More Teaching Moments: National Geographic Television’s “Diggers”

Yesterday SHA sent a letter to Spike TV about their upcoming series American Diggers, and today we sent a letter to the National Geographic Television show Diggers, which also recovers archaeological artifacts to be sold.  Diggers is especially demoralizing since it airs on National Geographic Television and carries with it much of the scholarly respect that the National Geographic Society has earned over more than 120 years.  National Geographic has profoundly shaped how many of us view archaeology and cultural diversity, and some of the most astounding archaeology sites in the world have been excavated with National Geographic support.  Diggers follows the exploits of an American treasure-hunting firm that markets “awesome and bizarre metal detecting videos” and devotes most of its time to historic resources recovered in metal detector surveys.  The show promises that “Unless you’re in a coma, it’s almost impossible to find treasure hunting … anything less than exhilarating. Many of you know first-hand the rush of unearthing a silver coin, badge, ring, or other relic dating back to the gun-slinging glory days of the Wild West.”  Of course archaeologists do know the excitement of discovery, but we also appreciate that it is a complex process that carries on long after an object is recovered, includes a lot of objects that might not initially seem very interesting at all, and requires a broad range of skills to tell a powerful story.

These shows are disappointing, but we can continue to approach them as teaching moments and acknowledge that even thoughtful viewers may not immediately grasp the ethical shortcomings of such methods or understand what they risk losing in the hands of a haphazard metal detector survey.  We do not need to surrender our preservation ethics or scholarly rigor, and while we may not transform everybody we can reach many thoughtful people who respect precise fieldwork, community scholarship, and responsible preservation.  Lets hope that we can enlist the National Geographic Society in that cause as they receive letters from SHA, the Society for American Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the National Association of State Archaeologists (NASA), the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA), the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology (CNEHA), and a flood of grassroots resistance including online petitions and blogs that reach far beyond narrowly defined professional circles alone.

The Montana State Archaeologist and State Historic Preservation Officer responded on March 6th to the February 28th episode that was filmed at Montana’s National Register-listed Old Territorial Prison.  They concluded the episode violated state law because the show did not secure a State Antiquities Permit.

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About Paul Mullins

I am Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI), President of the Society for Historical Archaeology (2012-2013), and Docent in American Historical Archaeology at the University of Oulu (Finland). I'm the author of Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture (1999) and The Archaeology of Consumer Culture (2011). All opinions are mine alone and do not represent the Society for Historical Archaeology or IUPUI.
  • Kusankusho

    Spike is a mess from the get-go, but I’m really disappointed with National Geographic. I would have expected more from them than glorifying looters and pot hunters.

    • Agent1209

      Archeologist are a bunch of baby’s who think that everything old belongs to them! I’m a digger and they can shove it! If its private land it dosent belong to them. I’m on a mission to dig up as many relics as possible and not let them know about it. So far I have lots of awesome finds that they will never know about.

  • Marjorie Jones

    The people producing this program and viewers who emulate the diggers on the program, would be engaging in illegal activities in many states and on tribal lands, in federal lands if digging for Indian artifacts, and in most foreign countries.  Unauthorized digging without a permit from the Dept. of Historic Preservation would be illegal in Indiana even on private property, and indiscriminate digging would be unlikely to get a permit.  Violators could be arrested, jailed fined, have their equipment, vehicles and artifacts confiscated, and if such illegally obtained artifacts were taken across state lines they would be in violation of federal laws.  If human remains are found in the process of digging–or if god forbid they were deliberately digging up human remains even if only to get at the artifacts associated with the human remains, even more stringent penalties prevail in many states including Indiana.  If individuals encouraged by such a program decided to “dig” in foreign countries like Mexico while on vacation, they could find themselves in very bad trouble.  What is National Geographic thinking! People have gone to jail for what you are encouraging! You should read your own articles in National Geographic on the consequences of looting.  You might want to look up the articles on the “Slack Farm” incident in National Geographic which took place in western Kentucky. Marjorie Melvin (Jones)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2LUUMCBGYVRRA5K7SSAA3VZVQ4 Randy

    Spike has manipulated ‘reality’. This is very typical. However, these guys are not out to dig artifacts entirely. I would further point out that the close-minded approach of the archaeological community that believes anything recovered belongs to them and nobody should be allowed to dig anything-is bordering on vapid. Much better would be the UK example where detectorists and museums/archaeologists work hand in hand. The detectorist profits, the history is preserved. Most archaeologists are working on the backs of those who explore and discover, not because they’re on a paid ‘jaunt’, but because they have a desire to explore in the first place. Otherwise the classroom would be a boring place because only what has been discovered back in the days of the true explorers would be discussed-ad nauseum. Think about it, when you put on that pith helmet it’s only because somebody ELSE reported something worth researching and preserving. Because of the penalistic approach, there will be much that slips through the fingers of the very historians trying to protect it.

    • FB

      Randy,

      Your statement that “the archaeological community…believes anything recovered belongs to them and nobody should be allowed to dig anything” is not informed. One of the many important facets of archaeology is public outreach. Only through this outreach can people truly understand the benefit of careful survey, excavation, and documentation that the training of archaeologists provides. This is why archaeologists share all of their information gained from research in publications open to the public. Many of the problems that are present (including these two shows) are because of the views you are portraying in your statement.  Furthermore, the selling off of artifacts by individuals does less than nothing to inform the public and help further our understanding of the past.  This is OUR heritage, not any individuals.

    • Kristin Sewell

      Randy (and CaydeWyant),

      Your view of archaeologists stems from our history as antiquarians and collectors and is sometimes reinforced by movies and television. The archetype of swashbuckling antiquities hunter is no longer accurate. The profession has changed over the last century into a scholarly discipline in which information about the past rather than the acquisition of rare objects is the goal.

      I think I am safe in speaking for my peers and colleagues when I say that none of us think the past is ours to keep. Indeed, just the opposite is true. We wish to preserve the past for ours and future generations to enjoy and it is this desire that is at cross-purposes with the two “digger” shows we’re addressing here. Whether on public or private land, the past belongs to everyone and needs to be recorded in a systematic way. Diggers, pot hunters, looters and their ilk collect artifacts without regard to documentation, mapping, association or any of the methods which have evolved over the decades and have become of the hallmark of professional archaeology.

      I hope National Geographic and Spike TV will reconsider the message they are sending and the industry they are encouraging.  Not only is it bad stewardship (especially for National Geographic) but it’s irresponsible.

      Kristin

      • Snowy

        Kristin…. the common steryotype of metal detectorists is no longer accurate as well, which has several detecrotists in an uproar.

        Detectorists view the past as “ours to keep” as well…. ours being the communities… detectorists LOVE unearthing history. And MOST follow a code of ethics, which are not portrayed or explained in the show. Archaeologists are no different than ethical detectorists.

  • CaydeWyant

    you guys have no idea what the hell you are talking about george wyant is my uncle on the show diggers he donates more stuff to museums then you guys have a clue he always gets permission by landowners who own the property so quit being jealous because he actually gets off his couch and takes the initiative to go find stuff!!!!!!!!! most of his stuff has been found on public land in montana so get your facts right!!!! thats all thank you

    • http://terrypbrock.com Terry Brock

      Cayde:  I’m glad that some artifacts are donated, and I don’t doubt that your uncle has a genuine appreciation for the past: we all have that in common. One of the archaeological community’s primary concerns is with the way in which the artifacts are removed from the ground, and, more importantly, how they are recorded. Archaeologists have developed methods that ensure that when an artifact is excavated, every component of where it was located, and what was located around it has been recorded, mapped to the nearest millimeter, photographed, and catalogued, because it is the context within which the artifact was found that gives us the most information about how that artifact was used, when it was used, and by whom. The issue, therefore, is more than just whether or not items are being sold or donated to a museum: it has to do with what type of information is being collected when the artifact is removed so that the artifacts can provide us with as much information about the past as possible. There are instances in the UK, as @Randy:disqus notes below, where archaeologists and metal detector enthusiasts work together, and it may be of use for archaeologists and metal detector enthusiasts to investigate that type of model further. 

      I would encourage you to read archaeologist Kathy Deagan’s letter about the importance of context to getting every ounce of information out of artifacts through archaeological methods, which she wrote in response to articles in her local paper about metal detecting. I think she does an eloquent job of explaining it: http://staugustine.com/opinions/2012-01-09/guest-column-veteran-archaeologist-takes-issue-treasure-hunters#comment-form

      thanks for commenting, and I hope that you can understand our perspective.

  • Flp3

    I decided to watch a couple of episodes of Diggers just to
    see how much foundation there was to the dissent out here.   Well, I am not sure the world needs to worry
    about anything for the simple reason that I can’t see this show lasting more
    than about ten minutes in the real world. 
    They have taken what could be a fascinating premise and suspenseful theme
    – metal detecting for the unknown – and put it in the hands of two of the
    dumbest people ever to land a TV show (that excludes some journalists who have
    brought “dumb” to an all new level).   I swear, the two guys who “host” the show
    Diggers are practically idiots.  They giggle
    and jump up and down like infants when they find a penny … not a treasure mind
    you, a penny.   They have an asinine
    slang word for everything; “rev” for revolutionary war era stuff, “cologne” for
    colonial era stuff, “civ” for civil war era, and so on.  Are these guys in the sixth grade or
    what?   It isn’t cute.   It isn’t informative.  It is freaking annoying.   It would be difficult to put together a less
    appealing show based on an otherwise good idea.   So fortunately the solution to the possible desecration
    of historic sites might well present itself; an early cancelation should do the
    trick.

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  • Timothy Cornstalk

    National Geographic Society, Smithsonian Institution, and most noble institutions of the same ilk are very guilty of looting and desecration. Why are so many of the monuments constructed by the Indigenous Americans missing from the landscape? They have been erased by Manifest Destiny, agriculture, and curiosity. The museums in association with these institutions are (and were all) in competition for the most illustrious artifacts to attract the most illustrious patrons and benefactors. While there are rules and laws in place to protect many places and objects today, why can’t we explore, extract and, extrapolate data without destroying the monuments and their sacred contents? We can extract and replace animals from the wild without much harm, whilst collecting valuable data. Why can’t we do the same now to our sacred sites? Leave the monument, extract and record data (using always advancing technology), and help solve the mysteriously silent and quite literally “white washed” corners of American history. We need to rebuild these ancient monuments where subdivisions have not encroached, and maybe after their certain demise, have a plan for reconstruction. Certainly there is room in this great continent to relocate a subdivision off of an ancient Native American sacred cultural site.