Boom, Baby!

Boom baby! Though many archaeologists cringe at its origins, how many times will we hear that catch phrase on our digs this summer? It’s catchy and the show that spawned it, American Diggers, is a hit for SpikeTV. Everything about the show is anathema to professional archaeologists: the destructive excavation methods, lack of concern for context and, especially, the sale of artifacts. But what can you expect from the network that brought you 1000 Ways to Die? So how do we explain National Geographic’s very similar show, Diggers?

National Geographic!?! Aren’t they on our side? They are an organization that has published the most recognizable popular scientific magazine in the world. They have covered and supported thousands of archaeological digs and have several archaeologists on their staff. What happened?

The response from the archaeological community has been immediate and passionate.  People Against National Geographic Channel’s Diggers and Spike’s American Diggers Facebook pages have surfaced with thousands “liking” the message to Stop the Looting.  Professional archaeologists have taken to the media as well with the SAA speaking against the shows to NPR and other professionals speaking out in the St. Augustine Record.  Have they listened? Maybe.

I recently attended a workshop convened by the National Geographic Society to discuss their new show. It seems they were genuinely surprised at the professional outcry over its airing. And, unlike SpikeTV, they were embarrassed and wanted to discuss what might be done. In attendance were professional archaeologists, avocational metal detectorists (AMD), and network and program executives. The discussion that followed was lively, though civil, and is summarized here.

The producers led off the meeting by declaring that the traditional documentary was dead. Only PBS could afford to broadcast an hour-long archaeology program. Commercial television requires more popular subject matter. So, how do you make a show that is both popular AND ethical? There were many suggestions made to make the show more palatable to the archaeologists. The main points were that a concern be shown for location and context, and that the artifacts not be monetarily valued or sold. It was suggested that the show’s AMDs work with real archaeologists, helping them out while abiding by their rules. It has worked elsewhere.  We’ll see what happens.

I think the biggest takeaway that I had from the meeting was how badly we as archaeologists have failed in getting our message out to the general public. Or at least in persuading them as to what our discipline is really all about. It’s more than just finding stuff. It’s the story the stuff has to tell. Our underwater colleagues have seen the public sympathies go out to the treasure salvors. Now it’s the terrestrial archaeologist’s turn to watch the viewing public tune-in to shows that portray archaeology as a lucrative scavenger hunt.

So, what do we do? Write off a large chunk of the population as beyond our reach? Buy an artifact price catalog and sell out to the next network that calls?  Surely there is some middle ground that gets our point across without boring the public to tears? It’s become apparent that these shows are not going away. Paul Mullins and I have both been contacted by producers pitching ideas similar to American Diggers. The calls are worrisome, but I worry more that they will quit calling and produce their shows with no input from us.

Read theTranscript from the meeting with the National Geographic Society.

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About Charles Ewen

I am professor in the Anthropology Department at East Carolina University. I am a long time member of the SHA and until recently served as the Reviews Editor for Historical Archaeology. I am now the President-Elect, which also makes me chair of the ethics committee.
  • http://www.facebook.com/TerriJQT Teresa Jean Terry

    Like National Geographic Channel, many erstwhile educational venues sacrifice quality assurance and background research in favor of budget concerns even at the risk of public scrutiny. In other words, they don’t care what the public thinks of them as long as they can do it cheaply and quickly. I’m sure the ratings of shows like American Diggers would not suffer if the producers were required to hire real archaeologists and forced to play by RPA rules, but show budgets would. The real point here though is that everyone falls prey to the quality versus budget dilemma - even this very blog. For example, American Diggers did not spawn the catch-phrase “Boom, Baby.”  It’s been around for at least twelve years. Watch “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Also, National Geographic Channel is NOT controlled by our old and trusted friend, The National Geographic Society, and is instead controlled primarily by the programming executives at FOX whom bought the broadcasting rights to the name in exchange for helping to promote the society’s magazine. They were undoubtedly the network and programming executives who attended the workshop – NOT anybody actually connected to the National Geographic Society.This just goes to show that NOBODY will take the time to do background research if we, the viewing public, are not holding a proverbial gun to their head.  Therefore, the answer is not to moan and lament about how we as archaeologists have failed to get our message out to the general public. We have. Unfortunately, nobody wants to listen if it is going to cost them money. The answer is to enact tougher laws protecting cultural resources and a justice system willing to uphold those laws. Public Law No: 106-206 [114 Stat. 314; cod. 16 USC 460l-6d] enacted by Congress on May 26, 2000, specifies that permits to film on public land should not be granted if there is a possibility of resource damage. The premier episode of Nat. Geo’s. Diggers did not acquire the necessary permits, and legal action by various Montana State agencies are in the works. Unfortunately, most government agencies interpret the law pretty loosely or disregard it entirely. We need to strengthen laws like 106-206 so that film executives are forced to not only apply for the correct permits, but those permits require resource monitoring by trained archaeological professionals.  

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