The Ethics of Historical Archaeology

Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons because we know that such objects provide historical stories that might otherwise pass completely unnoticed. Consequently, it is gratifying and not surprising that lots of people who are not professional archaeologists become committed and reflective avocational archaeologists or are simply fascinated by heritage and respect the complicated process of piecing together archaeological narratives.  Nearly all of us with relatively active projects have dedicated local volunteers, supportive communities, and streams of visitors who share our own fascination with archaeology and heritage, because archaeological excavations and interpretation are an exciting process of thoughtfully weaving together remarkable stories based on the most modest items.

It is not at all surprising that archaeology and material heritage would find its way into popular culture, and some television shows, magazines, and web pages have done exceptionally thoughtful presentations of archaeology.  Nevertheless, with that popularity there inevitably will be some popular interpretations of archaeology, preservation, heritage and value that archaeologists will resist because they break with our most fundamental ethics.  The most recent challenge comes from Spike TV’s American Diggers, hosted by former professional wrestler Ric Savage.  Like many professional and avocational archaeologists alike, Savage indicates that “I’ve been a history buff my whole life,” but in the hands of Spike TV that interest in history demonstrates no real respect for archaeological methods, community heritage, or preservation law, since the show’s central goal is to recover items that amateur “diggers” can sell.  In Spike’s own words, “In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.  `American Digger’ hopes to claim a piece of that pie as the series travels to a different city each week, including Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, NY, Chicago, IL and Jamestown, VA searching for high-value artifacts and relics, some of which have been untouched for centuries.”  The show proudly proclaims that “After pinpointing historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, Savage’s first task is to convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property using state-of-the-art metal detectors and heavy-duty excavation equipment.  The team will then sell any artifacts found for a substantial profit by consulting experts and scouring the antique and collectible markets, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.”

The show has been greeted by a host of archaeological voices who recognize such work as indiscriminate looting of our collective heritage, a heritage that archaeologists professionally document so those materials and stories are preserved for all of us.  We may not transform Spike TV’s shallow interest in simply presenting profitable “larger than life character” shows, but many thoughtful people may not initially recognize the dilemmas of Savage’s ambition to excavate the “hidden treasure found in the back yards of every day Americans.”  It is those audiences who share our interest in documenting and preserving history for generations to come that we need to reach.  We need to recognize that this is a potential “teaching moment” in which we can inform more people about historical archaeology and encourage a more responsible preservation ethic among the many people who are excited by heritage and materiality.

Savage transparently caricatures historical archaeologists and paints himself as a sort of working-class self-taught scholar with whom his audience of homeowners and history buffs should identify, revealing that he does not know any archaeologists or know much about what we do.  He told the St Augustine Record that “’Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,’ Savage said. `The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.’”  Of course many historical archaeologists have exceptional community-based excavation teams staffed by volunteers committed to their local history, and many volunteers routinely become solid scholars with a genuine understanding of and appreciation for archaeological method and interpretation.

Savage clumsily suggests that he is protecting a past that will disintegrate if we do not recover it now.  When Savage descended on St. Augustine in February he said that “diggers are able to recover relics `that are rotting in the ground and (would) never be found’ as archaeologists wait for grants or for construction to trigger an excavation.”  Of course virtually no artifacts are “rotting” in the ground, least of all the metal artifacts on which Savage focuses his excavations.  If anything, removing those artifacts from a stable soil matrix accelerates their decomposition.

Archaeologists have always rejected commercial exploitation of archaeological resources, and professionals do not seek to “convince reluctant homeowners” to excavate saleable things from their otherwise preserved property, much less encourage people to excavate on and around historic sites like Jamestown or Civil War battlefields that are legally protected.  Professional and avocational archaeologists alike have always strongly resisted commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and selling the products of his digs are Savage’s fundamental goal.  It is unclear what other artifacts with no real commercial value—scatters of clothing snaps, broken plates, splintered marbles—were found in Savage’s digs or what happened to them, but of course those things that cannot be sold are what fill most historic archaeological collections.

St. Augustine has been the scene of exceptional archaeological scholarship on some of the very earliest European immigrants to the New World, so it is especially distressing that some of this rare material might be lost to somebody digging haphazardly in search of the purported “gold nugget” Savage suggests he recovered in St. Augustine in February.  Kathleen Deagan provided a thoughtful response to the St. Augustine Record based on over 40 years of her own archaeological research in the city, and local avocational and professional archaeologists have responded rapidly and thoughtfully.  The city’s archaeology project has done an outstanding job documenting the city’s earliest European occupation and even earlier prehistoric settlement because St. Augustine has committed itself to preservation.

American Diggers professes to share our concern for documenting national and international heritage, but it actually appears to promote the destruction of that heritage.  It simply finds and plunders the past and fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands archaeological research, preservation law, and the community heritage that we all aspire to protect.

I have attached SHA’s letter to Spike, which also went to its production company and the Executive and Senior Vice-Presidents in charge of original series at Spike. You may view it here.

 

This entry was posted in Ethics, President's Corner and tagged , , , , by Paul Mullins. Bookmark the permalink.

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.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Amanda-Morrow/680410552 Amanda Morrow

    I agree that shows like this should be used as a teaching moment rather than just a soapbox for the archeological community to express its disapproval. This is very well stated.

  • Billwhittaker

    It is not just Spike, it is also on National Geographic Channel.

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  • Chris

    It might also be useful to seek out the advertising sponsors and educate them on the problems this television program causes. Perhaps they will not want to be associated with something so destructive. This could put added pressure on the netwok to either modify or eliminate the show.

  • pak152

    Reminds me of what has taken place in England with the advent of the metal detecting hobby. The professionals looked down on the hobbyist, but over time they have I think been embraced, as the hobbyist identified sites that the professionals were unaware.

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  • Mr. Loren Blalock- Discoverer

    This is great if treasure hunters and archaeologists could work together to preserve and protect America’s rich, cultural heritage unimpaired no matter where you find it. In your own back yard? In a Florida State Park at St. Augustine? Your local City Park or anywhere else history steps foot. The past does not recognize some line on a surveyed map centuries later saying welcome home this Bud’s for You! And so is anything else we can dig up, eh. That’s where historic preservation laws, archaeological ethics and a treasure hunter’s own Code of Conduct comes into eligible practice or play. Saving our National Heritage can be serious business the same as it is rewarding and fun. As a discoverer of it, we are obligated to find the courage to do whatever it takes especially when it matters the most in order to ensure that this history under our feet does not get lost again even on purpose or forgotten forever because of things like greed, fame and fortune, or a severe case of lack of ethics, misconduct on the part of all parties involved here whether you’re an owner or an archaeologist or someone out to increase your ratings while promoting whatever some people pay you to. There is no waiting in line at the Bank of Spain, so discovering it’s heritage can be very, very, very lucrative. Whether or not your name is American Diggers or even State Archaeologist Dr. Mary Glowacki. They both have a responsibility for protecting our past whether it’s for profit and or understanding  the archaeological context of historical truth in situ or as an isolated find. The State of Florida is a classic example of both the right way and the wrong way to git’r done in the world of Historic Archaeology. Only problem is sometimes the system breaks down. Politics takes charge of carrying out the Historic Preservation Plan of the Day. Laws tend to no longer apply as ethics get tossed out the window and both bureaucrats in charge or the so called Pot Hunters get paid to no longer be of any assistance the same as for just helping themselves to whatever they historically feel like it without any real consideration for preserving these relics of interest or academic remorse for pretending history never happened at the same time they get paid again to commemorate it did as certain individual’s conduct themselves inappropriately both the knowledgeable expert and the self proclaimed History Buff. The City of St. Augustine you  think would be a role model city for how Historic Archaeology is supposed to operate? But’ are they any better than Spike TV themselves in their own behavior when it comes to preserving La Florida Heritage unimpaired? They care so much for Historic Archaeology when it comes to Pedro Menedez de Aviles and 1565 plus their own legendary Fountain of Youth, but don’t let Florida Archaeology fool you the same as Ric Savage allows himself to be taken advantage of for personal gain. Yes, there is resistance here on a professional level, but as an advocate and discoverer of Florida History myself I must ask all of you here who support this Blog a very simple question? Welcome Home! And should a National Memorial in Florida be allowed to say to publicly say these very same two words when it comes to honoring the very reason for their own existence? Be it Bradenton on the Gulf Coast or the Oldest City in America on the Atlantic. I wonder what happened to archaeological ethics on the day bulldozers started dumping an eligible national historic site at the same time St. Augustine did the unthinkable and totally turned their backs officially
    on protecting their own sacred city’s Spanish Heritage. It makes no logical, historical sense to care so much about one 16th century Spanish Expedition who founded your fine city, but not the other earlier one that was also discovered there? No, it’s not Ponce de Leon, but I am sure if Mr. Savage found something with his name on it that he’d do the right thing with it the same as the City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt would if he dug it up himself in context with some dis-articulated donkey on Anastasia Island. On the contrary what happens when you discover the only archaeological evidence ever found in Florida with a Spanish Explorer’s name on it in the Oldest City in America except there tends to be an historical problem here and the Conquistador in question left behind relics dated 1539 and he also spelled his name Soto. Ooooppps!! Wrong Ocean here!! Or is it really? A man named Mike Leverette didn’t think so, but he received death threats the day he published his theory in a scientific journal called Soto States Anthropologist 1990. There’s those archaeological ethics again, and who would do such a thing? The same type of people who protest Spike TV? No way! They never lost a 3 million dollar research grant for their own lost trail project and that’s just a tiny drop in the bucket anyhow for Savage & Sons. I’d welcome the ratings myself if it would get a State Archaeologist in Florida to do her own job. It all comes down to this and nothing makes sense here? Why is it that sometimes we care about saving our past and at other times we don’t? I can still see Ranger Scott Pardue and the former State Archaeologist what’s his name proudly holding up a big fat check prouder than a Spike Television Sponsor reporting their annual profits to stock holders as the FLDOT handed out a very large grant for establishing a State Historical Trail only like a private property owner somewhere in St. Augustine not one dime of that money went on preserving and protecting Florida Historical Truth. Wow! How is that even possible and it’s something I’ve even had the pleasure of discussing with allot of people in charge down there. We won’t name names, any more but still you would expect these same professionals and knowledgeable experts including my history buff friend Rick Savage himself if Spike TV only had the courage to do some real American Digging (but thank God they don’t for History’s sake) however unfortunate though that neither does the FLBAR as here it is almost four years later and the Museum of Florida History still keeps Hernando and our kind donation locked up tighter than Ft. Knox and try as you might, and Viva Florida 500, not even the King of Spain himself can honor this Spanish Heritage on a royal visit let alone De Soto’s own National Memorial. And we wonder why something like that could ever happen in a State that prides itself as a leader in Historic Archaeology? Ten years is a long time to waste your breath standing up for your own principles no matter who you are. And saving Florida History is what Historic Archaeology is all about. It’s a universal concept that applies to digging up our past anywhere be it Dr. John R. Swanton posthumously or my friend Dr. Mary Glowacki and even Spike TV themselves, for they know where to find it the same as the Keeper of the National Historic Registry in Washington DC who gave me a letter of recommendation on how to save America’s past. Only somehow it disappeared in Tallahassee the same as Florida History itself, and you can’t blame property owners nor some reality show for it. Not even the discoverer. I doubt we would even be having this problem if the gentleman I mentioned above there from the Smithsonian Institute and Chairman of the United States  De Soto Expedition Commission who even reported his findings to Congress in 1939 had anything to do with it, eh. But what’s in a relic? And why do people bend over backwards to find these things? Heck, the State of Florida already found a De Soto landing relic themselves along with other artifacts from Hernando’s own articulated horse, but you think they like being told to show some respect for a National Memorials Heritage? I don’t know? After the EPA dumped De Soto and his famous 1541 Discovery of the Mississippi River down some super fund repository without no consideration of Section 106 NHPA 1966 anything is possible? An act that almost makes Spike TV look like the State Archaeologist of Florida and Missouri combined when it comes to professing to share YOUR concern for documenting  “national and international heritage, but it actually
    appears to promote the destruction of that heritage.  It simply finds
    and plunders the past and fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands
    archaeological research, preservation law, and the community heritage
    that we all aspire to protect”. if only what you say here is true and it applies equally to all those in charge of doing just that.I know it’s a long story but the sad thing is nobody can do anything about it. Yet, we have to also discover the corage to try. Personally, what’s the difference? Whether it’s Spike TV or the Florida SHPO  Officer of Florida Mr.Robert Bendus at least publicly and officially our national heritage gets appreciated by somebody. And this is your nightmare scenario in real life that would even make Rodney King say “can’t we all just get along?”  As history gets manhandled and roughed upby our own government and no investigation in the world is authorized to figure out why? I have an idea, but it’s not pretty living next door to a toxic waste repository.after they just dumped your eligible national historic site and archaeology had six years to do something about it.but some people did not care and it’s even their own job or profession. To delete or ignore historical truth because of personal gain or fear of having more to lose than could ever be learned would almost be unthinkable, yet, it happens all the time. Case in point here. You can even ask the Elim Tribe out in California about EPA Super Fund and 70 million dollars of your tribal heritage and who’s bulldozers destroy history the most? Spike TV or our own Federal Government? 

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  • Diane

    I was given a helmet by my stepfather that he claimed was the helmet from a war where a relative killed a soldier and took the helmet as a souvenir. I have found only 1 picture of a helmet like it dating back to the 1500-1600′s/ It is found under the name of .Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. What do I need to do to have it authenticated. Many of the men in his family were in the army. He himself retired a JAG Col. & passed away recently from Alzheimers. Is there any further information I can give youthis is the picture from the internet. My helmet is complete and does not have the braiding and the top piece is intact. On one of the ear flaps my there is an elongated slice going thru it. Also the scroll work is different……

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