About Charles Ewen

I am professor in the Anthropology Department at East Carolina University. I am a long time member of the SHA and have worked on historic sites in the Midwest, Southeast and the Caribbean.

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.

Nazis, Ethics and Tolerance

Last week a student rushed into my office exclaiming “My God Dr. Ewen, have you seen this video on the National Geographic Website!?!” A little while later I received an email from Terry Brock alerting me to activity on Twitter and Facebook relating to the video my student wanted me to see. It was the now infamous clip from the proposed reality show Nazi War Diggers.The two and a half minute video depicted three guys in camo gear rooting around in a hole and coming up with a human femur (which they at first thought was a humerus). This was followed up by the trio speculating about the horrible manner of the soldier’s death. The video was a distasteful display that demanded an immediate response. This is what happened next:

I thought, oh no, not again! I was transported back two years to when the National Geographic Channel debuted their metal detecting reality show, Diggers The reaction to that show was just as vociferous, if not as swift. The National Geographic Channel listened to us then, perhaps they would now.

I emailed David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channels and said that the preview of their new show, Nazi War Diggers, had offended many archaeologists, myself included. I also emailed Jeff Altschul, president of the SAA, who had been getting an earful from his constituency.  He decided to make it a two prong attack and take their objections to the National Geographic Society. David Lyle responded to my email relatively quickly and said that the clip had been taken out of context and provided me with the full description of the show. He also said it would only be aired in Europe  My response was that the SHA was an international organization and that it was being joined by other international organizations (SAA, AAA, AIA, EAA, and the EASA). Our list of concerned was growing larger and growing impatient. They got the message.

Jeff Altschul drafted a joint letter that all the major organizations signed, but by then the National Geographic Channel had already issued this statement:

“National Geographic Channels International, in consultation with colleagues at the National Geographic Society, announced today that it will pull the series Nazi War Diggers from its schedule indefinitely while questions raised in recent days regarding allegations about the program can be properly reviewed. While we support the goal of the series, which is to tell the stories of long lost and forgotten soldiers, those left behind and still unaccounted for, and illuminate history working in concert with local governments and authorities, we also take seriously the questions that have been asked. National Geographic Channels is committed to engaging viewers in the exploration of the world and all of us associated with National Geographic are committed to doing our work with the highest standards.  We know the same holds true for our producing partners, including our partners on this series.”

So, mission accomplished.  Or was it?

Is this only a temporary reprieve till the next outrageous show comes along?  Will this be a rolling battle against edutainment with no end in sight?  Perhaps not, but we are going to have to be willing to work with the networks.

When the offending video was posted the howls of righteous outrage began almost immediately. Archaeologists began gathering pitchforks and torches to storm the National Geographic castle. The internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook created the flashmob and the Nazi War Diggers webpage had nearly 200 negative comments before it was taken down.

Interestingly, all that was known about the show was the few paragraphs and the clip on the website. Admittedly, the producers could not have picked a more inflammatory video to post and with their initial missteps with Diggers, the archaeological community was not inclined to cut them any slack. Still, Jeff and I have seen that the NGC had worked to make the show Diggers better and we were willing to hear them out and work with them on Nazi War Diggers.  However, the program has been shelved and it doesn’t look like it will be aired without substantial reworking, if ever.

So what does this tell us? I think it tells us that the NGC is willing to work with the archaeological community if we are willing to work with them. I know many of you will scoff and insist that there is no working with this unethical machine. Yet our negotiations have produced results. Say that about Spike’s Savage Family Diggers or the Travel Channel’s Dig Fellas or Dig Wars. There is no redeeming archaeological value to any of those shows, but I hear no hue and cry to boycott those networks. Probably because we know that they don’t care.

Let’s keep working with the National Geographic Channel to help them make shows that, if not something we want to watch, is at least something that doesn’t offend our sensibilities. If this is a trend in programming, we need to take a proactive stance and work to make these shows less about finding past things and more finding things out about the past.

Ethics: Who Decides?

Ethic – n. rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad. (Webster’s online dictionary) And for our members across the pond, the Oxford dictionary defines ethic as a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct (e.g. the puritan ethic was being replaced by the hedonist ethic).

As the outgoing chair of the Ethics committee and incoming president of the SHA, I have observed that few things are more likely to spark a visceral response in archaeologists than challenging their ethical interpretations. But where do our ethics come from? Are they the same for everyone? Are they unchanging?

Many years ago, while working at the Arkansas Archeological Survey, I was talking to its founder, Bob McGimsey, about ethics and Public Archaeology (how often do you get to ask questions of the man who coined the term?!). During the course of our conversation he related that SOPA (the Society of Professional Archaeologists) was founded because the SAA could not agree on a code of ethics and this was a way to get one formulated. It was only later that the major archaeological organizations finally adopted their own codes (based on SOPA’s). Shortly thereafter SOPA disbanded and later reconstituted as the RPA (Register of Professional Archaeologists).

So, our current code of ethics owes its origin to a handful of people, mostly in Arkansas, hammering out professional principles of behavior that the rest of the profession could not previously agree on. However, when you talk to the average archaeologist you get the sense that these principles are immutable. You certainly get that impression if you look at the Code of Conduct on the RPA website. There are many “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots”. The only thing lacking is these principles being carved in stone (I’m sure a good webmaster could whip that up).

However ethics, like the cultures that make them, are dynamic. The suspension of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson over comments he made is evidence of changing moral values in this country. Changing views on sexual preferences are one thing, but are professional archaeological ethics as volatile? I show an episode of the original British “Time Team” to my historical archaeology class. It never fails to elicit gasps of outrage. “My God, they aren’t screening their soil!” Shocking that the British don’t see this as an issue.

However, we have bigger fish to fry these days. Controversial metal detecting shows that put $ values on artifacts. We expect it when we watch Pawn Stars or American Pickers, but somehow it doesn’t sit right when we are talking about artifacts out of the ground. Underwater treasure salvors who want to publish the site data before they sell it to finance further work. Should we let them or is this a slippery slope that leads to further destruction of sites? These topics and more will be addressed at several sessions at the meetings in Quebec (spoiler alert – Ivor Noel Hume will be commenting positively on the sale of redundant artifacts at the Ethics Panel on Friday).

I hope that everyone will avail themselves of the opportunity to weigh in on the current state of archaeological ethics; either by attending sessions at the meetings or weigh in on the blogs. But please, be civil, we all share the same passion: to know about the past. Let’s save our outrage for the unabashed looters of our heritage.