Historical Archaeology will be Televised: Ethics, Archaeology, and Popular Culture

The hallmark of digital democracy may well be C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), the network that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the US Congress.  One 2009 poll indicated that 20% of Americans watch the non-profit channel, which provides oppressively thorough and largely unfiltered coverage of the Congress and American political events.  C-SPAN aspires to present unmediated news that moves at the speed of real-life: Congressional meetings, for instance, are long stretches of bureaucratic discussions punctuated by consequential but somewhat understated decisions.

Oddly enough, C-SPAN’s pace is a lot like archaeology.  In contrast, most 21st century consumers are accustomed to receiving news as reductive “talking points,” acrimonious quotations, or short messages scrawling along the bottom of the screen during a football game.  This presentation of the news is nearly indistinguishable from all our other televised entertainment, which washes over us with instantaneity and is focused on the spectacular moments.

This makes archaeology a somewhat challenging fit with media discourses.  Archaeology is of course a laborious experience that involves long days of mundane chatter across excavation units, hours washing and identifying artifacts, and the long process of weaving it all into a persuasive and rigorous analysis.  Yet archaeology is still a staple of popular culture:  We often dig in aesthetically striking places; the prosaic things we recover establish emotionally compelling relationships with the past; and lots of archaeologists are articulate and thoughtful narrators.

Archaeology and material culture programming is inevitably all over the spectrum of contemporary cable channels, but the realities of archaeological investigation and scholarship risk being ignored for splashy aesthetics, contrived archaeological questions, and practices that are questionable scholarship if not ethical violations.  Programmers have now populated cable television with a host of television series that weave sensational narratives, stress engaging aesthetics, and feature “big” personalities.   Much of the attention the SHA is giving to such programming today has been triggered by television shows that violate archaeological ethics, misrepresent archaeological and preservation laws, glamorize looting and “treasure-hunting,” and reduce artifacts to commodities.  Popular culture is a distorted reflection of society, letting us glimpse ourselves in compelling, spectacular, and sometimes deluded dimensions that strip away all the prosaic realities of everyday life:  can archaeology flourish in media structured around such principles?

As President-Elect Charlie Ewen has reported, one of the television shows misrepresenting archaeology was National Geographic TV’s show Diggers, which features a pair of American metal detectorists.  Their initial programs resulted in a groundswell of alarm from archaeologists and allies, and National Geographic met with SHA and Society for American Archaeology representatives in May, 2012 to discuss ways changes to the show.

We are now seeing these new shows, and they force us to ask two basic questions.  First, the narrow question is how do historical archaeologists feel about these revised Diggers shows?  Do they reduce archaeological scholarship and preservation commitments to superficial entertainment?  Do they encourage viewers to appreciate our archaeological heritage or even search out local archaeologists?  Or do they instead issue an invitation to set off in search of backyard treasure?  Second, the broader issue is what in our collective imagination would constitute a “good” historical archaeology program?  If we were given control of a television series about historical archaeology, what would it look like and could we make the programming compelling to a broad range of viewers?

The producers of Diggers agreed to make some changes following that May meeting, and I want to identify what seem to be two key shifts and ask all of you to assess those changes.

  1. First, perhaps the most significant change was the introduction of an archaeologist to the show and the network’s agreement to contact local archaeologists (several have worked with the National Geographic TV’s film crew since May).  The programmers agreed Diggers should focus on research questions framed by an archaeologist that metal detecting can illuminate.  It was agreed that episodes focusing on archaeological or historical sites should feature archaeologists consulting with the show’s detectorists.
  2. Second, the network agreed that ethical guidelines for responsible metal detecting would be referred to during the program and on the show’s web page.  The archaeologists indicated that the show could not include any commercial sale of artifacts.

The revamped web page supporting the show addresses some of the complexities of archaeological recovery and context and the ethics of metal detecting, but the show itself remains the vehicle of the two detectorists, “King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor.   The archaeologists who are now involved with the show are not always particularly visible, and complex heritage narratives are inevitably transformed in the hands of the show’s two avocational detectorists.  Wyant and Saylor’s amplified personalities, naïve curiosity, and overblown joy finding artifacts have disappointed some avocational detectorists who argue that the stars’ seemingly contrived personalities are not appropriate reflections of the hobby’s professionalism.  For some detectorists, misrepresentations of the hobby are stigmatizing and actually damage the potential for research partnerships.

In February, I and SAA President Fred Limp wrote to National Geographic and advocated providing archaeologists more visibility within the show, arguing that coordination between avocational detectorists and archaeologists provides an important model for both professionalism and collegiality.  For instance, Kim McBride, a historic archaeologist with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, was part of an episode on the Hatfields and McCoys; Don Southworth of Sagebrush Consultants worked on an episode filmed in Idaho; and Harvard Ayers appeared on an episode on the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain.  Yet the show has in some cases had trouble finding archaeologists who will work with the producers.  Wyant and Saylor are perhaps choreographed characters that reflect what TV producers believe is entertaining, but the only way to change such stereotypes is to have compelling scholars’ voices in such programs and advocating for sound practice.

We have long argued that commercial exploitation of artifacts is unacceptable.  Antiquarians have sometimes sold artifacts for charitable causes, and as museums de-accession some holdings it is likely that some archaeological artifacts will be sold.  But historical archaeologists have generally tried to avoid that slippery footing and resisted all commercial artifact sales, a code that is being tested by the newest wave of television shows.  On Diggers, for instance, the show still indicates how much artifacts are hypothetically worth:  this does not involve the sale of artifacts, but it does venture into problematic territory that concedes artifacts have an exchange value.  The show’s producers argued in May that audiences find these values compelling, but we may conclude that the concession of exchange values risks issuing an implicit invitation to plunder historic sites in search of ebay loot.

From a television programmer’s perspective, exchange value may provide a readily apprehensible meaning most people recognize:  the audience mulls over the value of an object during an Antiques Roadshow assessment, for instance, and the appraised value delivers a compelling punctuation for the object’s narrative.  However, the imposition of such exchange values on archaeological artifacts and the persistent fascination with “treasure” may fatally compromise our ethics by allowing exchange value to shape how people see material things and heritage.

While National Geographic TV is willing to work with SHA, Spike TV continues to produce its Savage Family Diggers (formerly American Diggers).  Savage Family Diggers, the vehicle of former wrestler Ric Savage, educates its audience on how to find privies and wells (though their web page cites the Society for American Archaeology’s metal detecting laws webpage), and they have shown no interest in partnering with archaeologists.  Spike TV’s Sharon Levy, the executive vice president for development for the channel, said last March that Savage’s show is part of “a crowded genre … called `object-based television.’”  This places treasure hunting shows amongst the rich range of series examining storage bin auctions, antiques, and pawn shops, and an even broader range of shows on heritage and history.

For some archaeologists, science simply may not be reducible to satisfying media representations, but professional archaeologists are never going to control how the discipline is represented in popular discourse any more than we can dictate how communities choose to address their heritage.  Is it a Faustian bargain to partner with the media?  Are we doomed to simply be props while our real insights fall to the editing room floor?  Can archaeology secure a role in contemporary popular culture in which archaeological scholars influence minds and politics?  What do we really have to gain from doing these television shows?

The answers to those questions are not entirely clear, but the death rites for the traditional archaeological documentary and the unassailable academic have been written.  The question is not if popular culture is going to seize on archaeological narratives and material culture; the issue is how archaeologists are going to become a presence that pushes media planners to do thoughtful and responsible archaeological programming.

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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.
  • Mike Polk

    Paul.  I share many of your hopes, desires and dispair with this program.  My company, Sagebrush Consultants, worked on one of the first episodes of the program called “Oregon Trail Mix”.  We also did another on the Nevada-California border which has been split into at least two different programs.  You have probably seen Don Southworth, one of my principals on those shows. I have been disappointed in the amount of editing that was done at each location, reducing the archaeologist’s role to not much more than a cameo shot.  In fact, it makes me cringe on a regular basis to see these guys running around screaming about the “nectar” they have found, enhancing the idea of digging up cool stuff with very limited deference to its context or even why they are digging where they are digging other than it sets off their metal detectors.  .  But Wouldn’t it make sense to give people some kind of guide to understanding, better than they do, why they are running around digging with so little historical context to help them?  Of course its entertainment, but I think at this pace that they will very soon bore people to death.  There is no real substance to the whole thing.  National Geographic does very good documentaries where they have extended discussions with knowledgeable people about  the history of a subject.  They then show excavations going on and material being found and talk about it.  And, I’m not talking about this thing being an extensive, and to many people, boring, discussion show about history, but at least put some bookends on the episode with a longer introduction, perhaps talk to the archaeologist at the beginning to show there is something sought other than “digging up stuff” and then give us 3-5 minutes at the end to wrap it up and tell people where the artifacts are going, i.e. to some curatorial facility, even if a local museum.Now, I don’t have all negative things to say regarding “Diggers”. As you state, we will never have control over the media, but to my knowledge, this is the first time that we have even had a voice in any of it, at least at the national level. That is, other than occasional NGC, Discovery or History Channel episodes focusing on particular archaeology projects or subjects and even then, I’m not sure if the archaeologists in them believe that they were appropriately portrayed. Now, I don’t have all negative things to say regarding “Diggers”. As you state, we will never have control over the media, but to my knowledge, this is the first time that we have even had a voice in any of it, at least at the national level. That is, other than occasional NGC, Discovery or History Channel episodes focusing on particular archaeology projects or subjects and even then, I’m not sure if the archaeologists in them believe that they were appropriately portrayed.  
    In some ways, this program is more egalitarian for historical archaeologists as a whole.  Seldom has TV coverage been spread around like this to less than spectacular historical sites, but to ones that, nevertheless, often peak the interest of many in the American TV audience.   As with so many aspects of life, we have no clue where this is heading or will end up, but I don’t believe that we can even consider turning away from the opportunity provided to us.  Yes, it does and will portray our profession in a rather seedy light at times.  Yes, it does attract prurient interests in the sense of showing possible prices, but we at Sagebrush have, at times, been asked to put a price on pot hunted collections (we calculated the cost of proper analysis and curation) for law enforcement actions.  Apparently, in these cases, this is the only means that they had to quantify criminal actions on archaeological sites.  The urge to know how much something is worth is just something in the human condition.  People want to know this kind of thing – it’s certainly not new to our society or even our age.  I believe that we should continue on, despite these unfortunate aspects of the show.  Perhaps it is the price that we have to pay to continue to insert contextual and ethical statements.   I don’t think that it compromises our ethics, unless you are a purist.  We won’t progress far in our efforts to educate the public and work with their fascination with archaeology if we get so ethical that we refuse to even interact and try to improve the portrayal of historical archaeology.  Programs like “Diggers” will do it without us anyway and we have no way of competing with the scale of audience that they attract.

    Mike Polk
    Sagebrush Consultants, L.L.C.
    Ogden, Utah 

  • Kelly M Britt

    Better late in responding than not responding…..I echo many
    of the points Paul and Mike make above-particularly the point that these shows
    will continue with or without our (archaeologist’s ) input—it is the nature of
    popular culture. The fact that National Geographic has met with archaeologists
    and discussed and addressed concerns is a step in the right direction to find
    some sort of negotiated ground.

    However, I think we also might need to give the viewers of
    these shows more credit than we have been—not everyone who watches these shows
    is going to run into their backyard and start digging for treasure. To
    illustrate my point, as an end of year project for my Introduction to
    Archaeology course last fall I had my students watch either National Geographic’s
    Diggers or Spike TV’s American Digger and critique it. As
    background—the class was made up of all levels-Freshman through Seniors, mainly
    anthropology majors but none had a previous experience in archaeology or taken
    any archaeology courses prior to this class. My first class questionnaire illustrated
    the link popular culture and archaeology already have for I posed the
    question-“What do you think of when you think of the word archaeologist?” It was
    met with seven out of 33 students answering “Indiana Jones”. After watching the
    shows we as a class had a great discussion about them. The theme that coming up
    from multiple students is that they could watch these shows for what they were—entertainment and discern for themselves
    the ridiculousness or over board antics that were done for “entertainment’s”
    sake and diverged from the historic information being investigated. What was
    also interesting is that many of them ended up looking up more information on the
    topics that were presented in the show. While they knew a lot of the show was
    filled with non-information, the show did provide a stepping stone into
    subjects or areas they may not have otherwise been exposed to. While I realize
    this is not the case for all viewers who watch this show or any other like this
    on TV—it does show that many do not view it as “history” but rather
    “entertainment” and discern the difference.

    We also should remember there have been positive shows-or at
    least more positive ones such as Time
    Team and PBS specials that incorporate community archaeology projects into
    a larger historical documentary such as Michael Wood’s Story of England. There have also been historical reality TV shows
    such as 1900 House, 1940s House, Frontier House, and Colonial
    House to name a few that brought living history to a whole new level. I
    found many of these shows fascinating and intrigued that many of these
    successful shows such as Time Team
    and some of the living history series were designed “across the pond”. This
    introduces a completely different subject on US versus Europe’s view of the
    past and the idea of collective versus individual memory and the role of
    popular culture in all of this, so before I digress too much, I would like to
    pose that perhaps the wave of the future for archaeology is to look towards popular culture rather than away
    from it. Archaeology and popular culture are here to stay and will evolve with
    or without us—it’s really our decision to be included in the dialogue.

  • Chris Espenshade

    Paul:

    I have read your blog posting and the President’s Corner in the recent SHA newsletter. I am concerned that you and leaders of the other professional organizations continue to miss the point. There is no reason to be mystified why some archaeologists feel that any involvement or support of Diggers is unethical. The ethic statements of all the major organizations state that professional archaeologists will not undertake activities that may promote site looting and the selling of artifacts. When a show such as Diggers presents the digging of artifacts and then immediately shows the market value for those items, there is no question that the show will prompt people to dig artifacts for their monetary value. Therefore, any participation in this show, whether as a guest archaeologist or the staff archaeologist is unethical.

    This is not a gray area. That is the refuge of archaeologists who do not want to stand by their ethics. The whole point of establishing baseline ethical standards is to prevent gray areas, and to avoid attempts to redefine our ethics when a new situation comes along. SHA, SAA, and RPA should be condemning this show, and should be pushing the National Geographic Network to stop providing market values for the dug artifacts. As a profession, we should be clear that it is unethical for a professional archaeologist to be involved in such shows.

    Please let me take a moment to address some possible counter-arguments. I was both amazed and disappointed when the RPA Grievance Coordinator said there were no ethical issues with an archaeologist participating on Diggers. In her counter-argument,she presented the valuation of collections donated to museums as a direct parallel. Her logic is faulty on three key points of comparison:

    1. Such valuations for contributions are for tax purposes, and do not represent the actual value that the donor might achieve on the open market. The museum valuations apply only to the value if a collection is donated. The tax break is never equal to the full market value of the items. The cents on the dollar tax benefits are not considered by SAA, SHA, and RPA to encourage looting of sites to sell artifacts. In contrast, Diggers shows the act of digging the artifacts and slaps up a full market price. There can be little doubt that the flashing of dollar amounts for dug artifacts will encourage certain detectorists to follow the example on TV and loot sites to recover items for the market.

    2. Museum valuations may occur without knowledge of where and how the collection was gathered. In contrast, on Diggers there is a direct and immediate valuation of dug artifacts. There is no ambiguity about where the Digger items originated,

    3. Museum valuations are not shared with a huge TV viewing audience. They are usually
    private arrangements between the donor and the museum. In contrast, Diggers flashes the dollar
    valuation to all its viewers. By the network’s own admission, the provision of dollar values is a key element of the program.

    So, there is no validity to the claim that museum valuation of contributed items (an acceptable practice) is analogous to a TV show where relics are first dug and then valued. The museum valuation counter-argument is not valid.

    You offered another parallel, when you argued that Diggers was just doing what Antiques Roadshow does. Again, this is a faulty comparison. The Roadshow has a general policy not to include items that they know have been looted. The Roadshow certainly does not include footage of an item being ripped from the ground immediately before valuation. There is no realistic similarity.

    Another worrisome counter-argument is that the National Geographic Network (NGN) concessions will help educate people about the archaeological process, and that fact somehow should over-ride the ethical concerns. This is a very twisted logic. Although there is some mention of research in Season 2, the overall show is at best confusing regarding what archaeologists do. Why would there be any need to show dollar valuations of artifacts if they were all going to a museum or curation
    facility? Do we really want the public thinking that professional archaeologists sell what they find? If NGN overhauled their show a second time,removed all mentions of dollar values, and emphasized archaeology, context, and research design, then the show would be a good opportunity to teach the public about archaeology. Whether or not the show might have some redeeming value, we are not allowed to simply throw out a baseline ethical principle.

    The most dangerous counter-argument is that we should be happy with the concessions made by the network. This implies that ethics are scored or rated on improvement. Ethics are an absolute. An action either abides by the baseline ethics – in this case, a professional archaeologist will not be involved in any activity that may promote the looting of sites and selling of artifacts – or it does not. There is no grey area in ethics. That is the whole point of ethics, so a group does not have to decide anew on a case by case basis where they stand on crucial issues. The baseline ethical statements should not be applied with an asterisk (*National Geographic Network made some concessions, so in this case we are going to abandon our baseline ethic on looting and selling artifacts).

    Lastly, let’s consider the counter-argument of Kelly Britt (earlier blog on this post). Britt argues that not every viewer of Diggers is going to run into their backyard and start digging for treasure. Britt does not understand the ethical obligations of professional archaeologists. Our principles do not come with a measure. We do not say 1 percent of a TV audience looting sites is acceptable, but 50 percent would not be. Professional archaeologists are to avoid any activity that might prompt even one person to loot. By Britt’s own calculations, some viewers of Diggers are going to be prompted to loot. That some is all it takes to bring the ethical principle into play, and to say archaeologists should not have a role in this show.

    To be clear, I am not saying that archaeologists cannot be involved in lobbying NGN to change the show. However, on-screen participation as a guest archaeologist or staff archaeologist on Diggers, in its current format, is an ethical violation. It is time that the SHA, SAA, and RPA stop hiding behind supposed gray areas and invalid counter-arguments. It is time for SHA, SAA, and RPA to tell their members and NGN that professional archaeologists should not be appearing on Diggers, and to do so will be considered an ethical breach. We are well beyond the point where your call to “continue to monitor” is enough. I ask our professional organizations to step up on this issue.

    Thank you.