has remarked on the sense of clearly defined spaces within the fogou, describing it as a ‘liminal’ moment, an ancient Greek idea evoking the threshold (physical, symbolic, or spiritual) from one world into another. Do functional practicality and some deeper ceremonial purpose need to be mutually exclusive, though? Could a fogou be both cathedral and grain store? Throughout history, a bad harvest could be disastrous for any community; grain was quite literally the giver of life – a valuable resource that demanded protection, respect, perhaps even reverence.

It could be prescient that a broken quern stone (used for grinding cereal) was discovered during Time Team’s dig, just metres from the fogou, inside a deep pit that has speculatively been identified as a ‘ritual shaft’ or well. One theory is that important items were deliberately deposited into the ‘well’ as offerings in a symbolic or spiritual gesture, as was common practice in the ancient world.

The Time Team ‘Data Dome’, a mobile information hub, can be seen in the background of this photograph. Image: Charlie Newlands/Time Team.

There were more surprises to come: showing up, clear as day, in John Gater’s new geophysics results was a rigidly square-shaped anomaly, stamped among the swirly, fluid curves that characterise this prehistoric landscape. Everything about its uniform, ordered, rectilinear footprint screamed: ‘Roman’. The word ‘temple’ was mooted tentatively in hushed tones – such a structure would be a significant discovery anywhere in Britain, but particularly rare and ground-breaking in far west Cornwall. Evidence of late Roman influence had already been discovered on the site, including a colossal sherd of Gaulish Samian-ware – but you will have to watch the full episode to discover whether Time Team was able to settle the question of this strange geophysical anomaly.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 386. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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