The Night Of Time Far Surpasseth The Day

Sometimes, when you’ve got a few spare minutes, you want to relax. Do nothing. Daydream. Do stuff which will not enrich you or the earth, something meaningless, even useless. You do understand, don’t you?

Daydreams. Thomas Couture, 1859. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

It happened to me recently. Constructively, I took my birthday 16/02 and changed it to letters with each number corresponding to a letter of the alphabet in sequence and 0 becoming, er, O. I made a new word AFOB. I googled AFOB. Amazingly, the first item that came up was the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin from the Archaeological Institute of America. Wow. My favourite non-biological science discipline. Archaeology.

Archaeology means Time Team, the most rivetting hour that you can spend in front of TV. The UK version, where a group of unkempt, grungy archaeologists wade through the British mud for three days to prove that Bronze Age man had a rubbish tip under this carpark. I’m sure their clothes were retrieved from an earlier dig. Tony Robinson, the host, runs around like a hobbit on heat exhorting the experts to explain what this different-coloured mud actually means. My favourite team member is Phil Harding, whose dialect is almost as abstruse as his persona. He greets a major find, such as a 3 mm piece of flint, with guffaws that would wake some of the skeletons he digs up.

The Time Team at work. Sort of.

There is a US version of Time Team. I’ve seen it. Not as good. It’s sanitised, clean clothes, modern equipment, gleaming vehicles. No, the UK version is for me.

I checked the Archaeological Institute of America site thoroughly. Under the History tag, we learn that the first President was Charles Eliot Norton, elected in 1879. At the time he was Professor of History of Art at Harvard, and a true Renaissance Man – author, journalist, and, can you believe, in the early 20th Century he spoke out in favour of euthanasia. And, AND, he translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. His translation is truly beautiful, you can catch it at Project Gutenberg.

When he was elected President of the Institute, Norton said in his speech: ‘The night of time far surpasseth the day, and it is the task of archaeology to light up some of this long night with its torch, which burns ever with a clearer flame with each advancing step into the darkness‘. He would be proud of Tony and Phil and the Team.

At home that evening, I recounted this adventure to my wife. I got the distinct impression she was less than impressed. Something about her frown and the single raised eyebrow. But nevertheless I encourage you all, when you’ve got that spare few minutes, change your birthday into a word and google it, it’s great fun, but don’t tell them at home…

POSTSCRIPT: Prof Mick Aston died on 24 June 2013, aged 66. He was the senior archaeologist on Time Team. He described his role with these words: “I rarely get down into the trench. I’m interested in the overall picture” As usual with idiosyncratic individuals who work outside the box, he was derided by fellow academics for his Time Team work. But they recanted when numbers applying for archaeology courses increased up to tenfold, with most applicants citing Time Team as an influence. ¬†You can read his full obituary here.

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