Obituary: Professor Mick Aston, TV archaeologist

Professor Mick Aston (left), pictured with Time Team co-presenter Tony Robinson at Buckingham Palace in 2008. Picture: PA
Professor Mick Aston (left), pictured with Time Team co-presenter Tony Robinson at Buckingham Palace in 2008. Picture: PA
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Born: 1 July, 1946, in Oldbury, West Midlands. Died: 24 June, 2013, in Somerset, aged 66.

With his unruly silver hair, beard and gaudy pullovers Professor Mick Aston was a natural for Channel 4’s Time Team. As the resident archaeologist whose broad knowledge of history and artefacts seemed to know no bounds he acted as a charismatic and articulate chief archaeological adviser to the programme until 2011. Aston was keen to broaden the interest in archaeology and through his own infectious enthusiasm did much to bring the subject to a wider public.

One of Time Team’s most significant finds came in 2004 when Aston and his colleagues carried out a dig close to Floors Castle on the banks of the River Tweed. They revealed some of the secrets of a powerful medieval city – Old Rokesburg – which had lain undisturbed for five centuries.

Aston declared that Rokesburg vied with Edinburgh, Stirling and Berwick as major commercial centres. He concluded that while the three cities thrived, “Old Rokesburg simply vanished. There are plenty of documents but only a ruined castle remains as a clue to the town’s

layout.”

Michael Antony “Mick” Aston attended Oldbury Grammar School and then read geography at Birmingham University. While there he became greatly attracted to the study of landscape archaeology and joined many local field-work projects in the Midlands.

On qualifying, Aston taught at the university and then continued his studies at Oxford, where he worked for the Oxford City and County Museum. In the early 1970s he moved to the West Country, which was thereafter to figure prominently in his life. He was appointed the first county archaeologist for Somerset and taught at Bristol University. In 1979 he was made a tutor in archaeology and in 1996 awarded a personal chair at Bristol.

His background in scholarship and teaching made Aston an ideal member of Time Team. His blend of knowledge and jocularity sat well with a TV crew that was under huge pressure to excavate a site in three working days. Aston also had to make decisions as to where they should dig from the research that had been carried out.

It was the sheer variety of the subjects that the team tackled that ensured large audiences. From seemingly ordinary fields, moors and mountainsides they uncovered unknown facts and treasure that had lain buried for years.

From Looe Island (Cornwall) to Anglesey, the Isle of Man to Barra, Mull and Orkney and Shetland, Aston discovered relics, bones and brooches. They also dug at historic sites such as Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court and Hadrian’s Wall. Sometimes, even, in back gardens and car parks. It was all carried out with committed ardour, endless discussion and much warmth and enthusiasm.

One of their most remarkable programmes came from Mull in 2010. On a wild and windy moor – with the rain pouring down – just outside Tobermory they uncovered the remains of a chapel and the remains of a seventh-century Scottish saint. They also unearthed a Celtic Cross and some teeth.

The latter necessitated a visit from the police, who closed down the excavation immediately. Aston recalled later: “It was a really magical moment – you could feel a ripple of excitement.

“Within a few minutes everyone had stopped what they were doing to see what had happened.”

It was Aston’s relationship with Sir Tony Robinson that ensured the programme had the right mix of serious archaeology and ribald asides. They had met on an archaeological course in Greece and when Aston was offered the Time Team job in 1994 he insisted that Robinson front the programme. Their joyous banter became the hallmark of the series and provided much entertainment as the diggers and field-workers toiled away.

In 2012 Aston left Time Team, arguing that the programme had become less focused on archaeology and history. In an interview for an historical magazine he said: “The time had come to leave. I feel really, really angry about it.”

In 2004 he became an emeritus professor at Bristol University and held posts at both Exeter and Durham Universities. Aston carried out a ten-year excavation into the manor of Shapwick on the Somerset levels, trying to build a picture of the history of a single parish.

The distinguished Border historian, Walter Elliot, who worked on the programme at Floors, acknowledged the professionalism and knowledge of Aston and his team. “I was very impressed because although the dig was completed in three days, it yielded a tremendous amount of information. The project set out to establish whether the claims made for Old Rokesburg can be justified.”

Aston, who had been ill for some years, is survived by a son, James, and step-daugher, Kathryn, from his relationship with Carinne Allinson, which ended in 1998.

ALASDAIR STEVEN