Monday, 12 March 2012

Mick Aston interview

This months British Archaeology printed an interview with Mick entitled 'Why I had to leave Time Team'. I was astonished. 

I knew that Mick had been a long standing supporter of public participation in archaeology and its use in education and that it is vital that archaeology in the UK follows other countries in supporting and promoting the past as a tool for social inclusion and fostering a sense of identity. He knows that unless the public support the professionals and academics we are, in his phrase, "finished". He saw Time Team as a way to address millions, rather than what I do, talk to 30-40 people in a hall or teach 9-10 students in an evening.    

He underlined his problems, now, with TT by giving the programme 'Countryfile' as an example of how TT has gone wrong. He said that Countryfile has cut out the experts (except for one) and filled the presenter roles with attractive young things and that it has become "cliche-ridden pap". Incredibly strong words. In one, rather amusing, anecdote he said that on one TT programme they had someone dress as a 'monk' when in fact the outfit was a friar's. 

Rather sadly he said that TT has not 'worked'. It would have been instructive if the interviewer had asked him how it had not worked and outlined Mick's thoughts as to how he saw TT, from the start, working. If the idea of TT was to introduce archaeology to a greater number of people it has worked. No programme can really give the public the real, every day, reality of a diggers life, with all its tedious bits and routine. But it has shown what dedicated people there are in the job and all the skills needed to do the best job possible on sites that, after excavation, are gone forever. 

One statement that struck me was: "Archaeology in Britain is a shambles from top to bottom". He is very afraid for the future of the subject and I think that this is based on the fragmentation created by the  commercialisation of archaeology after PPG16 in 1990. I may be wrong but he is probably a supporter of the old County Council units, with locally based archaeologists building up expertise in their area. Whereas now we have commercial units dropped in to an area after winning a competitive tender. Dorset had this on the Weymouth bypass site, where Oxford Archaeology dug the site. The other results of fragmentation are low pay and very bad working contracts for diggers, where you can be laid off in days and no co-ordinated voice  when it comes to dealing with politicians. The first results in large numbers of skilled archaeologists leaving the job for a 'proper wage' and the second results in politicians (who only "respond to pressure") not addressing the many problems in the heritage 'industry' and lack of co-ordination across the country to protect and enhance Britain's many sites (look at Stonehenge!). 

In many ways British archaeology is shambolic. Leaving most of the job in the hands of the 'market' has destroyed the ethos of 'service' and 'localism'. But it is better than what we had before PPG16, with our archaeology being destroyed every day under the relentless drive for redevelopment in our cities and towns. Hundreds of dedicated archaeologists work every day to save sites either in situ or by record through excavation. That didn't happen in the 'good old days'. 

Archaeology as a profession is only 22 years old. It needs to learn from it own past and move toward a better future. I agree with Mick that things have to be better structured in archaeology as a profession from top to bottom. How that is to be done I do not know definitively (better and brighter people than me need to put their heads together on that one). 

We are saving more sites from destruction without record. But for what and why? I would like to see more people involved from the community. I would like to see trained community archaeologists working with field archaeologists to bring that about. The CBA is working on that by training up some people in community work, but it is too small and looking at the people they are recruiting they are falling into the same trap as Countryfile (young, white, middle class - not exactly representative of the communities they will be working in). 

I would like to see better pay and conditions for professional diggers. Units working in the areas they are based so that the information stays in the local community after being unearthed by local diggers. Sites where local people who want to get involved are not seen as pests or 'taking our jobs' - etc etc and so on.

It seems now that Mick is working locally and getting a lot out of it, as I do. He say that "that's what gets me up in the morning". Hear hear. Only by working locally can we fit the small pieces of the jigsaw of Britain's story together as a nation.          



  1. I like your comments on Mick’s interview on why he left Time Team. I have been a fan of Time Team and find it sad that Mick has left Time Team after so long on a sour note. I am Australian but have an enduring love of English history and find the explorations of Time Team give me a glimpse of ‘old England’. I travelled all over the England and Scotland in the 1990’s and took in as much of the history and beauty of the old country as I could. I hope that Time Team gets its mojo back before it goes the way of TV programs that loses viewers by messing with the format.

  2. Paul, thanks for the comment. I think that the program has had it's day. Now is the time for a new direction. I would like to see programs looking at local people doing local archaeology. It would be full of stories and characters. Plus a new format for a TT type program. Best wishes and keep looking in.