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Professor Mick Aston

1 July 1946 – 24 June 2013

Appreciation by Christopher Gerrard

Mick Aston

Mick Aston, perhaps the best known face in British archaeology, died suddenly in June this year aged 66 at his home in Somerset. Mick was well known not only to the general public for his appearances on the long-running Channel 4 series Time Team, but also for his academic contribution to medieval, monastic and landscape archaeology, and to generations of adult education students across south-west England. Common to all these achievements was his ability to communicate. He 'suffered from enthusiasm', as he himself used to say, and his warmth and informality, his deep knowledge of monuments and historic buildings, not to mention the carefree hairstyle and stripy jumpers that made him instantly recognisable to Sunday tea-time television viewers, meant that he was held in great affection by his profession. In July 2012 he was recognised for his lifetime achievement at the British Archaeological Awards.

Mick was born in the Black Country, the son of a cabinet maker, and studied geography with archaeology as a subsidiary at Birmingham University. Famously, his doctorate (supervised by Harry Thorpe) was never completed after the typescript was stolen from his van at a T Rex concert! After taking up a post at the Field Department at Oxford City and County Museum, in 1974 he became the first County Archaeologist for Somerset. If the skies were blue Mick was up in a plane taking photographs of hitherto undiscovered sites, if it was raining he was uncontactable in the library at Downside Abbey. Somehow he seemed to be in the office long enough to set up the county's first Sites and Monuments database and, inspired by what he had learnt under Don Benson in Oxfordshire, he created an enormous compendium of every last scrap of archaeology from stone circles to Second World War aerodromes. This experience and his vast network of contacts was to inspire a rich vein of regional volumes, among them The historic towns of Somerset (with Roger Leech), The archaeology of Somerset: a review to 1500 AD (edited with Ian Burrow) and its companion volume for Avon (edited with Rob Iles), Aspects of the medieval landscape of Somerset (edited) and The medieval landscapes of Wessex (edited with Carenza Lewis). In 1979 he joined Bristol University as their tutor in archaeology in the Extra-Mural Department, organising hundreds of evening and weekend classes on every archaeological topic under the sun, and still finding time for undergraduate courses and postgraduates. After being awarded a personal chair in 1996, Mick's retirement in 2004 was marked by a two day conference and a volume of essays edited by Michael Costen.

I first came across Mick in 1980 in the basement of the Extra-Mural Department where he had a lair to teach an undergraduate course. It was damp and dark down there, I remember, like a prehistoric souterrain but with better coffee, and wine at Christmas time. Here he presided over Monty Python tapes (for an entertaining explanation of the open field system), a memorable slide collection, and a tumble of books which he would slide across the table, expressing only the mildest surprise that a recent volume on hedgerow dating seemed unaccountably to have escaped our notice. He was a different kind of teacher; not only did he have a Christian name (often denied to us by other lecturers), he had no pretensions of any sort and he fizzed with enthusiasm for every castle, monastery and deserted medieval village. Mick had simply seen more British archaeology than anyone we had ever met, and probably anyone I've met since; he knew the sites, the car parks, the tea shops, he had walked to the top, around the back and prodded about in the undergrowth behind the fence. With his coloured-up earthwork plans and battered Pevsners he rarely left a site unless he had its measure, photographing everything as he went. Later, Interpreting the landscape from the air (2002) was to draw on his prodigious slide collection but Mick was always highly visual: he thought about the landscape spatially and, because he was a good draughtsman, he would work through complex ideas at his drawing board, usually with a glass of French red to hand.

Mick's choice of transport in those days was the 2CV, the 'deux chevaux', a vehicle with a remarkably compliant suspension as it careered down the high-hedged lanes of south-west England. When the sun shone he would whisk us students off to look at some earthwork or other. On these fieldtrips we shared the back of his French baker's van with Mars Bar wrappers, assorted OS maps obliterated by arrows and circled monuments, and a grape vine that had mysteriously grown up the inside windows. Feeling slightly queasy after the ride, no sooner had we lurched onto the verge than he was gone — T-shirt, shorts, sandals, brown like a walnut and a camera slung over the shoulder, disappearing at speed over some distant hill. Our instructions were simply 'to sort it out', by which he meant look at the earthworks, decide what they were, identify any visible phasing and have an explanation prepared for his return. Then he would patiently explain that what we had thought was a monastery cloister was probably a fishpond.

His 'motors', at first a 'half-timbered' Morris Minor estate, then for many years a Volkswagen camper van with a bay windscreen and exploding engine, later the bespoke 4WD Volkswagen Transporter, somehow reflected how little he cared for consumerism and convention. In recent years he would explore the back roads of France or the Scottish Isles with his partner Teresa, and the ability to 'head for the hills' was elemental to the Aston psyche. Other traits were his sustained support for good causes — he ran classes in archaeology for the visually impaired for many years, for example — and his strong belief in social justice and educational opportunity. He railed against right wing politics, reserving special venom for Margaret Thatcher, and fought against all manner of authority, including university paperwork, and most especially if it came in a uniform. He never possessed a suit himself and he was the only person I ever knew to be forcibly ejected from a public car park for arguing with a traffic warden. Mick could be unrepentantly cheeky. Once when stopped for speeding at 54mph in a 50mph zone in Bristol he asked if he could have a copy of the ticket from the speed gun because, as he explained to the bewildered policeman, he was selling the 2CV and no potential purchaser would believe the death-defying speeds he claimed for it. There was always more than a little of the rebel in him; he would challenge almost anyone or anything that told him he couldn't do something, with a special disregard for prohibitions on overnight parking issued by National Parks. He was also a vegetarian, a naturist, a potter, a lover of classical music and astronomy, and a gardener: a combination of hobbies that could cause confusion if you turned up at his house unannounced looking for wise council. Like so many others, I never left without a sheaf of notes, a bag of books to consult from his impressive library, a bottle of wine and a renewed enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, and it was this same sharp-minded infectiousness that he carried into village halls, day schools and conferences and which had such an impact on all who met him through the years.

Over the past 20 years Mick became a high profile ambassador for British archaeology through TV archaeology. In a nutshell, Time Team was an archaeological evaluation over three days, the idea being to tell a story, to engage and inform. Archaeology as it happens, but in a style that was very different from the more formal BBC Chronicle documentaries which had set the standard for more than two decades. The programme was seen around the world in many formats and attracted 2–3 million viewers in Britain; 15–20 million people are thought to have glimpsed one part of the series or another, and this of course raised the profile of archaeology hugely — even if every commercial developer did believe their archaeology could be 'sorted' in three days. Over 200 programmes were aired, the sites ranging from galleons, caves, Spitfires and Buckingham Palace to castles and round barrows. Some programmes went out 'live' too but always Mick insisted that the archaeology on the programme was done properly, using the latest technology but packaged imaginatively between entertainment and education. Mick was extremely proud of the programme and, together with producer Tim Taylor, came up with the formula and then made it happen by mobilising the contacts he had developed over the years, including proposing Tony Robinson as a presenter. He would have been delighted to hear that 3000 people have signed up on Facebook to campaign for one last Time Team dig in his memory. Mick's own broadcasting career had begun with a long-running series on Radio Oxford in the 1970s and he had some previous TV experience, including the four part Time Signs series for Channel 4 which so influenced the Time Team format, but he had no interest in being a celebrity and never employed an agent as he might have done; for Mick, being on 'the telly' was a means to an end. Rather than talking about archaeology to 30 adults in a village hall on a cold Wednesday night, he could reach 3 million on a Sunday evening — even if it did mean strange hotel food and early morning rises.

Mick Aston

Strangely though, Mick was rarely seen with a trowel in his hand. As a landscape archaeologist the tools of his trade were maps and historical records; he liked to trudge the muddy fields, survey and interpret the earthworks, not dig deep holes. He greatly admired Philip Rahtz, who offered him his first taste of rescue archaeology, the rigorous excavation standards of Philip Barker, the fieldwork skills of Chris Taylor and the writing of historians William Hoskins and Maurice Beresford (for whom he co-edited a volume on medieval rural settlement). The long list of Mick's publications over 40-odd years includes many earthworks surveys of abbeys, deserted villages and farms, gardens and fishponds which often led on to further research. There were important contributions on deserted settlements in Avon, Gloucestershire (with Linda Viner) and Somerset, a 1988 edited volume on fisheries and fishponds and another on recent developments in monastic archaeology (with Graham Keevill and his partner Teresa Hall). In his major publications such as Landscape archaeology (with Trevor Rowley) and The landscape of towns (with James Bond, also a Birmingham geographer), Mick stressed the value of fieldwork and observation and he always claimed to have invented the term 'landscape archaeology' with Trevor Rowley in the front room of their shared house in Wheatley in the mid 1970s. Interpreting the landscape, the 1985 publication he is perhaps best known for, underlined those interests in British landscapes and local history and, as he says in the Preface, it is written in a style 'most people can understand'. The book contained many of his hand-drawn diagrams which he used to represent the functional relationships between different components of the historic countryside. As others have noted, in no way were these sustained attempts to write a processual history of the landscape but nevertheless some of the influences of the New Archaeology are clear, as they were implicitly in much of his writing.

Since the late 1980s Mick had focused his attentions as much on places as on particular themes, with community fieldwork projects at Shapwick and more recently at Winscombe, both in Somerset. These brought him enormous enjoyment. He liked the teamwork, working with volunteers and throwing different techniques into the methodological mix. It was, he said, 'a kind of therapy' for him at times when he felt downhearted about the wrecking of adult education by bureaucrats, his health (he had suffered a brain haemorrhage ten years ago and endured aspergillosis all his life), the barbed comments of other archaeologists about Time Team and his considerable over-commitments. Two major publications from his work on the Shapwick Project had already emerged, the last only in March this year, and a short explanatory pamphlet for schools was also intended. The first products from the Winscombe settlement project were also complete and the chapter headings for a new book had been sketched out before his death. He had also planned a volume on early medieval monasteries, following up the success of his Batsford introduction to the subject. In so many different areas of medieval archaeology his legacy will live on, but above all Mick will be missed by those who knew and loved him, and they were many.

Mick Aston (born 1 July 1946; died 24 June 2013) is survived by his partner, Teresa Hall, herself a landscape historian with an interest in the early Church, and by his son, James, and a stepdaughter, Kathryn, from his relationship with Carinne Allinson. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.

Major publications