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Behind the Scenes at a Time Team dig
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The Time Team produces two contradictory responses from most professional archaeologists. No one can deny that it has been a long running and successful series, popularising archaeology and thus making the job of the archaeologist seem exciting and relevant. It has succeeded in capturing a widespread following for archaeology where previous attempts, fronted by respectable academic figures, have simply reaffirmed an image of dull people looking at dusty pots. However the format of a three-day excavation, the diversions into often rather questionable "experimental archaeology" and the eventual production of clear "results" simply do not represent archaeology as it is experienced in real life. In addition Time Team's reputation for publication of its sites has been problematic (no account of their two previous excavations in Northamptonshire has been received for publication by the NAS). Northamptonshire County Council's Historic Environment Team has stated that they are currently unable to co-operate with Time Team as a result of their failure to proceed with publication of previous fieldwork that was carried out at Alderton. Of late there has also been considerable concern voiced by several County Sites and Monuments Records, regarding the organisation of the Time Team Big Dig, a national day of test pit digging carried out in June of 2003.

Nevertheless, when I heard that Time Team would be coming to the Prebendal Manor House in Nassington, I contacted the owner Jane Baile to ask whether I could take some photos for the NAS website. Previous excavations at the manor, carried out by Jane, Pat Foster and Jill Johnston, had revealed a late Saxon building beneath the existing medieval Manor House and the Ramsey Chronicle documents a visit to the site by Cnut. Time Team was planning to excavate within the existing medieval building and also carry out geophysical survey and further excavations in the grounds. In the event, rather than just visiting, Jane kindly arranged for me to be part of the team of local diggers who are hired for each episode to assist the Time Team's permanent staff. She obviously thought that I needed the exercise.


Arrived at 8.30am to find the Prebendal Manor House overrun with about 60 people. Most of them were connected to the three camera units and the production team, although there were also the operators of a JCB and a cherry picker, a mysterious man with waders, Bob Kings with his metal detector, specialist builders and two members of the Red Cross, who sat around throughout the entire proceedings in the forlorn hope that someone would injure themselves.

Prebendal Manor House
The Prebendal Manor House
The Time Team diggers, who come from various professional units were introduced to the local diggers who had been recruited from Northamptonshire Archaeology. Then we all sat down and waited to be told where to dig.. and waited and waited…….

Finally at 12.10 it was decided to open a trench on the lawn outside the main hall and a turf cutting machine was fired up. After it had successfully removed two strips we were told that "there was a problem" and that the turf should now be removed by hand. With virtually no topsoil on the site, this was difficult and time consuming and there was muttering amongst the workforce until Phil Harding had a word with the production team. The turf cutter was brought back and work on the trench continued until 1 p.m. when we all stopped for lunch

Ant Maull, Sam Hepburn, Ben Pears and Dave Stacey together with Bob Kings enjoy a well earned lunch following hours of inactivity

The lunches provided throughout the three days were awesome. A choice of cooked main courses followed by a hot pudding, fruit salad and cheese . Later that afternoon there would be a coffee break at which vast quantities of sandwiches, crisps and sweets would be handed out. I have never eaten so well on an excavation (not even in France).

The afternoon was then spent with the NA diggers working on Trench 1 while the Time Team diggers painstakingly removed quarry tiles from the cross passage of the Manor House.

Trench 1
Trench 1 open at last (The offending WC sign
is on the brown door in the background)

The trench was cleaned and a single Iron Age ditch was located, the existence of which had been known from previous excavations. We had been scheduled to finish at 6.30 but the final scene of the day in which Tony Robinson emerged from the cross passage, bounded past Trench 1 and then disappeared into the hall, was causing problems. After several abortive attempts everyone seemed satisfied but then it was noticed that a large 'WC' sign appeared in the background of the opening shot . This was removed and after several more attempts the director pronounced himself satisfied. Then the sound man revealed that Phil Harding's radio mike had not been working and we would all have to do it again. Throughout this Ant Maull and myself had been trowelling and brushing the same part of the trench for over half an hour. In fairness this was obviously part of our job and the camera crews remained steadfastly polite whenever an archaeologist made their lives difficult, such as my unexpected appearance in the middle of a re-take to ask whether they had finished yet.

Time Team film crew in action
"Can we have that again please?" - filming in progress


excavation in the cross passage
Excavation in the cross passage
Again we arrived at 8.30 but this time we were called to work after only an hour and a half of idleness. Today I was to assist in the excavation of features within the screen passage that had appeared after the removal of the quarry tiles. This went reasonably well until pottery specialist Paul Blinkhorn appeared and announced that a sherd from the massive post pit was a part of a Stamford Ware lamp. This required a camera team to move in and work ceased while a "look at this amazing find" scene was shot and Paul managed to restrain himself from asking himself whether this lamp had once burnt on the banqueting table of King Cnut.

A restrained lunch was followed by an afternoon in the cross passage. The lighting equipment is impressive and there is no sense of colour distortion that is often a problem when digging under artificial light.. An unexpected difficulty associated with working indoors is that you are unable to see when the sandwiches arrive for the afternoon tea break. Emerge at 4.30 to find that all the tuna mayonnaise has been eaten. More trenches began to be opened and rumours circulated about the discovery of a giant grubenhäuser which eventually turned out to be a drain.

new trenches are opened
New trenches are opened


For a change, digging began almost as soon as we all arrived on site. Still more excavation within the cross passage to determine the relationship between a beam slot and a post hole (it would appear that the beam slot cut the post hole)

At one o'clock, conscious that this was my last day, I felt the overwhelming urge to eat an excessively large lunch. On the menu today was sausage and leek mash with carrot batons, red cabbage and onion gravy with choice of an additional ceasar salad, followed by a fruit pie or fresh fruit salad and a cheese board. In the afternoon digging slowed, context sheets appeared and sections had to be drawn. The final day concluded with a crowd scene on the lawn outside the Manor with a man dressed as King Cnut, handing out horns filled with Sainsburys wheat beer. The mystery of the man with the waders was finally revealed. He had been wearing them while cutting reeds with which to construct a Saxon style reed pipe.

the finale
The Finale

So what is it like to dig for the time Team? In one very important respect it is very similar to working for most commercial archaeological units in this country because the rate of pay was scarcely generous. I do not wish to embarrass my fellow excavators by revealing how much we were paid but for a 10½ hour day, it was as close to the minimum wage as I care to approach. On the other hand, there was an array of specialist equipment in use on the site, helicopters, ground penetrating radar, sinister looking GPS total stations, which were a stark contrast to the level of equipment used in the everyday life of a contract archaeologist

In short, it was an amusing distraction from normal life and an unrivalled opportunity to observe how television is created . Not much archaeology was done (at least not by me), but a small and perhaps significant addition has been made to our knowledge of an important Northamptonshire site. The episode filmed at Nassington will appear sometime between October and April. I'm the one in the blue T shirt .

Phil Harding and Martin Tingle unexpectedly mobbed by fans
Phil Harding and the author, unexpectedly mobbed by fans

Martin Tingle, May 2003