ALMOST a decade after the show's first visit to Somerset, Channel 4’s Time Team returned to the village of Athelney for its 100th episode to try and uncover more secrets from the time of King Alfred.

Time Team ran from 1994 until 2014 and was hosted by actor Sir Tony Robinson, who was best known for playing Baldrick in Blackadder before he fronted the archaeology show. 

In January 1994, the first-ever Time Team episode was broadcast after the show's archaeologists, historical illustrators and archivists descended on Athelney.

The Isle of Athelney – which means ‘The Island of Princes’ – is around 10 miles from Taunton and, in Alfred's time, it was raised above the swampy marshes of the Somerset Levels.

After being contacted by Tim Morgan, whose family had farmed in Athelney for over 50 years, the first show documented the Time Team's attempts to uncover evidence of King Alfred the Great’s abbey and fort.

Alfred, King of the West Saxons, hid in Athelney to avoid a Viking army led by their King, Guthrum.

King Alfred built a reputation as a man of the people who was trusted, liked, and followed.

Time Team’s first-ever episode explained the plight he faced in Athelney, when ‘all that was left of his kingdom was about 25 square miles of bog’.

After hiding out at his guerrilla base - it is likely that Alfred chose Athelney because its raised location meant it was naturally defended by marshes - he defeated the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878 and converted Guthrum to Christianity.

The Danes left the West Saxon kingdom, and Guthrum later ruled as the Christian King of East Anglia until his death.

Alfred founded Athelney Abbey after his victory.

Somerset County Gazette: ATHELNEY: A monument stands at the site of the abbey founded by King Alfred (Image: Ken Grainger, Geograph)ATHELNEY: A monument stands at the site of the abbey founded by King Alfred (Image: Ken Grainger, Geograph)

The abbey was demolished after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and no visible remains exist today.

There is a small Grade II-listed monument on the farm in the location the abbey is believed to have stood.

The first episode saw the Time Team use geophysics technology to produce the first-ever picture of the medieval abbey, as well as the outline of an earlier building that may have been a smaller church built by Alfred.

The team also discovered two ferrous (containing iron) ditches from the fort site, which may have been the place Alfred made his swords and other weapons used to defeat the Danes.

When they returned to Athelney for their milestone episode, technological advancements and changes in heritage management attitudes allowed the team to take new approaches to their work.

Host Robinson said: “Welcome to the hundredth Time Team.

“By way of celebration, we have come back here to one of the most important historical sites in the country.

“This is Athelney in Somerset, where King Alfred burned the cakes and saved England from the Vikings.

“Last time we were here, we found loads of stuff."

He added: "It was frustrating, though. 

"We were not allowed to dig even one square inch of earth.

“Now, 10 years later, we are back armed with permissions, shovels and trowels.

"But some things never change. We've got just three days to crack the secrets of Alfred's hideaway in the marshes."Somerset County Gazette: CLASSIC TELEVISION: Tony Robinson and three members of the Time Team (Image: Channel 4)CLASSIC TELEVISION: Tony Robinson and three members of the Time Team (Image: Channel 4)

On day one, they started digging at the abbey site and the fort site, where they had previously found evidence of “ancient metalworking”.

At the abbey site, the team was surprised to uncover “a jumble of human bone and rubble” in one of their trenches which may have formed part of a Medieval graveyard associated with Athelney Abbey. 

They had more success at the fort end, where they found evidence of Saxon metalworks, which once could conceivably have been the site of King Alfred’s “metal factory”.

The blade of a sickle or drawknife they unearthed also provided evidence of a Saxon workshop at the site.

Although they were unable to prove the metal dated back to Alfred in the ninth century, the on-site experts believed that to be the most likely explanation.

Later in the episode, the team believed they found evidence that Alfred had re-used a “defensive ditch” that likely dated back to the iron age while hiding in Athelney.

However, they were unable to find any evidence of Alfred’s original, smaller Saxon church their geophysics work from episode one suggested existed.

Summarising their findings, host Robinson said: “We came here looking for King Alfred.

“We didn’t find him over at the abbey, but what we did find was much more important: Evidence right here of why he's known as 'the Great.'

"When he was on the run from the Danes, he didn't just wander around in the marshes. 

"He came here, to the Island of Princes, a defensive site he already knew and which had been in existence for over a thousand years, in order to regroup, make weapons, and plot the downfall of the invaders. 

"It's nice to know that, even after 100 programmes, Time Team can still come up with the unexpected."  

The final Time Team special aired on September 7, 2014 – but the show is set to return after a fundraising campaign. 

The Patreon campaign came after clips of the original series attracted 1.5 million views in a month from 41 countries on the Time Team Classics YouTube channel.

Episodes showing the show's 2021 digs - starting at a Roman villa on the Broughton Estate in Oxfordshire - are in the post-production stage. 

Some experts from the original series, including Carenza Lewis, Stewart Ainsworth and Helen Geake, will return for the new episodes, but Robinson will not be among them.

The former host was made an honorary patron of the new project.