Posted by: Brian | July 16, 2009

Time Team at Topper

I just watched this week’s Time Team America episode on South Carolina’s Clovis/pre-Clovis Topper site. As an archaeologist, I really enjoyed this episode. Topper is a personal favorite of my ‘First Americans’ lecture. The site is one of the strongest candidates documenting humans were in North America earlier than 13500 years ago. What I like even better is Albert Goodyear’s account of his paradigm shift and eventual discovery of the site’s possible pre-Clovis component. His story is a classic example of how science works and the power of paradigms. It’s a very useful case study when lecturing to undergraduates about archaeology.

The Time Team America crew were surprisingly conservative in their assessment of the pre-Clovis evidence at Topper. They all remained unconvinced (but open to the possibility) by the end of the show. In fact, the show really focused more on the site’s Clovis component including examining the relatively new hypothesis known as the Younger Dryas Impact Event. According to this hypothesis, a comet or other space debris hit North America around 12,900 bp triggering a thousand year return to glacial conditions and possibly even leading to widespread megafauna extinctions. A highlight of the show for me was watching the geologist Dr. Allan West run a magnet over the Clovis soils to collect microspherules. These miscrospherules are part of the evidence of the impact event. It was fun to see how easily they could be collected – just with a magnet.

I said that ‘as an archaeologist I enjoyed this show’. As an archaeologist, however, I would enjoy any show that had digging, flintknapping, cool artifacts, and good stratigraphy. I can see showing this episode to my students because of the Topper site’s significance. But the really important question is whether Time Team America can entertain and engage the general public. I think maybe not. To me the show still misses some of the original British version’s charm and excitement. For one thing, Time Team America doesn’t do a good job of integrating the interdisciplinary approaches. The work of their different specialists was a little too disconnected. The geophysics crew, for example, played a bigger role in the Topper episode, but their findings couldn’t be confirmed within the show’s time frame. I just think most people will think the GPR results were no big deal (which might actually prove correct). The excavations also provided little to excite a non-archaeologist. The original Time Team always seems to have a dramatic conclusion. Time Team America is educational, but is still missing that storyline arc of beginning mystery, middle struggles, and satisfying ending.

On the other hand, Time Team America is probably a more accurate depiction of archaeology – since I would never expect some dramatic discovery in just three days of fieldwork. The Time Team’s Clovis biface and bag of flakes was actually a pretty good haul for the amount of digging they did. Watching archaeologists at work on a real dig is probably akin to watching paint dry – or as Calvin once said, “Archaeologists have the most mind-numbing job on the planet”. I’m not saying that Time Team America is mind-numbing, I’m just saying that I don’t think this show will do for archaeology what Deadliest Catch has done for fishing.


I’d love to hear what anyone else thinks of this show. Maybe I’m too hard on them, expecting too much. Maybe I have no perspective. I am an archaeologist – so my mind must be pretty numb.


  1. Thank you, Brian, I enjoyed your interesting critique.

    If modern humans were on European shores by 30,000 years ago, according to temperature graphs, they had 10,000 years of hunting on/from Atlantic sea-ice. It is inconceivable that descendants would not have reached North America. Unfortunately, village sites on the ancient Atlantic sea coasts (east & west) are underwater today.

    Ongoing Haplogroup X research may eventually resolve whether some native Americans are truly descendants of the Solutreans.

  2. I too have watched both of the episodes this season…as a historical archaeologist, I enjoyed the Roanoke episode more than the Topper one, but that’s just me. I think they are definitely getting across “real” archaeology – the finds are minimal, and there is always more work to be done. I was actually pleased with their skepticism in the Topper episode, if only because they could have really tried for a big climatic conclusion, where they jumped to conclusions that they really didn’t have the evidence (yet?) to draw.

    What I do really like is their website. Even if the show doesn”t make it, I hope the website is kept up. It looks like a very valuable teaching resource…

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