Did you watch last night’s premier of Time Team America? It’s the newest show on PBS. Actually, it’s not really new. PBS borrowed the name and format from the very popular British television show – Time Team. I absolutely love the original show, so I was anxious to see the PBS version. Could it be as entertaining and informative as the original? Could they match the drama, the humor, and the science?
Time Team America follows the same general format – with a three day dig designed to resolve some particular archaeological mystery. A bunch of specialists collaborate with the excavation team. It’s fast paced. The show jumps from survey to expert to dig to artist. Ideally it all comes together in the end.
Like I said, I love the British Time Team. So I watched last night’s show with high expectations. Overall I thought Time Team America pulled it off (barely). On the plus side, the show provided a realistic depiction of archaeological fieldwork. In the first episode they were on Roanoke Island in North Carolina looking for the first English settlement in America. The excavators struggled with interpreting faint soil stains, possible postholes, that they so wanted to be part of a 16th century structure. What they found was mostly the small scraps of residue – a few ceramic sherds of European origin, a clay pipe bowl, and a glass bead. In some ways I was glad for these small finds. They really are typical of most archaeological digs – a lot of work for a little bit of old garbage.
I also liked the show’s choice of host – an artist, Collin Cambell. I think he can bring an artist’s perspective to interpretation and story-telling. Collin is young, hip, and perceptive. Unfortunately he seems to lack the playful exuberance of Tony Robinson, the host of the original Time Team. In fact, almost everyone on Time Team America came across as being a bit too serious. Probably having cameras rolling adds a lot of pressure. Hopefully the team will get more comfortable as the episodes progress. The more fun they have doing the show the more fun it will be to watch.
My wife had a minor criticism of Collin’s work. His on-the-spot pencil drawings are hard to see on tv. She thinks he should switch to charcoal drawings. It’s probably a harder medium to work with, but it would make a better visual for the viewing audience.
What I really like about both the original and the American Time Team is how well these shows illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of archaeology. Everyone plays a role. Historians, soil scientists, and geophysics specialists work with graphic artists, backhoe operators, and surveyors combine their efforts for a successful dig and more a complete interpretation. I always like to show an episode from the original Time Team to my students so that they can see the process of archaeology in action.
Next week Time Team America goes to Topper, a pre-Clovis site in South Carolina. I lecture on this site and think it is one of the most fascinating early sites in North America. I’m looking forward to this episode. Hopefully they’ll find something cool.