Sketch show Dead Ringers once did a marvelous sketch where Simon Schama and David Starkey duked it to see who was the biggest TV history buff. They both ran in horror at the sight of Tony Robinson and his Time Team charging over the horizon. A bit OTT perhaps, but this in part shows the influence of Channel 4’s Time Team over its 20 year run to make archaeology and the past accessible and interesting.
The Time Team, a group of archaeologists would team up with local amateur diggers to investigate Britain’s past, often finding nothing of note, but sometimes finding substantial chunks of our heritage. Much of Time Team’s success was down to not only Tony Robinson asking the questions we’d ask but the eccentricities of the archaeologists on the dig. And they certainly didn’t come more eccentric than Professor Mick Aston with his wild shock of hair and retina-burning jumpers.
Last night, the news broke that Professor Mick Aston had passed away at the age of 66. News of his death shocked many including colleague Dr. Phil Harding who commented: “It just seems so incredible, like a bad dream, but unfortunately this is no dream”.
An authority on monastic churches and medieval archaeology, Professor Aston also taught at number of UK universities, including those of his native South West. In addition to a decade long project at Shapwick Manor, Somerset, he has also written a number of books on archaeology and was a regular contributor to British Archaeology magazine. Tim Taylor, Series Producer of Time Team, credited Aston with coming up with the idea for the programme after he suggested a dig could be completed within three days. Aston was also responsible for getting Tony Robinson to present the programme after they met on a course.
But what Aston did so well was to get across exactly what the grubby bits of pottery or minuscule chunks of flint that were found on the digs actually represented. The infectious enthusiasm as the various diggers fought to see what chunk of earth had been dug up now was, at times, heartening and exciting to watch. Aston’s greatest strength was his belief in bringing archaeology and history to the masses and making it interesting and inspirational.
Indeed, Aston felt so strongly about a revamp of Time Team in 2012 that saw some of the archaeology team axed he resigned from the programme over what he considered to be “dumbing down” of the series key concepts. He lamented the axing of some of the experts such as landscape expert Stewart Ainsworth, which hampered the digs and made the programme too complex. He commented: “I was the archaeological consultant but they decided to get rid of half the archaeological team, without consulting me.” It was a sad departure for someone who given so much to make history come alive.
The world of television history, but more acutely academia, will be a duller place without Mick Aston’s unique and accessible style.
Professor Mick Aston born 1 July 1946, died 24 June 2013.
The 20th and final series of Time Team airs later this year.