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Exclusive interview C Mick Aston: an archaeological journey

By Source Current archaeology Published2013-06-08
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Real-life Archaeologists rarely become household names. Mick Aston is an exception. A defining voice in the development of Time Team and stalwart of the show since its first season in 1994, Mick’s resignation earlier this year ignited a media firestorm. He was in the news again in July after receiving a lifetime achievement award at the British Archaeological Awards. CA caught up with Mick earlier this year at his Somerset house to hear his reflections on archaeology past, present and future.

CA: How did you get into archaeology?

MA: My dad was a big influence. He was a fantastic professional cabinet maker. All the furniture in this house was made by him and yet in writing he could hardly string a sentence together. He was ignorant in that original sense of the word. But he was desperate to know more, and realised that unless I was going to be on the factory floor with him, I had to get educated. So he was over the moon when I passed the 11+ exam, and completely gaga when I got into university – this was another planet for people like him.

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One Christmas, it was probably 1962 or 1963, I got two books. One was a list of scheduled ancient monuments in England and Wales– hardly a gripper of a Christmas present was it? – and the other was the Collins Field Guide to Archaeology, by Eric Wood. What was nice about Eric Wood was that he didn’t just talk about famous monuments, he included bomb craters and dew ponds – all the stuff you actually come across when you’re wandering about the countryside. I thought that was wonderful. And because of the list of scheduled monuments I decided to go and see them. That meant bunking off school, or at least when my class went on a trip, I went off on my own personal one. It usually involved a combination of buses, walking and trespassing. I’m a terrible trespasser, always have been, I don’t really acknowledge private property at all!

After I’d exhausted all the sites nearby I discovered the CBA list of excavations. The nearest dig was at Wall in Staffordshire, and it was run by a chap called Jim Gould – a school teacher who dug at weekends. A bypass was about to be built, so they were digging on the line of that. On the first day Jim said to me, ‘can you clean up this Roman road?’ so I looked in this hole, and there was just gravel all the way across. I couldn’t see a Roman road at all. But Jim was an excellent teacher, who patiently explained that the gravel was the road! Not long after I went to university at Birmingham to study geography.

At Birmingham you could take archaeology as a subsidiary for two years, so I did that – though it was all Classical Mediterranean stuff. But Philip Rahtz had just been appointed and was living in this lilac caravan on the university carpark. There were all these letters about him in the university newsletter, asking ‘who is this long-haired, bearded hermit in the carpark?’ Anyway, Philip put up this little sign saying ‘anyone who wants to go digging, come to me on Saturday.’ I thought ‘that sounds good.’ That was the beginning – and what an introduction!

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I turned up early – as I was a young, enthusiastic man – and was offered a cup of coffee. So then I needed to go to the loo. The loo door was covered in pictures of various ladies, some of whom I recognised. I thought to myself ‘this is a very interesting world I’ve dropped in on here’. And then off we went in his little Renault camper van. Every time we went around a bend, a draw in the kitchen unit opened, and it was full of every type of contraceptive you can imagine. Then we’d go around another bend and it would shut again! For several years we spent our weekends and vacs and non-term time travelling from site to site that needed digging because it was going to be destroyed. It was one rescue dig after another.

Excavating with Philip was like an apprenticeship. We learnt archaeology by doing it, and that’s how we taught the volunteer diggers at Shapwick and teach the volunteer diggers at Winscombe [Mick’s field projects, Shapwick is now finished, while Winscombe is ongoing]. One of the things that troubles me about some universities is that you ask departmental staff what their field project is, and they don’t have one. They’re not going out. How can you possibly teach it if you’re not doing it? I think it’s really worrying.

CA: Was it this desire to reach the widest possible audience that led you to develop Time Team with Tim Taylor?

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MA: I saw it as an extension of my work as an extra-mural tutor. Time Team was a way of reaching 3 million people rather than 30 people in the village hall. But it didn’t alter the fact of what I was trying to do. Archaeology is not essential. It isn’t something that we need. The fact that some of us have done it for a living means that we are really fortunate. But if it comes to council housing, or hospital beds, there wouldn’t be any question. There are things that are more important. We need to make people realise how interesting it is, and we succeeded.

Years ago I was talking to a friend who has to advise on archaeology for gravel companies. She dreaded it, because it often involved selling the importance of archaeology to these big, self-made entrepreneurs. That could be hard. Then one day she went into a meeting and rather than being hostile the gravel company executive just said ‘Oh, is it like that programme with Baldrick on it?’ And she said ‘Well yes’. So they said ‘That’s all alright then. We know all about that.’ It’s a great example of how Time Team was reaching people that didn’t know or care about archaeology before.

But even though Time Team built up an incredible audience, the archaeological world never really ran with it. All the public interest generated in that first 15 year period was wasted. Our colleagues were too busy saying ‘you can’t do it in three days’, or ‘I don’t like the way you’ve done that.’ Nit picking really, but it could get nasty. If you went to a pub and mentioned Time Team to a bunch of archaeologists you’d instantly have a fight on your hands. People who got what the programme was doing thought it was great, but others just said ‘you can’t do archaeology like that’. I feel as though I’ve suffered from that for 20 years.

CA: Did you enjoy your time on the show?

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Time Team are a great gang when you get them together. There are some real party people. And there was always a subtext of some running joke going on. It was really funny. I do miss that side of it. And there’s a real focus to what they’re doing – none of them is motivated by money or anything like that. It’s all the archaeology – and getting the story out of it. There wasn’t anybody who wasn’t like that. And the things that would emerge over those three days, you’d get to the end and think ‘that was bloody fantastic. All that stuff we know now, fancy sorting that out.’ They’re very fast and effective. The diggers know they’re going to be interrupted with the filming, because it takes a lot of time to film the stuff. And they have to make up that time. They work very fast and accurately. I think it’s tremendously impressive. Those were the days, in many ways. But not anymore I’m afraid.

CA: Why did you decide to leave Time Team?

MA: It wasn’t that enough was enough. They had me down as archaeological consultant. I’ve always taken that to mean they can have endless advice and guidance out of me. The phone would go at all times of the day and night – a director, producer, researcher wanting to check things. I’ve always been there for them. I saw it as part of my job. If you want to guide it properly, you’ve got to be available. Then in September or October two years ago they had a meeting at Channel 4 in which they decided to play with the format, bring new presenters in, and get rid of five people on the archaeological side. And for some reason they didn’t think ‘oh, we’d better run that past Mick. He’s the archaeological consultant, he might have an opinion on that.’

I don’t play games like that. If they’d have said ‘Mick there’s a meeting in London, and we know you hateLondon, but it’s really important. It’s about the future of the programme, so we want you to be there.’ Then I would have gone. But I wasn’t given the option.

CA: You’ve talked about a feeling that despite inspiring a new generation of archaeologists you have not left a legacy. Why is that?

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MA: I don’t mean Time Team, I mean my life in archaeology. A lot of people write to me and say I’m wrong, but what will the situation be in 10 years time? There’ll be no legacy because the profession never picked up on it – cashed in if you like – and developed what we did with Time Team. It’s the same with extramural teaching. So it all feels like a waste of time. All the public education I’ve done will come to a grinding halt with me. So there is no legacy. And that really makes me angry and sad. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years looking for someone to replace me and I can’t find anyone. No one leaps out as the one to be the next celebrity archaeologist, if you like. It’s partly because extramural teaching has stopped. Running those courses was great training for television, because just like extramural teaching you never know where the brick bats are coming from next!

CA: As a celebrity archaeologist, your predecessor was Mortimer Wheeler…

MA: Surely not. I’m not in the same league. And we’re not the same sort of person. He was perfect for ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ in the 1950s. I might have been alright for Channel 4 in the 1990s. But what we need now is someone who’s good for X in the 2010s. Someone who will be as unlike me as Mortimer Wheeler. Whoever spots that person will be onto a winner. And I could give them some very good advice! Because I now know after 20 years what my mistake was.

The first was that I should have got an agent – which I’ve never had – and taken the time to make sure it was someone who understood what I was trying to do. The second is that I should have become an Associate Producer on Time Team. Then I would have been part of the decision whenever there were changes to the personnel or format of the programme. As an annually hired presenter I was in a very weak position. So those are the two mistakes that anyone else should get right.

CA: Looking back over the last 40 years, how do you view the changes in archaeology since you started out in the 1960s?

MA: A lot of it is for the good. You see the big development sites of today and there is no way we could handle those without the organisations we have now: The York Archaeological Trust, the Oxford Unit, Wessex Archaeology and so on. If you look at the training and technology those people have, I am full of admiration for that. I remember when stuff used to fall out of the side of motorway trenches because there wasn’t anybody to dig it. There was no evaluation of what archaeology might be there or anything. It’s so important that’s changed.

The sad thing, I think, is despite the public interest in archaeology we don’t seem to be able to harness it. I don’t know why, because so much work does need doing. If every parish had a project like Winscombe going on not only would we learn a lot, but the spin-offs in terms of social cohesion and the involvement of people would be absolutely phenomenal. You need the big units to do the big projects – but there’s shed loads for everyone else too. There really is.

As CA thanked Mick and packed up its kit, he added a final thought.

MA: A lot of what I’ve said here is very heartfelt, you know. It could get me into trouble. I’m too honest. I say what I think, not what I think I ought to say. It’s a great weakness really.