Mick Aston was probably the best-known archaeologist in the UK. I’d also go so far as to say that he was the most influential archaeologist of the last 25 years.
The reason is Time Team, an archaeological series on Channel 4. If Sky at Night is Astronomy then Time Team when Mick Aston was in it was archaeology. Its success massively expanded the uptake of archaeology by students. Mick Aston’s idea was responsible supporting an incalculable number of jobs in university departments. It’s easy to overlook was an astonishing idea Time Team was.
The traditional documentary places the academic speaker at the authority speaking Truth. A recent example is Rise of the Continents, where Mantle Plumes are presented as unquestioned fact as noted in the post at The Theatre of Reason. A common grumble is that science is a process not a body of fact, so how do you show process? Mick Aston reckoned you could produce a usable brief evaluation of an archaeological site in three days and this became Time Team. A camera crew followed an archaeological team as they dug for three days.
Below I’ve embedded the episode from Blaenavon, which I hope 4oDDocumentaries have made widely accessible.* You could make a drinking game from the number of times someone says they don’t know something. To steal a line from Paul Bahn: it’s not about finding things, it’s about finding things out.
As a measure of impact, I offer another series, Bonekickers. Bonekickers was an attempt by the Life on Mars team to produce a drama around an archaeology unit. It was laughed out of the schedules because Time Team had demonstrated to a large chunk of the UK population how archaeology worked. To be fair Bonekickers was pretty awful in its own right, but it’s thanks to the impact of Time Team that it became truly risible. Can you imagine that happening with any other academic discipline?
Mick Aston’s influence meant that he became a stereotype of an archaeologist in his own time. That could sound snide, but rather it’s a measure of how loved by the public he was.
He also had the potential to keep innovating. After leaving Time Team, he’d been working with Timothy Taylor on Dig Village. In some ways he was in the twilight of his career, but he still could have shone for many years like the evening star.
*I’m not optimistic that it’s visible beyond the UK. You can search for Time Team on YouTube, but embedding those videos isn’t sensible. Uploading a programme wholesale, breaching the copyright isn’t negated by saying “No infringement of copyright is intended”. These videos will be coming down sooner or later. My personal favourite episode is probably Llygadwy / Celtic Spring, but that’s not so typical of the series.