Pbs Unearths An Unlikely Star

Z ON TV

Baltimore's Colin Campbell Hosts Archaeology Series 'Time Team'

July 05, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

With TV regularly blamed for shortening attention spans and eroding any sense of national history, who would think it could be used to engage a mass audience in the archaeology of America's past?

PBS, that's who, and you have to admire public television for the bold thinking behind Time Team America, a new series that digs deep into America's roots starting at 8 p.m. Wednesday 8 on MPT.

+For one thing, the producers went with a 27-year-old artist with absolutely no TV experience as host of the program. Nor does he have any archaeological fieldwork in his resume. That would be Baltimore's Colin Campbell, a 2004 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art who works full time at Big Huge Games in Timonium designing landscapes and terrain for video games.

And guess what? Campbell is excellent, serving as an engaging and unassuming surrogate for the PBS viewer who might know next to nothing about archaeology but has an inquisitive mind. Campbell also brings a boyish energy and sense of fun to the series - two qualities often hard to find elsewhere on PBS.

But the boldest move of all involves the producers' decision not to phony up or dumb down the dirt-sifting, sun-scorching grunt work of archaeology - or the often tentative findings that one is forced to live with after tons of work. At least that's the way it looks from the pilot filmed at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in North Carolina, where the English first settled in America.

Patterned after Time Team, a popular 11-year-old series on Britain's Channel 4, the PBS version does bring a high-visibility TV concept to archaeological field work with its premise: a diverse and colorful team of highly skilled investigators descending on a dig and having just three days to make something happen. It's been called archaeology on deadline. Tick, tick, tick - all that's missing is the 60 Minutes' stopwatch.

And, not unlike the teams in such hit prime-time procedural dramas as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the Time Team crew brings some high-tech expertise to the site. In the pilot, they use geophysics to try to determine the best place to start their dig. And then, to push things along a little faster, they employ a very old-school backhoe to open a big trench.

But once the ground is broken, it's down to the real business of scraping sand inch by inch with trowels and the occasional whoop when someone finds a shard of clay less than half the size of an adult fingernail.

The triumph of the pilot is that you will get caught up in the energy and excitement. And, before it's over, you'll understand why the bit of clay - and even a dark patch of dirt in the ground - matters. You understand without one second of TV that sounds pedantic or preachy. All you have to do is sit back and watch the team members with their tattoos and Indiana Jones garb move that dirt.

The show is already a big success online at pbs.org, where a Web version of the show debuted in April, and it quickly became one of the most popular attractions at the site - three months before its on-air debut. (See it at pbs.org/video.)

"I think there's a real interesting thing that happens when you exhibit this stuff in a way that people can understand it," Campbell said in an interview last week. "You almost don't have to tweak it. You can almost just show it as it is, and if you can get people to just put their eyes on it, they get excited."

Despite his lack of experience in the field, Campbell did bring a general interest and knowledge of the past to the show. He minored in art history with a specialty in antiquity - particularly the art of ancient Greece and Rome. But in the screwy way that real life works, it was a student job at a MICA residence hall rather than that classwork that first brought him to the attention of Oregon Public Broadcasting, the PBS outlet that produces Time Team.

"I worked as a resident assistant, and before that as a desk monitor for a freshman dorm," the Georgia native says. "And the guy who employed me in both of those roles eventually left MICA and went on to work in Portland, Oregon. And the show's producers, Oregon Public Broadcasting, happened to call him asking if he knew anyone who would be good for this show, and he gave them my name. I actually like that story a lot, because it goes back to me working a $5-an-hour job and that sort of cascading into this event."

The reference from his former boss only helped him get a job as illustrator on the show - there was no thought of him as host.

"I didn't come in thinking that was something I would do, or even something I would be very good at - being host," Campbell said. "The British show, of course, has Tony Robinson, who's a big celebrity over there, as host. But they couldn't afford a celebrity host for this one, so the original idea was not to have any host."

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