The Time Team are a group of historians, geologists, archaeologists and others led by Tony Robinson, who have been unearthing Britain’s buried past since 1994. The new three-DVD set, Time Team: Unearthing the Roman Invasion, collects 12 episodes that focus on various sites from the period of the Roman occupation of England in the first centuries AD. Each one presents a fascinating process of discovery and investigation into what these places had been used for all those years ago.
One of the things that makes the Time Team’s missions so interesting is the fast pace. When they choose a site that looks promising, they have just three days to do all of their work. This sets the group apart from your typical archaeological dig, as they all must work together to quickly put together their findings. The supposition is laid out at the top of each episode, and the team then set out to prove or disprove it. With the time-crunch, everyone must be at the top of their game, which sets up a very compelling scenario in each instance.
The tone is set right from the top, in Tockenham. The village has no (known) Roman remains in the area, yet there is a pagan-looking statue embedded in the wall of a medieval-era church. How and why is it there is the question, and to answer it the Time Team go to work. They begin with a topographical scan of the area using the geophysical team‘s above-ground radar-mapping methods. They discover that underneath the surface are remains of some sort of structure, meaning that the Romans had likely occupied the land at some point.
In fact, they discover a whole series of building foundations, indicating that this field has been built upon a large Roman complex. The various religious artifacts they discover, and the style of the foundations indicate that the place was once a significant sacred site for the Romans. The “Roman way” was often to transform a building or site’s original mission to fall in line with that of Rome’s. The speculation is that this field had been designated a very important spiritual location dating all the way back to the first human occupants of the area.
The biggest problem the Time Team run into is the centuries-old use of these fields for crops. The process of plowing has disturbed a great number of sites over the years. These foundations are often just six inches to a foot below the surface, and it seems that there is evidence of Rome in practically every English field.
Caerwent is another incredible site. The south Wales location is the best-preserved Roman town in Britain. The initial find there was the largest hoard of Roman coins ever discovered, some 55,000 were found there in 1978. Time Team’s goal is to unearth the vast, previously unexplored regions of the town, where those coins were buried 1,750 years ago.
Each episode pursues a fascinating archaeological bit of British history, and the Time Team’s 72-hour self-imposed work period keeps things moving pretty rapidly. The trade off is that even though they come up with a lot of previously unknown facts, it is up to others to slowly and methodically finish the job. Unfortunately, the Time Team’s work is usually the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I think it would be very interesting to see them return to some of the sites they worked back in the mid-nineties. It would be very illuminating to see what else has been discovered in the past 15 years or so. But that would be a different show I suppose.
For now, we have this very good collection of Time Team programs. Bonus features include a 16-page viewer’s guide with a map of Roman Britain, and articles on Britain before the Romans arrived, among others. There are also biographies of some members of the Time Team as well.