Diggers Done Right

They’re back!

Yes, the King and Ringy, that duo you love to hate will be kicking off the third season of Diggers, July 20th on The National Geographic Channel. What? They’re still in business!? All the other such shows – Savage Family Diggers, Dig Fellas, and Dig Wars, have all gone by the wayside. Curiously, Diggers has actually been a hit for the NGC. Even with that ratings success, things will be a bit different this season.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the National Geographic Society wants to win back its brand and they have turned to professional archaeologists for help. In cooperation with Half Yard Productions, the producers of Diggers, both the SHA and the SAA assembled panels to review the rough cuts of each of the episodes for season 3. These panels made comments, on what they saw and these were often incorporated into the final episodes. They also compensated the panels for their time and effort. The SHA panel put this money ($3000) into the student travel fund.

So, what has changed? First, they have eliminated the dollar value assessments of the artifacts that are recovered. This has been one of the main objections from the archaeological community and we told the production company that it was a deal breaker if it stayed. Still, this was a huge concession on their part since valuation of the finds is the “payoff” on popular shows such as Pawn Stars, Antiques Roadshow, and Storage Wars. We will see how much it is missed by the non-professional audience.

Second, they have hired a new on-screen archaeologist, Marc Henshaw. Marc has a PhD in Industrial Archeology and Heritage from Michigan Tech. He owns his own archaeological consulting firm, Nemacolin Archaeological Services and writes an archaeological blog www.archaeologydude.com where he shares his insights into the everyday life and mind of a professional archaeologist. Accordingly, he subscribes to a holistic stakeholder approach to archaeology. His blog proclaims “that if you can’t make the archaeological sites important to the community, they will never be worth anything to that community either from a heritage standpoint or a preservation standpoint.” Seems like the right guy for the show and there is a chemistry developing between he and metal detectorists.

Third, archaeology is becoming a bigger part of each episode. Marc gets a respectable amount of airtime serving as the straight man to the antics the diggers. He is often shown discussing the research strategy, recording provenience and relating the significance of the finds at the end of each program. There are frequent text reminders that they have permission to search on private property and it is made explicit that the artifacts remain with the landowners or local museum/historical society.

Finally, they have sought out real archaeologists to partner with when possible. This has proven to be no small feat as most archaeologists were understandably reluctant to have them or the disruption of their cameras, on their sites. Still they managed to work with a few archaeologists this season and these proved to be the best episodes. In fact, the season begins with the boys volunteering at Montpelier and being shown the cooperative ropes by our own Matt Reeves (who has shared about his public metal detecting programs here before). It is worth watching.

Is it a good show now? That depends upon what you want. It is entertaining, the backstories and graphics are good, and they visit some interesting places. The boys are still over-the-top silly, but apparently that is part of their charm. And honestly, many of the shows on PBS have bought into the cult of personality (e.g. History Detectives, This Old House, Secrets of the Dead). Diggers may not be your favorite show, but at least I don’t think you will hate it now. If you do, there’s always CSPAN.

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.

Historical Archaeology, the NSF, and Why Archaeology Matters

As many of you know, last week the SHA responded to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith’s USA Today letter advocating NSF funding regulations.  There was a rush of tweets on the issue, many tagged #WhyArchMatters; SHA’s social media sounded our collective anxieties; and a host of bloggers including the SHA Blog, AAA Archaeology Division President Rosemary Joyce, and the Society for American Archaeology echoed many of our collective concerns about the ways archaeology is being characterized in these public discussions.

The issue of NSF funding is certain to re-emerge with the end of the government shutdown, and it raises bigger questions about how we articulate the value of historical archaeology beyond our scholarly circles.  The SHA needs your help on both counts documenting the value of NSF-funded historical archaeology research.  We want to underscore specific social and economic values of historical archaeology that need to be articulated to members of Congress and the general public.

Today a form is posted on the SHA Blog that asks you to provide us some specific examples of the value of NSF-funded historical archaeological research. The form asks for

  1. a description of your project;
  2. a description of the specific thing your project taught us about the past; and
  3. how your project directly benefited your career, your institution, and most importantly, the community or communities associated with your project – socially and economically.

Instead of providing talking points to legislators and people who are interested in archaeology, we would prefer to provide them concrete examples of the benefits of what historical archaeologists do, especially with the taxpayers’ money.  If we do not make stronger cases for all the ways historical archaeology shapes communities financially and socially we risk having others misrepresent the discipline.

We will have a Saturday lunchtime session at the January SHA Conference that will identify an action plan for engaging the US Congress and the public on why archaeology matters and the importance of NSF and other federal funding.  I will report back on that on the SHA Blog in the next couple of weeks, but I certainly hope all of you who can make it to the meeting will join us.

These are simply first steps toward effectively sharing our scholarship beyond historical archaeology circles.  Some of this communication needs to be with legislators and their staffs, many of whom have never met a historical archaeologist and simply need to know what we do.  Some of this discussion also needs to be for our public constituents who support heritage preservation and are interested in sharing the research their taxes made possible.  The SHA has been firmly committed to public archaeology for much of the past half-century, so we have laid a solid foundation.