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.

National Geographic’s Diggers Redux

In my previous blog I reported on a meeting I attended at the National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington to discuss the problems with their reality show, Diggers (not to be confused with Spike’s American Diggers) You remember Diggers, don’t you? Two metal detectorists, “King” George Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor, would travel the country looking for treasure, competing to see who find the most loot at historic sites. Needless to say, the profession howled (read SHA’s response here) and National Geographic heard us. They pulled the show until they could get a sense of how to address the concerns of outraged archaeologists.

Two major points came out of the meeting. The archaeologists demanded an ethical show and National Geographic said they had to make money on it. To be ethical there were a couple of basic concepts that could not be breached. There needed to be an explicit concern for recording the context in which the artifacts were found and those artifacts could not be sold. National Geographic, on the other hand, could not produce a show that was a money loser. So, is their a solution that could satisfy both parties?

National Geographic is rethinking their show to address our concerns. In a letter to the profession the show’s producers propose the following:

• We will have a local supervising archaeologist during all metal detecting and digging.
• We will have a full-time crew position for a person with an archaeology degree and field experience; that person will keep a detailed catalog / map of every item we find, process the artifacts in the proper way, and see that whatever person or organization that takes ultimate possession of the artifacts is also provided with the documentation.
• At the end of each episode, we will meet with an archaeologist to discuss the historical importance of the items, and to place them in their historical context.
• We will not place a monetary value on the objects we find. Instead, we will focus on the “historic value” of the items, and the stories they can tell.
• Throughout each episode, we will feature “responsible metal detecting tips,” about laws pertaining to metal detecting: where it’s not okay to go, what to do if you stumble across an important archaeological site, etc. The tips relate directly to the content of each episode, so they will vary widely. These will help to actively discourage illegal relic hunting/looting, and stress that respect is the key to metal detecting responsibly: respect of the law, of the landowner, and of our common cultural heritage.

Sounds good, but they need our help to make it happen. They would like to partner with some ongoing digs and have their detectorists assist in the recovery of artifacts. I know, I know! I saw the shows and the thought of having those two silly men on my site is daunting and some projects are more suited to metal detecting than others. But think of the public you would reach. These are the folks that might normally be out pothunting sites rather than preserving them. I think we need to give Nat Geo a chance to make good on their early blunder, and they HAVE been great supporters of archaeology. So, if you have a site that you think might benefit from their involvement, contact Cory Adcock-Camp at corya@halfyardproductions.com

And remember, no one learns if no one’s listening.

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.

Ed and Judy Jelks Student Travel Award

Ed and Judy Jelks with former students, who supported the founding of the award.

All students who are presenting a paper at the 2013 SHA conference in Leicester should consider applying for the Ed and Judy Jelks Student Travel Award. Two $500 awards will be presented to students who are presenting a paper or poster or participating in a symposium at the 2012 conference in Baltimore. Applicants must be currently enrolled in a graduate degree program, be a member of SHA, and be presenting a paper at the 2013 conference. To apply, please send a brief email to me, Charlies Ewen, the Jelks Award committee chair (ewenc@ecu.edu), outlining how participation in the SHA Conference will advance your career and research, and indicate how presentation of your research will benefit other SHA members. Along with this please send your abstract submission and a copy of your curriculum vitae. Reference letters from advisors are not required, but please identify your major advisor(s) in your letter or CV. Award checks will be sent to you after the conference.

The deadline for submissions is November 15th, so please consider applying now if you are a student who is presenting, and please encourage any student advisees or colleagues whose costs would be defrayed by this award. Do email me directly if you have any questions.

To read more about the history of this award, which recognizes the contribution and dedication of Ed and Judy Jelks to the professional development of archaeology students, please visit this recent post by Paul Mullins.