‘Time Team’ could reveal the future of public engagement
This fall sees the return of the archeology series Time team, in a new form of crowdfunding, on YouTube.
The series, which was created by Tim Taylor and presented by Tony Robinson, originally aired on UK Channel 4 from 1994 to 2013. Each week the team – a group of regular and guest archaeologists – was visiting a different, largely unexplored site and conducting a three-day evaluation dig, with the aim of answering specific questions about the site and reconstructing the lives of the people who lived there.
The program had a friendly staff, exciting finds, scenic locations and a strong narrative (“only three days” to complete the excavation, no guarantee of success and often in the face of bad weather). As a result, it attracted a large following and retained a loyal following even after its cancellation (in part for budgetary reasons). An official YouTube channel with classic episodes and new commentary was a hit during the lockdown, and earlier this year Taylor announced that new episodes would be created, sponsored by supporters on Patreon, and made available for free.
There is a lesson in this for academia. Time team presented scientific research in a new way. It wasn’t fair In regards to archeology; this was archeology. The excavations were serious research, carried out to professional standards and later drafted for publication. The program showed what professional archaeologists do, how they do it and why it is important to do it. And it presented it all as an interesting and enjoyable exercise. Of course, the creators of the program left out the more tedious parts – planning, recording, writing, etc. – but they showed us why these parts were worth it.
At the same time, the program presented a friendly and inclusive image of the archaeological profession. The team members came from diverse backgrounds and many spoke with strong regional accents. They were like friends you might meet in your room (the team went through the daily work in the local pub); they happen to be experts in medieval monasteries, Neolithic flint tools or Anglo-Saxon funeral rites.
The program was a superb academic outreach job, and it must have inspired many people to get into archeology. In his new incarnation, he will have an even closer connection to his audience, with extensive footage and interviews available online and opportunities for supporters to be involved in decision-making.
The fact that it was possible to fund the new excavations is perhaps the best testimony to the success of this form of outreach, and while crowdfunding is certainly not a model of university funding in general, it is encouraging to see academic work presented in a way that makes people eager to support it.
the Time team model be applied to other academic disciplines? Could there be a Biology team or one Philosophy Team? There would be difficulties. Archeology is well suited to television. The surveying and digging process is highly visual, which offers the childish thrill of searching for buried treasure and provides a focal point for investigation. By opening a trench, archaeologists come into contact with their subject in a direct and concrete way, uncovering evidence that can decisively answer the questions they have asked themselves.
Few other areas of academic research have such a dramatic focus. Even when empirical testing of hypotheses is possible, as in scientific fields, the process is often complex, lengthy, and not particularly visual. And many arts and humanities subjects do not involve experimental work at all, but progress through discussion and the gradual search for consensus – a process that is often slow and seemingly boring. “Do we have free will? Philosophy Team is only 3000 years old to find out!
Always, Time team represents an ideal of public engagement to which other academic disciplines can at least aspire. The goal of all research is, ultimately, discovery: the discovery of new information, theories, perspectives and techniques that transform the way we see our world and our possibilities within us. There is at least a metaphorical dig, and academics can research engaging aspects of the process to show the public.
Show, don’t tell. The key to the success of Time team was that it showed real work in progress and encouraged viewers to relate to the people who did. Academics from other fields may seek to establish a similar connection with the public, showing themselves to be ‘opening a trench’ and working within an open and diverse academic community, where the only conditions for inclusion are knowledge, passion and commitment.
To a small extent, I explored this myself with my fellow spirit philosopher Philip Goff, through our podcast Spirit cat. We interviewed leading philosophers of the mind, highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, brought our own perspectives into play, and invited listeners to ask questions – not just to explain the philosophy, but to try to do a little live. It’s no Time team, but it shows philosophers getting their hands dirty.
Hope all academics watch the new episodes of Time team. I’m sure they will enjoy them and maybe they will be inspired to go out and dig themselves.
Keith Frankish is Honorary Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, Visiting Fellow at the Open University and Assistant Professor in the Brain and Mind Program at the University of Crete.