Mick's Blessings

A Bristol University professor is a familiar face to millions thanks to Channel 4's top-rating archaeology programme Time Team. Nige Tassell meets Mick Aston.

Over the past few years, the Channel 4 archaeology-fest Time Team has become mandatory Sunday tea-time viewing, a stimulating antidote to the slot that was previously the exclusive domain of Songs of Praise and the Antiques Roadshow. One of the channel's most popular programmes, it brings archaeology to the masses as a team of assembled experts spend three days investigating a site of archaeological importance. But the programme isn't just seeing what can be dug up over the course of this extended weekend; it's enthralling for the interplay between the various experts, colourful characters one and all.

Mick Aston: I'm not too interested in the detail, I'm interested in the overall picture.

Mick Aston photographed by Paul Lewis-Isemonger 1999Mick Aston is one such colourful character. With his wild silver hair, thick Black Country twang and penchant for exceedingly colourful stripy jumpers, this Bristol University professor is the chief expert on Time Team and thus archaeology's most high-profile ambassador. Not that you'll catch him getting muddy in some trench though. I'm a landscape archaeologist, he explains, which means I get involved with surveying and aerial photography. It's about putting everything together using maps, documents and all the historical records in order to build up a picture of how an area developed over a period of time. Excavation is merely one bit of that. I rarely get down into the trench. I'm not too interested in the detail, I'm interested in the overall picture.

Mick was there right at the start of the Time Team quest, having linked up with Bristol-based television producer Tim Taylor on a previous Channel 4 programme called Time Signs before hatching the idea for its successor. With Tim taking care of the film production side of things, it was left to Mick to seek out ideal locations for digs and to headhunt a team of experts. He was also responsible for getting Tony Robinson to front the show. Tony had been to Greece with a group of mine on an extramural course, he explains. We kept in contact afterwards and he always said, Look, we should make some television programmes, it'd be really interesting to show people what archaeology was all about. So when Tim and I got the idea sorted out and Channel 4 wanted the frontperson, all sorts of people were suggested. Brian Redhead was the frontrunner. I said, I only know Tony and I think he'd love to do it. So they approached him and apparently he first said no and they said, Oh, that's a shame. Mick Aston told us to contact you. Oh, Mick? That's all right then. Let's do it!

The selected locations offer a wide range of historical scenarios; one week they could be excavating neolithic sites in search of primitive tools, the next they might be digging up the wreck of a Spitfire shot down over northern France. So, how are the sites selected? To begin with, it was the general public writing in. It was something like 60-80% of the original programmes were suggestions, whereas now it's only about 20%. The rest are suggested by other archaeologists, local archaeological societies, even English Heritage, people like that. Then the researchers go and look at the site and the documentation to see if it makes sense and ultimately Tim will look at it to see if it will make a good programme.

The Romans are a pretty boring lot. They're very like us - they were materialistic, they were totally without morality.

Ask Mick what his favourite site has been and he becomes uncharacteristically reticent. I don't have a favourite, he admits, I really don't. There are little bits of lots of them which make you think Yeah, that was a great bit. When I suggest that the discovery of an extremely well-preserved Roman mosaic during the filming of the present series must have been a highlight, his answer is a tad surprising. That doesn't turn me on at all. The Romans are a pretty boring lot anyway. They're very like us - they were materialistic, they were totally without morality, they had loads and loads of possessions, they lived in buildings we can recognise - so the general public love them. And they're a very good start for people getting involved in archaeology but they're by no means the most interesting part of the subject at all.

As if his general appearance didn't speak volumes, you begin to suspect that Mick Aston isn't anything at all like the crusty professor safely protected by the walls of academia. He's a fervent supporter of making education as widely available as possible, as witnessed by his work for Bristol University's Department of Continuing Education and the many talks he gives in village halls and community centres. He leaves you in no doubt that he prefers teaching adult learners rather than young undergraduates and has some rather outspoken ideas about the current education system. I wonder if we should be bothered with teaching people who are reluctant to learn. It would make a great deal of sense if, say, by the age of 14, they stopped with formal education and moved onto something else - Outward Bound, world travel, whatever. They don't know how to learn, they're not interested in it. There's too many calls on their time, like girls and computer games. But just wait ten years. People get in their late 20s and they are much more efficient at what they're doing then. So I've always been more interested in adult students. First years are a waste of time, basically. They're like kids, giggling at the back.

Mick in his camper vanAway from filming and lecturing, Mick becomes a bit of a recluse at his house on the edge of Somerset's Mendip Hills, a home selected not so much for the rich countryside around, rather for three peculiar criteria. I had to be able to get onto the roof, it should be detached so I could play my music loud, and it should be private enough to lie in the back garden with nothing on! A devout vegetarian since the age of 15 (when no-one else was), he enjoys nothing better than cooking his favourite dish of cabbage, cheese and garlic lasagne and settling down with a glass of red and a good book. I do read an enormous amount. I'm reading Harry Potter at the moment! I'm also reading the last Louis de Bernieres and a book on Hitler's spies because I'm fascinated by the Third Reich. I like travelling too. I've got a Volkswagen van that's got a fridge, a cooker and a loo, and at the slightest opportunity I'm off in that, going to somewhere I've never been to before, checking out the place's history.

Mick lampooned in VizThough obviously delighted with the progress Time Team has made in getting everyday folks interested in archaeology, Mick's somewhat bemused by the onset of celebrity which sees him harangued for autographs when he's buying his groceries and featured in cartoon form in the pages of every student's favourite comic, Viz. What does it mean to be a cartoon-strip character? asks the professor. I have very mixed feelings about that. On one hand you think, Well, great because archaeology's in the public consciousness, but part of me thinks, Well, hang on, this isn't what I intended at all! What's it all about?

Reproduced by permission from Folio no. 62.