National Geographic’s Diggers: is it better?

UPDATE: This post by Charlie Ewen has received a great deal of response, both here on the blog and in backchannels. Because the SHA Blog is a space for dialogue and discussion, we have modified this posting to include a dissenting opinion from Archaeologist Dan Sivilich, as well as a commentary by SHA President Paul Mullins summarizing and contextualizing the debate. There contributions can be found after the initial post. Please continue the discussion in the comments!

Is it Better?

Charlie Ewen
SHA President-Elect

On Tuesday, January 15, 2013, nearly a million viewers tuned into National Geographic’s reality show, Diggers.  I figure in that half hour, more people were exposed to that archaeological message than everyone who has ever read everything that I have, or will, ever write.  Granted, I don’t crank out many bestsellers, but I have managed to publish enough not to perish.  The point I am making is that, even on a second tier cable network, you can reach a lot people.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, there is a price to be paid when reaching out to the masses. Moving into the realm of the media, especially network or cable television comes with an entertainment price tag. Here, the real question is, how willing are archaeologists to work (read: compromise) with the entertainment industry?  Do we take the high road and lose relevance with most of the public or do we sell out and lose our professional souls?  Is there a middle ground?

Meeting with the Nat Geo

In a previous blog I discussed meeting with the National Geographic Channel to discuss how they could make their show more acceptable to archaeologists. The producers discussed the challenges National Geographic Society (NGS) faces in the highly competitive world of commercial television. They reminded the archaeologists present of the on-going role of NGS as an enabler of world-class research and a source of great story telling, highlighting the challenge NGS now faces in its effort at becoming more expansive in communication without losing sight of core mission and ethical principles that have always guided the Society. In this context, the producer outlined the Channel’s interest in seeking advice from the archaeological community about the ethical guidelines that any future programming could both operate within and promote, while advancing the goal of reaching broad audiences using contemporary television storytelling.

So, how do you make a show that is both popular AND ethical?

Archaeologists’ concerns

I think it appropriate here to make explicit our archaeological ethics.  The SHA has a codified seven ethical principals (a synopsis is presented below):

  1. Adhere to professional standards of ethics and practices
  2. Support the preservation of archaeological sites and collections
  3. Disseminate research results in an accessible, honest and timely manner.
  4. Collect data accurately and appropriately curated for future generations.
  5. Respect the dignity and human rights of others.
  6. Items from archaeological contexts shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods, and it is unethical to take actions for the purpose of establishing the commercial value of objects from archaeological sites or property that may lead to their destruction, dispersal, or exploitation.
  7. Encourage education about archaeology, strive to engage citizens in the research process and publicly disseminate the major findings of their research.

Guided by these ethics, many suggestions were made to make the show more palatable to the archaeologists.  To me, the main points were that a concern be shown for location and context (principle 1 & 4), and that the artifacts not be monetarily valued or sold (principle 6).  It was suggested that the show’s hosts work with professional archaeologists, helping them out while abiding by their rules.

The compromise

The National Geographic Channel has actually re-imagined their show to address our main concerns.  They partnered with some ongoing digs and had their hosts, “KG and Ringy”, assist in the recovery of artifacts.  I have seen a couple of the new shows in the National Geographic series and they ARE better.  Yes, the boys are still over the top in their enthusiasm to find “nectar”.  But they are actually under the direction of qualified archaeologists who point them in the right direction.  And, yes, NGC did hire a staff archaeologist, Kate Culpepper, who follows after the boys and records what they found and, more importantly, where it was found (a process that led to the very recent discovery relating to the Hatfields and McCoys).  I also saw no mention that the artifacts were to be sold. (Actually, I was told that the Diggers had never sold any artifacts.  They simply had them appraised on camera because people always want to see what their finds are worth).  So, that addressed my major concerns: research design, context and no trafficking in artifacts.

That being said, there is plenty to quibble about.  The boys are still annoyingly silly.  You’d think if they’ve been doing this for as long as they claim they wouldn’t fall into a grande mal seizure every time they found a colonial-era button.  And, according to some of the archaeologists whose sites were used, the shows ARE somewhat scripted (not to the extent of their rival, Spike’s American Diggers – but that’s more pro wrestling than pro archaeology).  However, I am encouraged that the producers are making a good faith effort to improve the show.

I would also add that the shows are genuinely more entertaining.  The professional archaeologists seem to work well with metal detectors and the boys seemed to be even more enthused (if that is possible) about making contributions to our knowledge of the past.  There is an accompanying website for the show which I found to be informative and entertaining.  The bits about responsible metal detecting and doing archaeology are educational without being preachy.

But not everyone is as happy with the new shows.  I have heard from several archaeologists who are unhappy with the fact that the artifacts are still given a monetary value at the end of each show.  They also decry the absence of a visible archaeologist in the shows.  You actually have to visit the show’s website to see the extent to which National Geographic has tried to comply with archaeological ethics.  These are valid points.  Assigning a value to an artifact does increase it marketability.  However, virtually every reality show of this type (e.g. Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Storage Wars, etc.) ends with a valuation of the items collected.  What I do like about the valuation of the artifacts on Diggers is that it serves as a realistic counterpoint to the wildly inflated values assigned to artifacts by Ric Savage on American Diggers.  Getting $10 for a Civil War Minnie ball is a poor justification to invest in a $600 metal detector.  And to be clear, these artifacts are NOT being sold.  And the archaeologists HAVE been peripheral characters on the show (though not on the actual projects).  Still, it is the perception that needs to be dealt with here.

Conclusion

Our job is to explain to the general public (because we can’t do it alone) why our ethical positions are important.  Archaeology is more than just finding stuff.  It’s determining the story the stuff has to tell.  The daring search for treasure is a compelling hook we can use to engage the public, but it is just the beginning of our work.  Now I think archaeology is entertaining all by itself, but even I must admit that some days it is like watching paint dry.   Obsessing with a tape measure and a Munsell book may be good archaeology, but it is poor television.  So, do we put up with a bit of slapstick before the real archaeologists deliver the educational punchline at the end of each show?  Or do we write off a large chunk of the population as beneath our intellectual reach?   It depends upon whom you want to reach.

Nobody learns if they aren’t listening, but how low must we go to reach the average television viewer? Was the History Channel’s Digging for the Truth breaking new ground or making it up? Even the archaeologically thoughtful Time Team out of Great Britain makes American archaeologists cringe when their stalwart crew arrives at an archaeologist’s site to solve all their vexing problems in three days’ time.  The American version has had trouble securing an audience – even on Public Television!

Surely there is some middle ground that gets our point across without boring the public to tears?  We will see if Diggers can strike that balance.  It has become apparent that these ‘reality’ shows are not going away.  They are cheap to make and audiences like them.   And whereas almost a million viewers watched the last episode of Diggers, more than a million watched the last episode of Spike’s travesty, American Diggers. Boom baby, indeed!

A Response

Dan Sivilich
President
Battlefield Restoration and Archaeological Volunteer Organization

I read the SHA blog about the NatGeo TV “Diggers” show and I could not disagree more with the idea that the show has improved.  I was one of the 14 people that were invited to National Geographic TV for our input on how to clean up the show. It was carefully orchestrated by a professional moderator. I tried to bring up my concerns about the cast but, my questions were directed away.  Yes, they did hire an archaeologist, who is never seen or mentioned on the show. She works in the background. The viewing audience has no clue about serious archaeology. They simply get the message: dig holes and remove objects. The show still puts a monetary value on the objects. So what has been improved?

“Diggers” recently did a show in NJ at a Revolutionary War historic site and dug musket balls.  There was no mention of archaeology, mapping, artifact context, spatial relationships or a site report.  I must have missed seeing a GIS map of the site? I found out that the archaeologist mapped the finds using a handheld GPS. The area where artifacts were found appeared to be primarily wooded. In 2006 I published a paper on how inaccurate handheld GPS units are under the best conditions. Here are a few of the repercussions of their NJ show:

  1. The NJ State Park Police had to be put on alert at Monmouth and Princeton Battlefields, for the novices who got a shiny new detector and saw that digging musket balls is fun and OK to do.  Where to go – a battlefield!  In the past, there have been a number of uneducated first-timers at both parks that had to be educated by the Park Police of the potential consequences of metal detecting on a protected historic site.
  2. Contrary to what we were led to believe by NatGeo, they valued Rev War musket balls at $10.  Now the hardcore looters will turn to Monmouth and Princeton.  A few years ago 3 were arrested on Christmas day thinking the Park was not patrolled on a holiday! They were wrong.
  3. We who metal detect take great offense at what they are doing to our public image.  We have been working very hard to improve our public image and this show makes a mockery of it.
  4. What would Sir Edmund Hillary say about the character of National Geographic?

We should not condone the actions of “Diggers” simply because a few people think it is entertaining. It is an embarrassment to anyone who seriously wields a metal detector: archaeologist or hobbyist alike. I have yet to find one person who uses a metal detector that actually likes the show or has a different opinion. I have spoken with several metal detector manufacturers and even they will not support this show in its current format.

Archaeology and the Media

Paul Mullins
SHA President

For many archaeologists, television portrayals of archaeology are inevitably shallow, focused on inconsequential details, or verging on unethical practice. From National Geographic’s “Diggers” to the press conference discussing the University of Leicester Archaeological Services’ excavation of Richard III, many of our colleagues have apprehensively monitored how the discipline is being represented, and many scholars are not especially pleased with archaeology’s popular cultural and mass media presence.

This week no archaeological story has received more press than the confirmation that a skeleton excavated in Leicester in September 2012 is almost certainly the mortal remains of Richard III, the last Plantangenet King of England. The presentation of that data on February 4th and the revamped “Diggers” force us to think about how such scholarship shapes the public perception of archaeology and if the media presentations of archaeology risk becoming the tail that wags the dog. Can we capture the complicated methodological practice of archaeology in a television show? Can the complex details of nearly any archaeological study be distilled into a palatable, entertaining, and intellectually rigorous popular representation?

The Richard III project has been told in thoughtful detail by a University of Leicester page detailing the excavations, and in many ways it is unfair to use this particular project as an example of how archaeology is presented in the media. The Leicester project was faced with distinctive if not utterly unique challenges: since they potentially held the bones of a British monarch, there was exceptionally intense interest in the results of their analysis, and it had little to do with the analysis of the medieval friary where Richard apparently rested for half a millennium. The Leicester team in many ways controlled the public representation of their scholarship by holding a press conference, and while the astounding global press must be well-received in the halls of University of Leicester administration, good scholars presented the evidence in a preliminary form and did their best to manage the way their work is represented. Yet in the end much of the press will fixate on the bones of a monarch and likely miss the many thoughtful details the ULAS scholars have outlined.

Since SHA representatives met with the National Geographic Society in May to register our complaints over the research ethics of their metal detecting show “Diggers,” the show has revamped its presentation of the two avocational detectorists out digging historic artifacts. The most critical change perhaps was the addition of a staff archaeologist to monitor that all excavation was conducted with the parameters of ethical and legal practice, and she catalogs all the artifacts the two detectorists locate. The show continues to display the estimated value of artifacts at the end of each program, though they do not actually sell any artifacts. SHA President-Elect Charlie Ewen’s assessment of the show this season is that it has improved in many ways as archaeology, even if we may individually not find the show itself especially compelling.

Dan Sivilich is among the SHA members who remains disappointed with “Diggers’” representation of historical archaeology in general and avocational metal detecting in particular. In his blog posting here, Sivilich (who attended the National Geographic meeting in May as an SHA representative) concedes that the show may have employed an archaeologist to supervise the two detectorists, but she has almost no screen presence and the show does not make any significant effort to represent archaeological research methods or insights. He remains firmly opposed to any valuations of artifacts at all, a move that he argues encourages looting. While the show may technically be in keeping with SHA Ethics that do not accept the commercial exploitation of artifacts, his argument is that simply conceding exchange value risks encouraging people to simply see artifacts as commodities.

But perhaps his most strongly held sentiments revolve around how the show represents metal detectorists. The stars of the show–“King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor—are, in Charlie Ewen’s charitable words, “annoyingly silly.” Dan is less charitable, fueled certainly by his own long-term work with a vast range of avocational metal detectorists who have partnered with archaeologists. For some of our members metal detecting has long been caricatured in popular media and by professional archaeologists, and detectorists want to stress their professional practices in keeping with archaeological research ethics. But these two guys prone to bizarre phrases of excitement risk undoing much of the professionalism honed by avocational detectorists.

Regardless of how we each feel individually about “Diggers,” it presents some ethical complications as we present complicated science and interpretive narratives in the inevitably reductionist sound-bite medium of the media. This was what chagrined many observers of the Richard III media coverage, with Mary Beard complaining in The Times Literary Supplement that “What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype … plus the sense that–intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king–there wasn’t all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.”

Beard wondered over “the question of whether media interest starts to set research agendas. This runs through many areas, but especially archaeology. … I’m quite prepared to believe that this skeleton is Richard III (he’s where we would have expected him after all) — but he is part of a climate which pushes people to celebrity history and archaeology, and may even detract from more important work that doesn’t have that glitz.” Indeed, we may find that much of what archaeology does simply is not readily adaptable to mass media discourse. Yet in a moment that archaeology is under fire we may feel compelled to use the media to keep us on the radar of the state and our University administrators, even if we are apprehensive of how our work will be represented in the hands of journalists without any significant archaeological background. Is any press—even if it is simplistic or stereotypical–good press?

I am disinclined to simply walk away from the media and popular culture because it is not really an option: what we do is simply too visible and holds significant interest to quite a few people. But we need to be firm and fair partners when we choose to work with the media, and we need to register our complaints when we think our work is not being represented fairly. So let us know what you think of “Diggers,” Richard III, and your own experiences with the popular representation of archaeological research, and lets work toward asking what works well and how more of us can borrow from those success stories.

What are your thoughts? Please continue the discussion and debate in the comments below!

  • Scott Clark

    I feel, as an responsible detectorists, that we are finally getting somewhere with the National Geographic Show.  I think that, if your tone down their silliness, the guys on the show are a much more realistic representation of our hobby’s majority.  The Spike “American Diggers” show is offensive to our hobby. We all morn the damage it’s caused.

    Most of the detectorists I know are lovers of history, interested in adding to the dataset, and willing to increase the level of rigor used in our hunting.  Most have never sold anything they’ve found, and return most identified objects to owners (I returned 3 valuable rings in 2012 to owners.)

    I would happily work with local archaeologists with my hobby – but the respect must be bi-directional.  My last 4 emails to regional academics about ideas have gone unanswered.  Our historical society’s 2012 annual report referred to the detecting community as “treasure hunters and looters” …And in recent legislative sessions in Kentucky, there was a lot of unwarranted name calling and falsehoods taking the place of civilized discussion.  My respect for the discipline was shaken, but not broken.

    I’ll be going to Montpelier in March to earn my MACP certification and gain a clearer understanding of the methodology and motivations of professionals.  I hope that this will clarify my ideas for working together in the future.  I think that someday permits should be issued for detecting on public lands with accountability and a protocol.   Could digital archives with detectorist credit be a good idea? I’d happily (and patriotically) surrender the odd artifact I find during coin hunting from public lands for academia if I could point my website to the finds and research around them online. I’m filled with hope.

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

    The new season of Time Team America is aiming to be more exciting to viewers without compromising scientific integrity. Hopefully it works out! Thanks for this insightful review of the revamped Diggers show, it certainly seems like a step in the right direction.

  • Ticker_shuffle

    Archaeologist – okay…whatever it takes for them to feel important.  They are upset about the value of the items found?  Clearly they aren’t worried about money too much, since they decided to major in archaeology.  Let it go, already.

    • Scott Clark

      This is the kind of response that keeps us in the detecting hobby held back.  Nice.

  • Chris Espenshade

    I must respectfully disagree with the positions being taken by the SHA, RPA, and SAA on Diggers.  The ethical guidelines are being allowed to slip, simply because National Geographic has made certain small concessions to appease the archaeologist.  However, the key ethical problem with the program — the posting of dollar values for the artifacts — remains.  Dr. Ewen dismisses these concerns based on two points: 1) the Digger folks are not actually selling the artifacts; and 2) all the other reality shows are doing it.  On the first point, the intent of ethical guidelines against valuation does not come with the provision that such valuation is discouraged only if items are to be sold.  Any public presentation of dollar values runs the risk of promoting looting.  SHA is not supposed to be condoning programs that encourage looting.  On the second point, ethics are not designed as a popularity contest, and should not shift at the whim of public opinion.  Yes, there are a lot of reality shows that place dollar values on items, some excavated.  However, that does not mean it is right to condone such behavior.  The bedrock ethical guidelines were established for a reason, and we should not be eroding those guidelines just because popular culture has another opinion.

    I was at the DC meeting where changes to Diggers were discussed.  The network has made only the least changes they could and still hope to appease the archaeologists.  Most of the changes do not even appear in the program; instead, you have to dive into their website to find the additions.  

    If the RPA, SHA, and SAA have changed their ethical guidelines, they should share that information with their membership.  As it now stands, it is a very confusing situation.  I am ethically prohibited from offering a dollar valuation for a projectile point that somebody’s grandfather collected 30 years ago, but professional archaeologists can be party to a program that broadcasts artifact values to a large audience.  I understand the desire to work with National Geographic and to use Diggers to educate people on proper archaeology.  However, the small changes the network has made are very minor compared with the major ethical concession being made by SHA, RPA, and SAA.  The average viewer is receiving the message that professional archaeologists have no problem with the valuation of artifacts (and by extension, with their sale.  Why else put a dollar value on an artifact?).  I do not think that this is image of archaeology that we want to spread.

    I encourage SAA, SHA, and RPA to revisit their tacit support of Diggers.  I also ask these organizations to clarify their ethical positions relative to participation by a professional archaeologist on a program that offers dollar values. 

    Thank you for considering these arguments.

    Chris Espenshade   

    • Paul Mullins

      SHA is at the moment trying to be fair and firm partners with National Geographic Television without sacrificing our ethics or science, and we are not at all committed as individual scholars or as SHA to accept whatever representations of artifact recovery made in this or any other television show.  Both the SHA Board and the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology discussed some of these issues during the January meetings in Leicester, including the complications of what precisely constitutes “commercial exploitation”: we need some clarity on whether providing a dollar value is an ethical violation in the same way as hawking an artifact online.  I do believe National Geographic has partnered with a range of archaeologists in good faith, but I also acknowledge that even the best intentions may not ultimately measure up to our professional standards, and the SHA Board agreed to revisit this at our mid-year meeting and provide systematic feedback to National Geographic about the changes they have made since the May, 2012 meeting, identifying areas they may have improved as where as places where we would like to see more change.  Dan Sivilich’s posting agrees that he has seen little substantive change since last May, and he is also fundamentally offended as a responsible detectorist who has worked extensively with archaeologists and wants to encourage archaeologists to resist facile caricatures of detectorists as “treasure hunters.”  I remain convinced that we can do responsible partnering around these sorts of programs focused on detectorists working in the US because we are simply compelled to do so (internationally, metal detecting law creates somewhat different issues because local laws differ quite a lot from place to place, and some of the discussions here about artifact recovery and ethics are not really good parallels to many other places).  These shows will press on with or without us, so I personally think the effort now is well-placed even if it does result in some frustrations along the way.

      • Chris Espenshade

        Paul:

        We went to DC in a position of power.  National Geographic was concerned that professional archaeologists were in such an uproar.  I am not convinced that shows will go on, at least not on the National Geographic Network, if the professional outcry were to continue.  I think it is too early to shrug and say it is going to happen with or without us.  Please recall that National Geographic pulled their show the first time.  I think, as a discipline, we have given up much too easily on a key ethical point.

        I recognize how hard it is to get things done in any volunteer organization, but a six-month delay is unfortunate.  During that span, how many viewers will walk away with the wrong impression that professional archaeologists condone the dollar valuation of artifacts?  How many professionals will be left in a fog of not knowing whether or not the participation of the series archaeologist and any guest archaeologists is unethical per SHA guidelines?  

        There is room on TV for a program that teams avocational detectorists and professional archaeologists.  Diggers, in its present form, is not that show.  We should not be giving them a pass on the key ethical issues because they made some minor concessions elsewhere.  There is no imperative that says we must continue to work with or support Diggers.  

        I encourage the SHA leadership to address this promptly, rather than waiting six months to even define a course of action.  

        Thanks,

        Chris

  • James Brown

    Worst show ever.

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  • Pacemaker4

    I have seen the problem over the years as MONEY. To do archaeology properly requires slow careful work.. TV shows work on a schedule.
    Time team did a fairly good job….but they had a whack load of artefacts to fall back on. stone age -ww2. USA? has civil war and revolutionary war… Wonder how many time teams started out as the norman castle but ended as the roman villa….