The Spike network is launching a reality series called American Diggers. National Geographic has a similar reality series called Diggers. The upshot of these programs is that they are treasure hunts. The professional archaeological community responded with formal letters of protests and blog posts. Petitions, newstories, and numerous blogs of outrage are up.
For their part, the Spike network responded saying:
“If property owners sign off, then it is legal–landowners can do whatever they choose with artifacts found on their land. That’s the argument Shana Tepper, spokesperson for Spike TV, made to Science Insider. “Our show is shot on private property,” she said. “They’re getting artifacts that are otherwise rotting in the ground” cited from here.
The private property rationale is reminiscent of the Slack Farm debacle of the 1980s. Of note, National Geographic prominently exposed the Slack Farm looting. (See “Who Owns Our Past?”, by Harvey Arden, National Geographic, Vol. 175, no. 3 (March 1989), pp 376-390.)
I wholly agree with the outpouring of protest against these latest attempts to loot the cultural heritage of the U.S. for profit. The reality shows are not even about mystery and intrigue ala Geraldo Rivera opening the Al Capone vault. They are about profit pure and simple. American Diggers and their ilk flow logically from other reality shows such as PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, along with the History Channel’s Pawn Stars and American Pickers. Antiques Roadshow format goes – is it real? how old is it? and what’s it worth? Although price is ultimately the punch-line for the two History Channel programs, American Pickers has a good bit of discussion on appreciation of the object along with temporal and personal context.
The public presentation of antiquities must move beyond the money.
In 1987, I enrolled in a field school class at the University of Cincinnati taught by the late Patricia Essenpreis. Ten percent of our course grade came from how we interacted with the public. Pat was adamant that we be able to explain the relevancy of what we were doing to anyone who asked. She argued that if we could not justify how archaeology was relevant to the lives of folks today, we might as well stay home. I struggled with this mandate for a long time. I had a difficult time getting my answer to the relevancy question beyond a general interest and curiosity that folks have in a prehistoric landscape. At the same time, the descendants of the women and men who lived on that landscape often prefer that we not excavate on their ancestral homelands.
Over the past 25 years, Pat’s question has always been on my mind. I can now launch into a pretty long monologue about how archaeology, particularly in its applied or public form, can be a source of empowerment for descendent peoples, educate on respecting and celebrating diversity, and more, along with acknowledging the value in a more casual curiosity and desire to know about the past. To present that total perspective takes a good bit of work from those of us in the museum and archaeological professions, but it is our mission to the public we serve.
As a profession, archaeologists seem to expend an above average amount of time and effort in public outreach. That television offerings like Spike’s American Diggers and the venture of organizations such as the National Geographic Society into this genre of media suggests that we have a lot of work left to do. So, perhaps when we sign the petition protesting American Diggers, we should also be writing to PBS about Antiques Roadshow, and be certain to take the time to respond to the teacher wanting a speaker on career day at their school, etc.
The Archaeological Institute of America has set October 20, 2012 as the second annual National Archaeology Day. This date can be an excellent opportunity to tell our side of the excavation story.
There is plenty of time to plan! How will you celebrate National Archaeology Day?