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New PBS archaeological series 'Time Team America' sifts through New Philadelphia

Time Team
Michael Bendixen of Oregon Public Broadcasting, left, films co-worker Camille Sumter as she sifts through dirt in a June 2008 dig at the New Philadelphia excavation site near Barry. The Pike County site and the story of New Philapelphia, the first community platted by an African-America, will be featured in “Time Team America.” The show premieres Wednesday on PBS, and the episode featuring New Philadelphia will air July 22. (H-W File Photo)
Michael Kipley Photographer
Posted: Jul. 4, 2009 8:17 pm Updated: Jun. 2, 2010 11:59 am

By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

BARRY, Ill. -- A new show highlighting archaeological work at five sites across the United States, including New Philadelphia near Barry, premieres this week on PBS.

"Time Team America" gives a group of archaeologists and scientists 72 hours to investigate a site and report back the findings.

"We were very aware of the film crew, but the archeology was still the archeology. It was just added chaos," said Eric Deetz, a Time Team member and Chicago archaeologist.

"Now when you start seeing previews, it really struck me like a ton of bricks. This will really be on broadcast television. It's not just home videos to show at a conference. It's pretty exciting."

The New Philadelphia episode, which airs July 22, highlights the team's use of high-tech equipment to find evidence of the town's first schoolhouse.

Spending time at the site of the first community platted by an African-American, Free Frank McWorter, in 1836 was especially interesting for Deetz, whose wife, Anna Agbe-Davies, is one of three co-directors of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates field school at New Philadelphia.

People nationwide, and especially in Illinois, need to be more aware of New Philadelphia, she said.

"It's a very important site. It really speaks to a lot of issues that people still deal with today," Deetz said.

"Time Team chose a very challenging task of searching for the footprint of a small African-American school house that served children in the town in the mid-1800s," said Chris Fennell, field school co-director and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois. "That project addresses a highly significant social institution within the community that was part of the larger story of the ways in which African-American families worked to overcome the adversities that racism presented."

Building awareness and appreciation of archaeology and the importance of preserving history are goals of "Time Team America," spearheaded by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"I've taught a lot of field schools over the years. I was never under the impression every student will become an archaeologist, but if they become a city planner, an attorney, a politician, somebody in position to make a difference, I want the public to be educated on the importance of proper archaeological research," Deetz said. The show has "really done a good job of capturing what we do, what is important to us as researchers."

The film crew and production staff handled all the details so the archaeologists could focus on the archaeology at each site.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't mess that part up. We were digging on real archaeological sites. If we cut corners or did anything inappropriate for expedient television, it would be a disaster," Deetz said.

Response to the first five episodes is promising, and Deetz said the first episode preview is one of the highest downloaded shows on the PBS Web portal, which means "Time Team America" could return for a second season.

"We're putting together a proposal for another season probably to film next year," Deetz said. "We're getting a list of sites together."

Deetz hopes the show will evolve much like "Time Team," its parent show, which airs in the United Kingdom, and focus on sites important to local communities.

"Every community has history. Every community has archaeological resources that deserve to be protected and highlighted to bring up the importance of everyday life," Deetz said. "That's what archaeology tries to do, to highlight what people didn't write down, the importance of day-to-day life. So many historic sites no president ever slept at, yet they're still as a composite critically important to understand American history."

-- dhusar@whig.com/221-3379