Thursday, March 10, 2016

Did Time Team Cheat?

Winter is dragging on a bit so I have been indulging in what has become to be called "Binging" on episodes of Time Team.

Time Team was a UK based show that never quite caught on in the US.  But it had a long run and did a great deal to popularize archaeology in Great Britain.  The premise was as follows:

The Team turns up on a site and has exactly three days to try and answer some archaeological question.  Perhaps local metal detectorists have found ancient artifacts in a field where there was no known early settlement.  Or maybe there was a shipwreck and nobody knew how old it was.  And so forth.

The face of Time Team was a hyperactive homunculus named Tony Robinson, best known as "Baldrick" the dim witted, malodorous lackey in the classic "Black Adder" series.

The team also had an assortment of professionals.  Archaeologists, geo-physics imagers, historians, artists and the like.  Many were quirky personalities in their own rights.

Time Team was on the air from 1994 to 2013.  Quite a run and they did many episodes relating to Roman archaeology.  Courtesy of You Tube I have watched a good sized sample of same.  And my question is:  Are they playing fair?

Three days is not much time to do a proper dig.  Oh, sometimes it might be necessary to dash in right ahead of the bulldozers (or JCBs as the Brits call them).  But can they really do decent archaeology in that compressed time frame?  And are they taking liberties with the facts to make for more compelling television?

The question of whether rules are being broken of course is a matter of interpretation.  I do not claim that TT did not complete their excavations in three days.  I do not think they tossed in any finds from outside that time frame.  Everything they show you is true.

But I have to say, if the measure of cheating is whether or not they present things fairly, they totally cheated on various levels.

Time Team was aimed at a general audience.  Not many of whom might have, for instance, experience excavating a Roman settlement.  Well......I have such experience and I caught Baldrick and company trying to pass off a few real howlers.

Consider the episode they did on the Roman site of Birdoswald.  I'll put the link in because it actually is pretty entertaining.

Supposedly they were looking for the Roman cemetery which was in danger of being toppled over a cliff edge due to erosion.  Their efforts to find the cemetery were in my opinion pretty perfunctory. They lowered one gal over the cliff on ropes. She looked left and right, saw no defunct Romans and that was that.  Then they proceeded to just put in trenches anywhere they fancied, no longer trying much to find the cemetery.  At one point they got quite excited about a bit of wood they found about six inches below the surface.  They speculated for the benefit of the viewers as to the possibility of it being part of a wooden Roman coffin.

Nonsense.  Having dug a similar site a few miles away I can assure you that in that climate any wood you find near the surface is either modern or has been reduced to dust.  A real bit of preserved Roman wood, as one of my digging pals displays below, comes from much deeper down.  This was five feet deep and under water.  These deep anaerobic layers often smell rather like "Baldrick".

Another Time Team episode dug in the area around the Roman fort at Binchester.  Unlike Birdoswald I have not visited this site in person but know it from their very well done website.  Check it out.  When Time Team came on site they made a big deal of doing their geophys readings and expressed great surprise at a series of ditches.  "Could this be an even earlier fort?".  The implication was that the history books would have to be re-written.  Well.....the problem here is that the earlier fort had been discovered back in 1937, and that without question these whopping great ditches were clearly seen on earlier surveys.

Oh, I could go on.  At various times in the series Tony says flat out that he wants to find pretty things to show the audience. He usually says this in response to the archaeologists who perversely insist on getting worked up over ditches and "manky bits of stone".  And by gosh those fancy bits of jewelry and good condition coins just keep coming.  Since the program is under their self imposed time constraints their trenches are rarely deep. So finds that turn up that close to the surface should be encrusted and unlovely when they first see the light of day.  No responsible conservator would consent to just taking the steel brush to them.  So I am fairly sure that the sparkling clear brooches with enamel still shining bright were cautiously and appropriately cleaned with the usual time consuming care.  And waved in front of the camera at a later date.

Having been on TV a few times myself I can of course understand that it is the editing that makes things look good.  And so Time Team, a show I both enjoy and admire, plays a bit free and easy with chronology.  And certainly does a huge amount of site scouting before digging.  And...their video editors are probably the most important members of "The Team".

No comments: