A bit of trench warfare

February 12, 1999

Time Team star Mick Aston is happy to help the public bone up on archaeology but he dug his heels in over submitting his work to the research assessment exercise. Harriet Swain reports

It is about ten minutes since the polished grandfather clock in the Society of Antiquaries struck three, and Mick Aston, rushing dishevelled into the marble hall, apologises for being a little late.

He has just been for lunch with colleagues at a posh French restaurant, he explains, although he found it far too fancy. Why they could not have downed a pint or two and a plate of chips in a pub he cannot understand.

Anyway, the lunch and reception this evening are the reason he is dressed in a rainbow-striped jumper and fleece top.

This is his trademark outfit, the one three million-plus viewers see him wearing every week on Channel 4's cult archaeology programme, Time Team.

Later, he brings out a little pipe-cleaner model of himself, complete with jumper, specs and straggly white hair and beard. This was sent to him by one of his fans. He has had a growing band of admirers - which he finds "disturbing" - since starting on Time Team five years ago.

Time Team, regularly one of Channel 4's ten most popular programmes, gives Aston and a team of experts three days to discover as much as they can about a site, from a Roman villa or Saxon burial ground to a medieval castle. Geophysical research equipment allows them to assess potential dig sites by examining tiny magnetic disturbances or electrical changes in the ground that suggest buried artefacts. Once they have discovered earthworks or pieces of pot, computer graphics help reconstruct the site or object.

Aston's experience of teaching archaeology, especially to mature students, as professor of landscape archaeology at the University of Bristol, meant he knew such a programme would be popular. He touted the idea around for a while before it was taken up by producer Tim Taylor. But he did not bank on how much spin-off work it would create. There is a book tie-in - the Atlas of Archaeology - and a Time Team club.

"I could spend half of every day dealing with the collateral damage of Time Team," Aston says. "But I went into it to get people excited by archaeology and now that they are I can't walk away."

He says he misses academic archaeology and would like to have time for more teaching. But he is likely to remain something of a maverick. Despite being a permanent member of staff at Bristol, he initially wanted to keep his work out of the research assessment exercise until the university said it was policy that all research-active staff should submit. He says the RAE is "corrupt", handicapping some departments doing excellent research, and he says that academics in many other institutions have talked of rebelling.

Since last year, he has been taking a back seat at the university while Mark Corney, a former investigator with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, fills in for him. Aston returns to teaching in the December-to-March gap between filming, when he teaches parts of an undergraduate and MA course in landscape archaeology. He also starts various introductory courses - "a lot of people sign up because I'm there so I have to appear" - keeps a close eye on students' projects and supervises a group of postdocs.

This year is the last of the ten-year Shapwick research project, directed by Aston, which charts the origins and developments of post-Roman settlements in a small parish in Somerset.

Aston got into archaeology as a boy in the Black Country. It interested his factory-worker father, and together they would visit sites as far away as Cornwall. He has never forgiven his school - or grammar schools in general - for failing to tap into this enthusiasm.

For a while he did not forgive universities either, after receiving a series of rejection letters. Birmingham University eventually offered him a place at the last moment. "I (initially) told them to sod off. I had applied and they had said no. I'm like an elephant. I remember these things." A calm talking-to by his parents led him reluctantly to accept the place. He has been in and out of universities ever since.

The mid-1960s was a good time and the Midlands a good place to be interested in archaeology, he says. Development of the motorway network and new towns, such as Redditch, meant there were plenty of sites to examine.

He continued to postgraduate study but never completed his PhD after his van containing all of his notes was stolen while he was at a T Rex concert. It did not worry him much. He came out of university with a broad education, not particularly bothered about getting a job but fired by the wonders of archaeology and communicating them.

He was already directing extramural classes as an undergraduate and he has continued teaching mature learners since. "Their life experience means they are feeding stuff back all the time," he says.

He gets a phone call about once a fortnight, typically from someone aged 40-something in middle management, who never fulfilled their academic potential, asking how they can get into archaeology. Once they start, he says, "they come alive. It's like mid-life crisis problem-solving." What makes it so gripping for them, he says, is the combination of physical and mental challenges and the fact that it is such a polymath subject.

After Birmingham, Aston worked in county museums in Oxford and Somerset but woke up one day panicking he could be there for the rest of his life. The job was "too safe", he says. So he quadrupled the mortgage and left, joining the extramural department at Oxford University. A year later, in 1979, he joined Bristol, where two years ago, he was made professor.

In the meantime, he has found television celebrity and helped turn archaeology from a boring collection of soil, books and bones into a sexy subject using the latest scientific techniques, computer graphics and Anneka Rice-style helicopter trips.

All this has not been treated too kindly by some archaeologists, although many think it has helped keep archaeology and classics numbers buoyant. They dismiss some of the technology as gimmicky and stress that real archaeology demands more patience.

Alan McWhirr, director of the distance-learning unit in the University of Leicester's archaeology department, says: "It has done a lot for archaeology in publicising it. However, I think it does sometimes give a false impression of how much can be done in a limited time. Most archaeological work isn't done at that frenetic pace."

Christopher Rowe, chairman of the council of the Classical Association, is more pragmatic. "I am all in favour of the programme. As far as the public image of archaeology, it does nothing but good. The pure archaeologist may get on his high horse about it but if the aim is to bring people in, it succeeds beautifully."

Aston says digs are now subject to increasing time pressures anyway because of limited budgets. In fact, he says, Time Team is a major funder of archaeological projects, putting in about Pounds 6 million in the past few years. "I have always made it a very high priority to carry professionals with us," Aston says, "to the extent that we had terrible rows in the first series about whether what we were filming would be done in a normal dig."

In any case, he does not hold with the way everything seems to hinge on money these days. It is a philosophy that inspires his outlook on archaeology. He is more interested in sites than things. "For me, the fascination is earlier people's lives - ordinary people's lives," he says. "It is the poor ordinary sod on the ground. I'm not interested in pyramids and generals. Those bastards have always done ****-all and have been OK and always will be. It is about what sort of crops are growing, life expectancy, where people lived."

Tony Robinson, better known as Baldrick in Blackadder and host of Time Team, has said the series could be seen as "five old hippies digging up a field" if it were not for the seriousness of its science and research.

In fact, Mick Aston is a man determined to dig out the interest in ancestors that exists in every one of us.

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