Diggers: making progress

Well it happened and it appears you missed it.  I was on an episode of Diggers.  I expected a torrent of disapproving emails from colleagues or, at least, a few snarky comments from friends.  It’s been a couple of weeks and the only person I have heard from was a former student who thought it was cool that one of her professors was on television.  And this was the show that was going to goad the metal detecting community into a looting frenzy?

So how did I feel about the program?

Initially, relieved.  I was afraid that it would validate everything the naysayers had accused the show of doing and I would be run out of town on a rail.  But it wasn’t like that.  It certainly was not an impeachable offense.  But it wasn’t very good either.  None of my keen archaeological insights or witty repartee with King George and the Ringmaster made it into the show.  I was reduced to a 2 minute bit at the end where I identified some of the swag the boys had recovered.  How did that happen and what should happen next?

When I was approached about having the show visit one of my sites I was initially aghast.  I did not want to have those two loons beeping around my site in search of “nectar.”  However, I was a part of the group that recommended that, to improve the show, they should work with established archaeologists whenever possible.  Hoisted by my own petard!  I had originally arranged for them to look for an 18th century site rumored to be where Blackbeard lived, but they were unable to secure access to the property.  Instead, I had them come out to a 19th century plantation I was surveying.

The shoot went well.  The guys are really quite personable when they are not on camera and being directed in their silliness.  The production company had their contract archaeologist lurk just off camera, to identify artifacts and mark the provenience of the finds.  I, and my students, were filmed doing the right thing and they even allowed me the opportunity to wax eloquently about how archaeology was able to give voice to the disenfranchised slaves on this remote plantation.  I left that day feeling like this might be a good show after all.

Apparently, the pirate angle was just too good to let pass and the director ditched the slave topic and stretched the story line to the breaking point to make it a swashbuckling themed show.  Some of my keen insights made it onto the program’s website, but most of the good stuff was left on the cutting room floor.  What finally made it on air was an entertaining puff piece.  Not anything to really protest against, but is that the best that National Geographic or we can hope for?

I think not.  There has been a shake up at the National Geographic Channels and I have already been in contact with the new program director as well as the head of research.  There seems to be a genuine desire to make it a better show and include more real archaeology.  They have to be careful, though.  The show, as it exists, is a popular one and, as I was informed at a meeting at the recent SAA conference, National Geographic is a non-profit.  The channel generates the funding that supports the society and allows them to give grants to archaeologists.  So, if the channel doesn’t make money, then the support that many of us have enjoyed for our projects goes away.

Would I do again?  You bet. To me, this was an opportunity to reach out to a demographic that doesn’t watch archaeology documentaries.  If we can dispel the lingering ethical issues associated with the show (the placing of values on artifacts needs to go) and sneak in a bit more archaeology, I will be satisfied.  Then we can take what we’ve learned and work with the National Geographic Channel to make a new show that does an better job of showing what we do.

  • Mark

    After watching the video and watching them grab and just pull things out of the ground when half of it was still buried almost gave me a heart attack. I really hope that things like this change. There are much better ways to do this type of survey and still maintain the integrity of the site. But other than that, great seeing you on Nat Geo putting archaeology out there for the masses. :)

  • Martha

    Actually, the most interesting, and perhaps most relevant, point in this blog is that the show is popular, and makes money that supports the National Geographic grants program that funds archaeological research. I remember years ago attending a meeting on development and archaeology. A very well-informed real estate developer reminded all of us that a community must grow to be healthy. Without healthy growth, there will be no funds for preservation, for museums and other cultural institutions, and no money for archaeology. I came away rather humbled – and reminded that all of these issues are complex and interrelated. Thank you, Charlie, for continuing the dialogue with Nat Geo and providing insights on the complexities of the issue.

  • http://www.detecting.us/ Scott Clark

    As a 30yr detectorist and regular archaeological project volunteer, I’m hopeful that the show does become more balanced – discussing context and provenance more regularly and reducing the cha-ching focus on artifact values. The producers want to maintain momentum that keeps people watching through the ads and advertisers renewing. Perhaps they can also replace “in the pock” with “flag-and-bag”! Also…we can all thank our stars that some of the earlier “boom baby” shows have shrunk to obscurity.

  • Blackland1954

    I didn’t think this could be any help to you but the most important thing I have learned in doing my research is that it only takes one person to make a world of differences ,but if you have 3 great people working together you will and can rethink history but to truly understand the real history of this great place u must see it to believe with there are ure owen eyes by touch ,sound ,all are common sense we are blessed with ,and the most important of all it must be FREE sincerely blackland1954

  • Chris Espenshade

    Charlie:

    Perhaps a reason that you did not receive much feedback from archaeologists is that most of us no longer watch the show; it disgusts us. The participation of professional archaeologist on this show disgusts us. There is a large portion of the professional community that feels participation on a program that routinely provides market value for dug artifacts is an ethical breach. You were well aware of this situation before you unilaterally decided to condone the behaviors on the show by appearing. As the President of the SHA, your participation will be viewed as the organization endorsing Diggers. There was no board vote establishing or authorizing your participation. I remain appalled by your irresponsible decision to endorse this show by participating.

    As to the fact the show might indirectly fund some archaeological research, that is an “at least the trains run on time” argument. You are somehow saying — again without the backing of the board and in direct conflict with the opinion of many SHA members — that the transformation of dug artifacts into market commodities is somehow okay if there is some little trickle down of funding to serious archaeologists. As you yourself noted in our symposium at the Quebec SHAs, the SHA ethical guidelines are rules of behavior. We should not bend those rules on a situational basis. As President of the SHA, you should be leading the effort to enforce the SHA ethical standards rather than attempting to erode those standards by your personal actions.

    Further, Martha lauds you for continuing the dialog. Your participation was not necessary to continue the dialog. Indeed, it curtailed the participation in the dialog by anybody who disagrees with you, by creating a de facto demonstration of the SHA’s position. Why should National Geographic listen to us who remain concerned that the show provides market values of excavated artifacts after the President of the SHA has endorsed the show by his appearance? Your appearance was not meant to continue the dialog, but rather to shut-up those opposed to your opinion. This is not presidential behavior and should not be applauded.

    To recap, well before you started your tenure as President and well before you appeared on Diggers, you were aware that a significant portion of the SHA membership felt that participation in Diggers by a professional archaeologist is unethical. Rather than have a full discussion of the subject, and rather than seek a formal opinion from the SHA board, you unilaterally dove in, participating in Diggers. Whether or not the SHA board ultimately agrees or disagrees with you, your poor judgment in pushing on regardless is not appropriate for an SHA President. You have compromised any possibility of the SHA Board having a full, fair, and reasonable discussion by your actions. Instead of considering two opposing ethical positions, the Board choices are now reduced to agreeing with you or further embarrassing the organization by issuing an opinion that the standing President has acted unethically. You did a run-around of the due process of the organization. You have severely embarrassed the organization. Through your actions, you have told a significant portion of the membership that our reasoned opinions mean nothing to you. I call for your immediate resignation. If you do not resign, I will cease in my role as Editor of Technical Briefs and cut all ties with the SHA until you are gone. You are clearly very wrong if you think nobody is upset by your participation on Diggers.

    Chris Espenshade

  • Carol McDavid

    Chris, with respect, you are simply incorrect. As a Board member, and as the Board Secretary, I am (and we are) well aware of the efforts by Charlie and others (including the leaders of our sibling professional organizations) to continue ongoing conversations with National Geographic about this program. He has not been acting “unilaterally”. As the chair of the Ethics Committee (a position held by the President-Elect) he reported on his ongoing conversations with National Geographic in at least the last two committee reports, including the last one in January. His reports were accepted by the Board, and his participation on the TV show was discussed. There were no objections expressed about his participation on the show, thus no “run-around” of due process. I am quite certain that his President’s Report at the mid-year Board meeting will be just as complete in this respect. I am also certain that ethics will continue to be taken seriously and that the “reasoned opinions” of others will be part of that discussion.

    I also personally support his efforts. He did NOT say or imply that the commodification of artifacts was OK, he simply noted that television shows fund NatGeo’s other work. You made a leap that he did not. Further, appearing on a show, and advocating for a point of view that IS different from those held by the show, is not the same thing as endorsing the show or its points of view. If that were true, Bill Reilly would never appear on Jon Stewart! In short, you are entitled to your opinion but your analysis is, in my view, wrong.

  • Robert Connolly

    Charles – great post. I appreciate your willingness to engage in the dialogue with NGS on this issue. Although I am certain that a common complaint of archaeologists in such endeavors is that the good stuff is left on the cutting room floor, the above clip introduces archaeology beyond metal detecting into the equation. The piece also showed the role that remote sensing can play in a broader research design.

    I am encouraged to hear too that NGS has a desire to discuss best or at least better practices going forward. I suspect that your appearance on the show introduced the public to the understanding that archaeology goes beyond metal detecting more than the recent position papers and letters written by all of our professional organizations combined. Perhaps the show could incorporate a follow-up segment where some of the sites visited in past episodes were revisited. Perhaps you could get another 2:41 of actual field excavation shown and an opportunity to interpret, etc. etc.

    I appreciate your not taking an all or nothing approach in this area. I am concerned too often that professionals can get a bit too holier than thou on this issue. I recollect a prof in graduate school saying something like “There is no such thing as an amateur archaeologist, like there is no such thing as an amateur brain surgeon.” Fact is, the “public” has made substantive contributions in archaeology over the years. I think of someone like Carl Alexander at the Poverty Point site. James Ford visited him in the 1950s and convinced him to label the ridge and sector of each artifact he collected. As a result, today, now that the site is publicly owned, there are a couple hundred thousand whole artifacts curated today with this provenience info. On academia.edu I posted a recent publication based solely on the Alexander collections. in the 1990s, I spoke for several consecutive years during Archaeology Month events at the public library in Belzoni (coincidentally named after the Italian archaeologist/explorer), Mississippi, located just down the road from the Poverty Point culture Jaketown site. First year I spoke I talked about the specific activity area types identified at the Poverty Point site in Louisiana based on Alexander’s provenience data. I asked the collectors if they noted such patterns in their collections around Jaketown. They affirmed that was the case. The next year I spoke the farmers came back to report those patterns. Today there is a museum in Belzoni composed of collections donated by the collectors.

    In my example, in an all or nothing world, one can find a myriad of flaws and problems with the approach. But, the public engagement allowed for moving the discussion beyond the three questions typically asked in the televised commodification of culture, whether Antiques Roadshow or Pawn Stars “Is it real? How old is it? How much is it worth?”

    I look forward to continued dialogue on this issue.

  • Dan Sivilich

    Charlie:

    I am sorry, but I have to agree with Chris Espenshade. Just by being on the show gives it credibility. You have just learned that they will use ONLY the clips that spins the story in their favor. IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE WHAT HAPPENS BEHIND THE SCENES – IT IS WHAT IS PORTRAYED AND HOW THE PUBLIC PERCEIVES THE MATERIAL.

    1. As a metal detectorist, I am offended atthe way the two show morons portray us. They may be Einstein’s behind the cameras, but that is not what the public sees. No one that I know uses their ridiculous terminology. No one that I know acts like a monkey and hangs from a tree when the find something good. Would you like to see the video of Jesse West-Rosenthal and Dave Orr when BRAVO located a cache of 30 bayonets at a Valley Forge site?! I did not hear “Juice” or “Nectar” once.

    2. I have a copy of a so called site report from a show done in NJ. It is a single page simple Excel spread sheet. Some of the data was wrong. Artifact analysis was incorrect. No maps were
    provided. All data was collected with a cheap hand-held GPS. On a good day with clear skies, GPS is +/- 7′. Would you like a copy of my paper:

    Sivilich, D.M., 2007. Accuracy Testing of Hand-Held GPS Units and Other Methods of Measuring
    Spatial Data. Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, No.62 2007:64-72.

    3. On the few show I have forced myself to watch, artifacts were totally misidentified and given high dollar values. I refer to the rare “pewter” musket ball they found at one site. I guess they have never heard of any of my hundreds of musket ball references, papers, and upcominfgidentification book.

    4. The repercussions of what is actually portrayed on the show is much more important than what is on their webpage. They give people the impression that they can simply go to historic sites and find cool artifacts. The Park Police at Monmouth Battlefield State Park had to deal with two 13 year old boys running around with a metal detector just outside the Visitors Center. BRAVO has funded the purchase of “NO METAL DETECING OR RELIC HUNTING” signs for Monmouth specifically because of Diggers.

    5. NatGeo should be ashamed of themselves by relying on REDNECK REALITY TV for funding. We sat together at NatGeo and saw the large body of overpaid executives required to run a nonprofit in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Having personally been a VP of a medical products manufacturing company, I can tell you that any smart corporation can realize they can save money by cutting useless waste. Imagine what David Lyle’s salary must be! What is next – selling of Sir Edmund
    Hillary artifacts??! Maybe they should take a lesson from PBS on funding. IT IS CALLED OFFERING QUALITY PROGRAMS.

    I am sorry Charlie, but it seems they have pulled the wool over your eyes once again. IF SHA in
    anyway endorses this show, I will renounce my membership and encourage others to do the same.

    Dan Sivilich
    BRAVO
    President

  • Archeowebby

    I’ve gotta say, even if they get more quality people on the show, such as yourself Charles, that I probably won’t be watching. Despite the fact I don’t have cable and the show doesn’t play on Hulu, I’ve decided to treat it like Wal-Mart and not give it my business.

    If you brought some credibility to the show, though, I hope the general audience learned something!

  • Pingback: Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Obligation and Opportunity | SHA Blog

  • Louis Gurske

    I like the show. It’s about time they show new people how much fun metal detecting is. But they should tone down the to morons. Yes they look like two monkey’s running around and saying juice or nectar. This is not the way we metal detect. Seeing what they find in the ground is fun and informative. But people are going to lose interest with these two morons on the show. All so artifacts were misidentified on the show and where do they come up with these dollar values. I’ve metal detected for years and would like to see the show continue but with different people with more sense.