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.

Open Minds, Clearer Signals – Metal Detectorist and Archaeologist Cooperation Takes Another Step

The following post discusses the first metal detecting workshop open to the general public, directed by the Montpelier Archaeology Department this Spring. The post was co-authored by Dr. Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at the Montpelier Foundation, and Scott Clark, a member of the metal detecting community and participant in the 2013 workshop. Mr. Clark lives in Kentucky and holds a BS in Computer Science from Southern Illinois University, and blogs about metal detecting at http://detecting.us, where you can read about his experience at the workshop. You can read about Dr. Reeves’ previous metal detecting workshop with metal detector dealers from Minelab here.

Participants Peter Roder and Krisztina Roder surveying the front lawn of Montpelier with archaeologist Samantha Henderson. This survey is intended to locate the early 19th century carriage road as well as other sites located on the front lawn for future preservation and study.

In mid March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the first public archaeology program at Montpelier that was open to the general metal detecting public. This program pairs metal detectorists with trained Montpelier archaeology staff to conduct gridded metal detector surveys across a section of the 2700-acre property to locate and identify archaeological sites. This survey work is combined with lectures regarding what archaeology can reveal of sites, human activity, and how it meets the goals of a historic site such as Montpelier. On one level, the purpose of this program is to locate historic sites so they can be preserved. It just so happens that controlled and gridded metal detector surveys are one of the most efficient means of finding a range of sites from ephemeral slave quarters, to barns, and sites characteristically missed by standard shovel test pit surveys.

While these outcomes are realized and form the backbone of the week’s activities, this is not all that we are after with these programs. One of the most important and inspirational outcomes is the dialogue from two different groups teaming up together to engage in scientific research. One of the most important part of the week’s events was getting across not just the “how” of archaeological survey, but the “why”…and it is the why that some of the most challenging and inspiring conversations developed.

As the week progressed, provenance and context began to frame conversations which had previously been artifact-centric. It became clearer that once detectorists have insight into the broader hypothesis of a project, the sooner they became immensely productive allies in achieving its goals. They expressed the importance of feeling the years they’ve spent mastering their hobby was being respected by the professionals beyond only a field technician’s role.

Participant Fred Delise showing off nail he recovered from an 18th century activity area. Participants learn how to identify nails and their significance for dating and interpreting archaeological sites.

The knowledge flowed many directions. The detectorists’ expressions when presented the full richness of nail dating techniques was equaled only by those of the archaeologists as they learned how dating shotgun shells could tell you when a wooded area was likely open fields! When the excitement of archaeology is transferred to a group labeled as pot hunters and looters, the fallacy of a one-size fits all for metal-detectorist community is revealed.

Participant Jim Wirth excavating a metal detector hit accompanied by archaeologist Jimena Resendiz during survey of a wooded portion of the Montpelier property. While this particular woodlot was originally intended for a selective forestry cut, the number of archaeological sites we have located through metal detector survey has marked it for preservation.

The detectorists had come to Montpelier to better understand the methodology and language of archaeology and, in many cases to improve dialogue with professionals at home. The most common question asked was how they could get local archaeologists to consider employing metal detecting at their site. This was not so that the detectorists could extract artifacts, but so that they could meaningfully contribute in site discovery, survey and other systematic examinations of sites. In essence, these folks want to become engaged with the archaeology groups, they just don’t know how.

What the Montpelier team hopes to achieve through its programs is to show how metal detectorists and archaeologists can begin to work together in a meaningful manner and through a range of scientific endevours. Metal detector technology combined with an intimate knowledge of the machine from decades of use is a very powerful tool that can be harnessed as a reliable remote sensing technique. When engaged as a member of a research team, metal detectorists learn what makes archaeologist so passionate about recovering artifacts in their proper context—and studying the wider range of material culture from nails to bricks.

By bringing more metal detectorists into the archaeology fold, the profession can begin to take advantage of the millions of detectorists who spend weekends and holidays researching history, locating sites and scanning the ground with a metal detector.

While archaeologists will likely not be able to engage the detectorists who see metal detecting as a way to locate and sell artifacts (with these folks being in the minority of the detecting community), engagement with the others, while preserving research schemes, could bring important benefits. For example, a new generation of detectorists may be ready to go “digital” while participating on archaeological sites as we saw with the group at Montpelier. These detectorists were happy to do “virtual artifact collecting” via their digital camera to be later shared with friends online rather than take the objects home. Some took photos in-situ, others while holding them, and some during preservation in the lab. Excitement grew while context was preserved, and the story (of the find, as well as the archaeological effort) was spread to their network of friends.

During the program, participants spend a day at the archaeology site to learn how we recover artifacts. In this shot, archaeologist Jeanne Higbee trains Tom Ratel in the art of unit excavation. This particular site is a quarter for field slaves that we are excavating as part of a four-year NEH study of the enslaved community at Montpelier. This site was defined by metal detector surveys conducted during a similar program held in 2012.

This line of interaction goes much further than moralizing to metal detectorists regarding the evils of using a shovel to dig artifacts from a site with no regard for provenience. Archaeologists need to communicate to metal detectorists the value of their work and how it can be used to expand understanding of the past in a relevant and meaningful manner. This means stepping outside of peer-based discussions and engaging with the public. This is especially relevant for historical archaeologists as our sites often have no visible set of cultural resources that that the public will witness as being disturbed by sticking a shovel into the ground, and even if they saw the artifacts, the items recovered would not present a convincing case for preservation for the untrained eye. Archaeologists have the obligation to show the relevance of the discipline in our understanding the larger narrative of history.

With metal detectorists, archaeologists have a potential set of allies (and even advocates) who are already share a passion for searching for ephemeral sites and using the finds to connect with the past. When presented with the range of information via a systematic study of a site, rather than being unimpressed, metal detectorists are brimming with questions and interest, uncovering adjacent possibilities that can lead to innovations we may not have yet imagined.

Finding common ground between detectorists and archaeologists also has the potential side effect of archaeology gaining more resonance with the general public. Detectorists come from all walks of life and all ages and are present in just about every community. The public (including lawmakers and, often, reporters) are often captivated by the individual artifacts we (both archaeologists and metal detectorists) uncover – and perceive it as saving history. Associations and understanding between our groups could spread the “how” and “why” of what we do even further, clarifying how there’s more to save than just artifacts, but the sites from which they came. When we can do this effectively, our discipline and quest for preservation of sites will begin to be taken more seriously by legislators and the general public.

Interested in doing your own workshop at your institution? Dr. Reeves has made his workshop manual available for download here. 

This project was held in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see their blog on this program) and Minelab Americas.