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.

Parks Canada Cuts

Many SHA members realize that Parks Canada has recently been subjected to absolutely draconian cuts that risk crippling one of the world’s most influential stewards for cultural and natural heritage and historical archaeological research.  Very few historical archaeology labs are not outfitted with a host of essential Parks Canada publications like Olive Jones and Catherine Sullivan’s Parks Canada Glass Glossary, Lynne Sussman’s The Wheat Pattern, its Archaeological Recording Manual, and many of the technical publications available on the SHA web page.  In January, 2014 the SHA will hold its conference in Quebec City, so it is especially demoralizing to know that by the time we arrive most of Parks Canada’s archaeology staff will have been released.  At the Quebec center, a team of 12 archaeologists was reduced to one; in Cornwall six of seven staff members were eliminated; and just one archaeologist will be responsible for the whole 120,000 km2 of the Canadian Arctic.

The SHA has written a letter to the Canadian Prime Minister joining our international colleagues including the Society for American Archaeology who have appealed to the Canadian government to reconsider the scope of these transformations in one of the world’s models for historic preservation, cultural heritage, and historic archaeology.  Let’s hope that by the time we meet in Quebec in January, 2014 the Canadian government will reconsider the breadth and sweep of these changes.

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.