‘Time Team’ could reveal the future of public engagement

The UK archaeology programme, which is being revived on YouTube, represents an ideal to which other disciplines can aspire, says Keith Frankish

September 24, 2021
An archaeological dig
Source: iStock

This autumn sees the return of the archaeology series Time Team, in a new crowdfunded form, on YouTube.

The series, which was created by Tim Taylor and fronted by Tony Robinson, originally ran on the UK’s Channel 4 from 1994 to 2013. Each week, the team – a group of regular and guest archaeologists – would visit a different, largely unexplored site and conduct a three-day assessment dig, with the aim of answering specific questions about the site and reconstructing the lives of the people who lived there.

The programme had likeable personnel, exciting discoveries, scenic locations and a strong narrative (“just three days” to complete the dig, with no guarantee of success and often in the face of bad weather). As a result, it attracted a large audience and retained a loyal following even after it was cancelled (partly for budgetary reasons). An official YouTube channel with classic episodes and new commentaries was a hit during lockdown, and earlier this year Taylor announced that new episodes would be made, funded through supporters on Patreon and made freely available.

There’s a lesson in this for academia. Time Team presented scholarly research in a new way. It wasn’t just about archaeology; it was archaeology. The digs were serious pieces of research, done to professional standards and later written up for publication. The programme showed what professional archaeologists do, how they do it, and why it is important to do it. And it presented it all as an interesting and enjoyable exercise. Of course, the programme makers omitted the more tedious parts – the planning, the recording, the writing up, and so on – but they showed us why those parts were worth the effort.

At the same time, the programme presented a friendly, inclusive picture of the archaeological profession. The team members came from diverse backgrounds, and many spoke with strong regional accents. They were like friends you might meet down at your local (the team would review each day’s work in the local pub); they just happened to be experts on mediaeval monasteries, Neolithic flint tools or Anglo-Saxon burial rites.

The programme was a superb piece of academic outreach, and it must have inspired many people to go into archaeology. In its new incarnation, it will have an even closer connection with its audience, with extended footage and interviews available online and opportunities for supporters to be involved in decision-making.

The fact that it has been possible to crowdfund the new digs is perhaps the best testament to the success of this form of outreach, and while crowdfunding is certainly not a model for academic funding generally, it is cheering to see academic work presented in a way that makes people eager to support it.

Could the Time Team model be applied to other academic disciplines? Could there be a Biology Team or a Philosophy Team? There would be difficulties. Archaeology is well suited to TV. The process of surveying and digging is a strongly visual one, which offers the childlike thill of searching for buried treasure and provides a focal point for the investigation. In opening a trench, archaeologists get in touch with their subject matter in a direct and concrete way, uncovering evidence that can decisively answer the questions they have set themselves.

Few other areas of academic research have such a dramatic focus. Even where empirical testing of hypotheses is possible, as in scientific fields, the process is often complex, lengthy and not particularly visual. And many arts and humanities subjects do not involve experimental work at all but make progress through discussion and gradual consensus-building – a process that is often slow and outwardly dull. “Do we have free will? Philosophy Team has just 3,000 years to find out!”

Still, Time Team represents an ideal of public engagement to which other academic disciplines can at least aspire. The goal of all research is, ultimately, discovery: the unearthing of new information, theories, perspectives and techniques that transform how we see our world and our possibilities within in. There is at least metaphorical digging, and academics can search for engaging aspects of the process to show to the public.

Show, not tell. The key to the success of Time Team was that it showed real work being done and encouraged viewers to identify with the people doing it. Academics in other fields can seek to build a similar connection with the public, showing themselves “opening a trench” and working as part of an open, diverse academic community, where the only conditions for inclusion are knowledge, passion and commitment.

In a small way, I have been exploring this myself with fellow philosopher of mind Philip Goff, through our podcast Mind Chat. We have been interviewing leading philosophers of mind, teasing out the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, putting our own views on the line, and inviting questions from listeners – not just explaining philosophy but trying to do a bit of it live. It’s no Time Team, but it does show philosophers getting their hands dirty.

I hope all academics will watch the new episodes of Time Team. I’m sure they’ll enjoy them, and they may be inspired to go out and do some digging themselves.

Keith Frankish is honorary reader in philosophy at the University of Sheffield, a visiting research fellow at The Open University and adjunct professor on the brain and mind programme at the University of Crete.

POSTSCRIPT:

The new episodes of Time Team, presented Gus Casely-Hayford and Natalie Haynes, will be broadcast on the official Time Team YouTube channel.

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