In each episode, the Team have three days* to investigate a site not otherwise open for excavation, such as the grounds of private homes, farmland, a golf course, or occasionally within the bounds of major national landmarks like Westminster Abbey or Salisbury Cathedral.
The locations — usually in Britain — have generally never been explored with modern techniques, and often not at all, making this programme one of the few examples of genuine scientific research being televised. At some of the sites, Time Team made discoveries of national historical significance.
A typical episode would feature presenter Robinson and a team of archaeologists, usually led by Professor Mick Aston or Iron Age/Bronze Age specialist Francis Pryor and including field archaeologist Phil Harding and his team of diggers, congregating at the site and establishing to camera the key intentions and hopes for the next three days. Eras covered could range from Stone Age times to The Middle Ages to Victorian Britain to World War II.
With the aid of the likes of landscape investigator Stewart Ainsworth, archaeological geophysicist John Gater and a rotating cast of specialists and historians relevant to the era/area/type of finds expected, the Team endeavour to locate and excavate the best areas of the week's site and explain and extrapolate the significance of what they uncover. Discoveries would be brought back to life along the way by increasingly sophisticated computer graphics, but also, from the start, by the on-site artwork produced by speed-illustrator extraordinaire Victor Ambrus.
The success of the programme inspired multiple imitators, such as Meet the Ancestors and House Detectives. There have also been several Spin-Off programmes, and live episodes; in 2006, for example, they broadcast live coverage of the team digging up the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
Episodes of this show provide examples of:
- Ace Custom: Phil Harding uses a personal shovel that he's modified to suit his needs. It has an extra-long handle and additional reinforcement so that he has better leverage when moving loads of earth. He also keeps it especially sharp in order to better pierce into hard soil.
- Affectionate Nickname: Tony was fond of calling Mick Aston "Dumbledore" in later seasons in reference to his white hair and beard.
- The Alcoholic: One of the digs turned up the body of a man who'd been buried clutching a beer pot, signifying that consumption of alcohol was probably very important to him.
- Alliterative Title
- Anachronistic Clue: In one excavation the team found a genuine mediæval sword — but immediately below it in the ground was a modern-day electrical cable, so it could only have been placed there after the cable was buried.
- Arrows on Fire: One of the experimental archaeology sections was testing to see if fiery arrows hitting thatch would work in real life. Their conclusion was; yes, but only if whatever they hit was left to smolder for several hours.
- As You Know: Anglo-Saxon specialist Helen Geake does this to explain the 1906 Treasure Act to the audience, which mandates that if more than ten bronze coins are found in a single place, they must be reported
- Berserk Button: Do not step into Phil's trench without asking him first, as layman Tony found out early in season one. This is fairly standard archaeological practice, because you never know if you are about to stamp on less than obvious archaeology or just dirt. Phil just forgot Tony had zero archaeological experience at that point and gave him a full on Drill Sergeant Nasty earful.
- The Cameo: A dig at Sedgefield in County Durham had a coda in which the local MP visited the site.
- Clip Show: The episode "Greatest Discoveries" is just the main presenters (Tony, Phil, Mick and Helen) sitting in a pub discussing past shows and clips thereof.
- Companion Cube: Phil's shovel. It talks to him you know, it has the experience and expertise. The shovel must be handled with care and respect at all times! As demonstrated here!
- Crossover: "The Edwardian Grand Designer" brought in Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs to speak about Sir Edwin Lutyens and Lutyens' impact on English design.
- Dig Attack: The episode "Bridgenorth Castle" describes how, in real-life, merely the threat of a Dig Attack could be a winning move. The attackers dug a tunnel underneath the castle, which the besieged defenders could hear being dug, and because there was no way to counter-attack they had to surrender or face being exploded by gunpowder placed there. They surrendered.
- Early Installment Weirdness:
- In the first series, each episode begins with a member of the public reading a letter that they've written to the Time Team, asking them to come and dig up something in their local area. During the titles, Tony Robinson then introduces which members of the team will be involved in that particular dig. "This week's Time Team are..."
- Time Team became a household name in the UK for their excavations but the very first episode contained no digging whatsoever, just an archaeological survey of the area they'd been invited to investigate.
- In some early episodes Robinson, at that point known primarily as an actor, would occasionally 'get into character' and perform to camera as, say, an imagined medieval peasant woman from the place being excavated. He soon grew out of this phase.
- Einstein Hair: Mick Aston's hair was worn in this manner in ever-increasing fashion.
- Flowery Insults: One of the episodes re-staged a Saxon debate with authentic flowery insults from the period. Although we're not certain about ending with "Up thine" though.
- From the Latin "Intro Ducere": On a couple of episodes with Roman ruins, attempts were made to translate "Time Team" into Latin. The "team" presented a problem, as there wasn't an exact Latin analogue for a non-military group of people doing a task together, so they came up with something that translated literally as "Time Gang."
- Formula-Breaking Episode: One later special departs from archaeology as Tony and Phil travel to America to take part in a paleontological dig and unearth dinosaur fossils.
- Iconic Outfit: Phil Harding is never seen without his manky old hat with a feather stuck in it, and is also usually seen in a ratty, holey, old green woollen sweater. Mick Aston was equally known for his colourful jumpers that he began wearing after a producer asked him to brighten up his outfits, to which he responded by wearing the most garish and hideous pieces of knitwear he could find.
- Insistent Terminology: Tony and Phil got into an argument (and Running Gag) over the pronunciation of Mildenhall, with Tony pronouncing it phonetically and Phil continually correcting him that it was to be pronounced "Mine'all".
- Averted in that Mildenhalls local pronounciation is Milnall.
- My Friends... and Zoidberg: From the introduction of one dig: "We'll bring all our modern archaeological techniques — and Phil Harding."
- My Local: It's a given that at some point, the team will go to a nearby pub to discuss things. When they did a dig in a village with no pub (sadly, such places do exist in the UK), they ended Day Two in a hastily-assembled outdoor bar which they called "The Phil's Head", with a photograph of Phil superimposed on a standard snorting bull's head pub sign.
- The Nicknamer: Tony. As part of his presenting style he would come up with nicknames for bodies uncovered during the digs, and for historical personages being discussed, in order to humanise them. He also came up with nicknames for various archaeologists such as calling Mick Aston "Dumbledore" or Mick Worthington "Mick the Dig" in order to separate him from Mick Aston.
- No Animals Were Harmed:
- In one episode, they're excavating the grounds of one of London's law societies, but have to get permission from the gardener to carefully lift a geranium bed. At the end of the episode, Tony says "Just in case any lawyers are watching, not a single geranium was harmed during the making of this programme".
- Another episode had them having to do a fingertip search for rare newts which bred on the site before excavating any sites. Tony closed the episode by assuring us that "No newts were found during this dig".
- Noodle Incident: In "Return to Turkdean" (Season 6), reference is made to a "Ford Cortina twenty metres down". There are additional references to a buried Cortina before and after this episode (Season 6 episode 6 "Smallhythe, Kent", for example).note
- Once Done, Never Forgotten: This is discussed in one episode regarding grave goods, in that what is buried with you is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what you were like, but what people most associated you with. Tony mentions that with him it would probably be a "bloody turnip".
- One Steve Limit: If two archaeologists had the same first name, the least senior of the two would be given a nickname to separate them for the ease of referral.
- OOC Is Serious Business: The Team nearly always moans about the British Weather, but the episode "Romans on the Range" had weather so bad that even Phil Harding (who prided himself as being an "all-weathers archaeologist") downed tools and led the protest about unsafe conditions which convinced the director to hastily arrange some shelter. He had a point, the wind-chill on the main trench was minus-ten Celsius.
- Rage Quit: Sadly what Mick Aston did over changes to the format in 2012. Things were smoothed over, and he was going to become involved with the show again, but then the show was cancelled before anything more could be done. Then he died.
- The Remake:
- The Great British Dig, the pilot episode of which was broadcast on More 4 in 2020 with full series following the subsequent years, is basically Time Team with a different name, younger archaeologists and Hugh Dennis as the presenter. In the Maidstone episode, they even go to the pub.
- Starting in September 2020 the original producer began raising funds for a revival of the original Time Team as well. To drum up interest they've been uploading old episodes in HD to Youtube and having the people featured in the episode talk about their experiences.
- Sequel Episode: Series 6 episode Return to Turkdean served as a direct one to the previous series' episode centred on the site of the same name.
- Solemn Ending Theme: An alternative ending theme tune, without the drumbeats, is used on "special" shows such as those dealing with WW2 archaeology where the team have exhumed things like crashed aeroplanes, or sites where there has been significant death count.
- Southern-Fried Genius: Different country, same trope: Don't let Phil's exaggerated oi-be-drinkin'-zoider west country bumpkin accent fool you into thinking he's not just as smart as the rest of the team.
- Team Dad: Senior site archaeologist Mick Aston who managed to soothe troubled egos, and keep the digs running smoothly.
- Treasure Map: As a show about real archaeology you would not expect Time Team to feature one of these, but on the dig on Looe Island they were actually given a real "treasure map" that had been discovered by an amateur historian which, intriguingly, managed to coincide with a real geophysical anomaly. It turned out to be the marker place for a Victorian era flagpole. So much for the treasure of Cornish pirates.
- Very Special Episode: Barrow Clump, a joint dig with Operation Nightingale, which aims to rehabilitate wounded soldiers through archaeology.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Phil and Tony. 99% of the non-archaeology dialogue is them bickering with each and winding each other up.
- Wild Hair: Phil Harding cheerfully admitted to not having had his hair cut for several decades and actively cultivated a yokel image.