The Time Team Prof

by Steve Eggington, first published in Mendip Times

He's best known for his flowing hair and florid sweaters as one of the founders of television's Time Team, but Mick Aston's passion for archaeology isn't just confined to the 15 series he's now done for Channel 4.

Mick AstonWhen we met at his home of over 20 years, he was researching a talk about early monasteries which he was due to give in Congresbury. And since his son James had recently got his private pilot's licence, Mick had borrowed a helicopter to get the view from the air.

They'd taken in Banwell, Congresbury, Chew Magna, Cheddar, constantly talking to the control tower at Bristol International Airport - they were very helpful, says Mick - since the remnants of these relics of the seventh and eighth centuries can only be seen in vague patterns in the fields mainly around our churches.

Mick said: You can't just pay your quid or whatever to get into these early monastery sites like you can at more modern places like Tintern Abbey or Glastonbury Abbey.

He's passionate about the archaeology around his home and it's not the first time he's taken an interest in Congresbury. He said: About five years ago I got this phone call one day from a friend of mine who lived in Burrington, who was one of my mature students at Bristol University, to say that some Anglo-Saxon sculpture had been found at Brinsea and was due to be sold. A group of us got together to save it and it's now in the county museum at Taunton. I'm fairly clear that it came originally from the 11th-century shrine of St Congar, which would have been at the east end of Congresbury Church and would have been an important place of pilgrimage, though there's no mention of it in the church now.

Mick with his son JamesThat's just scratching the surface, as far as his local interest is concerned. For ten years from 1989 he led a project at Shapwick, involving 2,000 people - experts, students and locals - exploring every aspect of the village's history, turning up more than 250,000 finds dating back to 8,000BC, and most importantly showing that in the so-called Dark Ages this was a sophisticated society.

He said: Under St Dunstan and the monastery at Glastonbury, we find a fully-developed landscape, with field systems, planned settlements and international trade links. The monks had a common language - Latin - which makes our European Union look amateurish. He's about to publish a book on the project with a former research student Dr Christopher Gerrard, who is now a lecturer at Durham University.

He's also recently written an article about Winscombe, noting that nearby West End Farm at Barton is probably one of the earliest domestic buildings in the country. Tree ring analysis showed that the oak roof timbers were cut down in 1278, probably over the winter or the spring. He told me: You can keep your bloody pyramids - that's much more exciting.

Now he's turning his attention to the pimples on the surrounding levels and moors, small islands like Nye, Nyland, Athelney and Muchelney - the nye or eg is Anglo-Saxon for island - and said: We know that Athelney means island of the princes and was used by Alfred as a guerrilla base in the 870s. We know it was also used in the Iron Age before the Romans, but we know relatively little about it during the Dark Ages.

He said: This is such an interesting place to live. I can walk up onto the Mendips and look at prehistoric remains, industrial archaelology and enclosure farmsteads or go down to the levels to look at earthworks of Roman settlements and drainage systems that date from the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century.

His bungalow home is a labyrinth of books and maps, seemingly with different projects at different stages in each room. It's hard to believe he's supposed to be retired and he still does some teaching at Bristol University and is an honorary professor at both Exeter and Durham universities.

But it's as The Prof on Time Team that he has become best known, though since he had a brain haemorrhage in 2003, he's cut back on his commitment. He said: I took it as a bit of a warning that I was wearing out. When we first took the idea to Channel 4 17 or 18 years ago I had no idea we would now be going into our 16th year and Tony Robinson has just signed a contract for another three years.

But I also wanted to leave time to do other things. I've done eight programmes this series out of 13 and we start filing again in March. But I like to take the van to some of these locations and spend a bit more time there. We went filming in the Outer Hebrides and had some fascinating finds and I ended up staying there for three weeks. The amazing thing was that there seemed to be a little Co-op on every island and they were all charging mainland prices, despite the difficulty of getting stuff out there. The first thing I did when I got back was join the Co-op in Winscombe.

I find being a public face a bit annoying. I'm a solitary person and Sandford is my bolt-hole. We were filming on Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland when three Australians came up and said It is you Mick isn't it? But I think it's really important that archaeologists get out and explain what we are doing. If that means talking to 20 or 30 people in a village hall, lecturing at universities, or talking to 20 million people, which is what we get in a Time Team series, I will do it.

Reproduced by permission from Mendip Times Vol. 3, issue 8 (January 2008).