Historical Archaeology will be Televised: Ethics, Archaeology, and Popular Culture

The hallmark of digital democracy may well be C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), the network that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the US Congress.  One 2009 poll indicated that 20% of Americans watch the non-profit channel, which provides oppressively thorough and largely unfiltered coverage of the Congress and American political events.  C-SPAN aspires to present unmediated news that moves at the speed of real-life: Congressional meetings, for instance, are long stretches of bureaucratic discussions punctuated by consequential but somewhat understated decisions.

Oddly enough, C-SPAN’s pace is a lot like archaeology.  In contrast, most 21st century consumers are accustomed to receiving news as reductive “talking points,” acrimonious quotations, or short messages scrawling along the bottom of the screen during a football game.  This presentation of the news is nearly indistinguishable from all our other televised entertainment, which washes over us with instantaneity and is focused on the spectacular moments.

This makes archaeology a somewhat challenging fit with media discourses.  Archaeology is of course a laborious experience that involves long days of mundane chatter across excavation units, hours washing and identifying artifacts, and the long process of weaving it all into a persuasive and rigorous analysis.  Yet archaeology is still a staple of popular culture:  We often dig in aesthetically striking places; the prosaic things we recover establish emotionally compelling relationships with the past; and lots of archaeologists are articulate and thoughtful narrators.

Archaeology and material culture programming is inevitably all over the spectrum of contemporary cable channels, but the realities of archaeological investigation and scholarship risk being ignored for splashy aesthetics, contrived archaeological questions, and practices that are questionable scholarship if not ethical violations.  Programmers have now populated cable television with a host of television series that weave sensational narratives, stress engaging aesthetics, and feature “big” personalities.   Much of the attention the SHA is giving to such programming today has been triggered by television shows that violate archaeological ethics, misrepresent archaeological and preservation laws, glamorize looting and “treasure-hunting,” and reduce artifacts to commodities.  Popular culture is a distorted reflection of society, letting us glimpse ourselves in compelling, spectacular, and sometimes deluded dimensions that strip away all the prosaic realities of everyday life:  can archaeology flourish in media structured around such principles?

As President-Elect Charlie Ewen has reported, one of the television shows misrepresenting archaeology was National Geographic TV’s show Diggers, which features a pair of American metal detectorists.  Their initial programs resulted in a groundswell of alarm from archaeologists and allies, and National Geographic met with SHA and Society for American Archaeology representatives in May, 2012 to discuss ways changes to the show.

We are now seeing these new shows, and they force us to ask two basic questions.  First, the narrow question is how do historical archaeologists feel about these revised Diggers shows?  Do they reduce archaeological scholarship and preservation commitments to superficial entertainment?  Do they encourage viewers to appreciate our archaeological heritage or even search out local archaeologists?  Or do they instead issue an invitation to set off in search of backyard treasure?  Second, the broader issue is what in our collective imagination would constitute a “good” historical archaeology program?  If we were given control of a television series about historical archaeology, what would it look like and could we make the programming compelling to a broad range of viewers?

The producers of Diggers agreed to make some changes following that May meeting, and I want to identify what seem to be two key shifts and ask all of you to assess those changes.

  1. First, perhaps the most significant change was the introduction of an archaeologist to the show and the network’s agreement to contact local archaeologists (several have worked with the National Geographic TV’s film crew since May).  The programmers agreed Diggers should focus on research questions framed by an archaeologist that metal detecting can illuminate.  It was agreed that episodes focusing on archaeological or historical sites should feature archaeologists consulting with the show’s detectorists.
  2. Second, the network agreed that ethical guidelines for responsible metal detecting would be referred to during the program and on the show’s web page.  The archaeologists indicated that the show could not include any commercial sale of artifacts.

The revamped web page supporting the show addresses some of the complexities of archaeological recovery and context and the ethics of metal detecting, but the show itself remains the vehicle of the two detectorists, “King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor.   The archaeologists who are now involved with the show are not always particularly visible, and complex heritage narratives are inevitably transformed in the hands of the show’s two avocational detectorists.  Wyant and Saylor’s amplified personalities, naïve curiosity, and overblown joy finding artifacts have disappointed some avocational detectorists who argue that the stars’ seemingly contrived personalities are not appropriate reflections of the hobby’s professionalism.  For some detectorists, misrepresentations of the hobby are stigmatizing and actually damage the potential for research partnerships.

In February, I and SAA President Fred Limp wrote to National Geographic and advocated providing archaeologists more visibility within the show, arguing that coordination between avocational detectorists and archaeologists provides an important model for both professionalism and collegiality.  For instance, Kim McBride, a historic archaeologist with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, was part of an episode on the Hatfields and McCoys; Don Southworth of Sagebrush Consultants worked on an episode filmed in Idaho; and Harvard Ayers appeared on an episode on the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain.  Yet the show has in some cases had trouble finding archaeologists who will work with the producers.  Wyant and Saylor are perhaps choreographed characters that reflect what TV producers believe is entertaining, but the only way to change such stereotypes is to have compelling scholars’ voices in such programs and advocating for sound practice.

We have long argued that commercial exploitation of artifacts is unacceptable.  Antiquarians have sometimes sold artifacts for charitable causes, and as museums de-accession some holdings it is likely that some archaeological artifacts will be sold.  But historical archaeologists have generally tried to avoid that slippery footing and resisted all commercial artifact sales, a code that is being tested by the newest wave of television shows.  On Diggers, for instance, the show still indicates how much artifacts are hypothetically worth:  this does not involve the sale of artifacts, but it does venture into problematic territory that concedes artifacts have an exchange value.  The show’s producers argued in May that audiences find these values compelling, but we may conclude that the concession of exchange values risks issuing an implicit invitation to plunder historic sites in search of ebay loot.

From a television programmer’s perspective, exchange value may provide a readily apprehensible meaning most people recognize:  the audience mulls over the value of an object during an Antiques Roadshow assessment, for instance, and the appraised value delivers a compelling punctuation for the object’s narrative.  However, the imposition of such exchange values on archaeological artifacts and the persistent fascination with “treasure” may fatally compromise our ethics by allowing exchange value to shape how people see material things and heritage.

While National Geographic TV is willing to work with SHA, Spike TV continues to produce its Savage Family Diggers (formerly American Diggers).  Savage Family Diggers, the vehicle of former wrestler Ric Savage, educates its audience on how to find privies and wells (though their web page cites the Society for American Archaeology’s metal detecting laws webpage), and they have shown no interest in partnering with archaeologists.  Spike TV’s Sharon Levy, the executive vice president for development for the channel, said last March that Savage’s show is part of “a crowded genre … called `object-based television.’”  This places treasure hunting shows amongst the rich range of series examining storage bin auctions, antiques, and pawn shops, and an even broader range of shows on heritage and history.

For some archaeologists, science simply may not be reducible to satisfying media representations, but professional archaeologists are never going to control how the discipline is represented in popular discourse any more than we can dictate how communities choose to address their heritage.  Is it a Faustian bargain to partner with the media?  Are we doomed to simply be props while our real insights fall to the editing room floor?  Can archaeology secure a role in contemporary popular culture in which archaeological scholars influence minds and politics?  What do we really have to gain from doing these television shows?

The answers to those questions are not entirely clear, but the death rites for the traditional archaeological documentary and the unassailable academic have been written.  The question is not if popular culture is going to seize on archaeological narratives and material culture; the issue is how archaeologists are going to become a presence that pushes media planners to do thoughtful and responsible archaeological programming.

Diversity and Difference in SHA

In 2012 the SHA has been active on a number of fronts, and this month I want to examine two of those that I think are exceptionally important to the SHA in the coming years: one revolves around the diversity of the discipline in general and SHA in particular, and the other is the representation of archaeology in popular media.  Both are sufficiently complicated to deserve a posting of their own, so this week I take on the former and I will discuss the latter in my next post.

The Questions in “Diversity”

This year I have reported several times on the SHA’s effort to make diversity an increasingly articulate part of the SHA mission and our collective scholarly practice (compare columns on Global Historical Archaeology, Historical Archaeology in Central Europe, and Diversity and Anti-Racism in SHA).  There are a cluster of practical questions raised by “diversity”:

  • - What does it even mean to be “diverse”?  Many of us have become somewhat wary of the term “diversity,” so this demands some concrete definition;
  • - Why might we or any other discipline or professional society desire diversity?;
  • - What access barriers face various archaeologists and SHA members across lines of difference?;
  • - What are the international implications of diversity when we step outside the familiar lines of difference in America?

Many of these questions are to some extent rhetorical in the sense that they have no satisfying answer with utter resolution, but the honest, reflective, and ongoing discussion of all of them is critical.  The most recent discussion on these issues came in a Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Panel at the 2013 conference in a session that included Carol McDavid (Community Archaeology Research Institute) and Maria Franklin (Texas) as Chairs, with panelists Whitney Battle-Baptiste (UMass), Chris Fennell (Illinois), Lewis Jones (Indiana), and Michael Nassaney (Western Michigan).  They were joined by Richard Benjamin (International Slavery Museum, Liverpool) and Bob Paynter (UMass).  Some of the issues are familiar to long-term members, but Board of Directors’ goal is to produce increasing clarity and concrete action.  These thoughts are simply my own as an audience member in the session and a Board Member who is committed to an inclusive SHA.

Welcoming Diversity in SHA

The GMAC session revolved around, to paraphrase GMAC Liaison Carol McDavid, making SHA a welcoming environment to a variety of voices.  This is perhaps a more difficult thing to measure than mere demography of the membership, because it fundamentally defines diversity as a shared social and emotional sentiment.  Nevertheless, it is an absolutely worthy goal that consciously embraces curiosity about and acceptance of people unlike ourselves across time, space, and every conceivable line of difference.

A “welcoming” professional home ensures that colleagues with distinctive experiences and scholarly voices can have significant impact beyond little circles of specialists.  We should not underestimate the influence of even a single thoughtful voice, and SHA should be absolutely certain that such a voice feels welcome and supported and can secure a firm and fair foothold in our midst even if we disagree with their scholarly conclusions.  I very strongly believe that since the moment a group of 112 people gathered in Dallas in 1967, the SHA has been fundamentally committed to casting itself as a democratic, international scholarly organization, and we have long taken pride in archaeology’s capacity to “give voice” to historical agents who have been overlooked by other scholars.  I do not believe that this means SHA is not a “welcoming” professional environment, but some of our members are reluctant to become part of some scholarly discourses or SHA governance, so we need to systematically ask how we can create comfortable places and roles for all our members.  Many of the measures to fashion such an environment are apparently modest mechanisms that we can do now, and I have three general thoughts that came out of the GMAC session and broader discussions in Leicester and over the previous year.

Feeling and Being Diverse in SHA

First, I fundamentally agree that in North American historical archaeology in particular the absence of people of color inevitably risks compromising our scholarship.  Many of us self-consciously sound the mantra that the meeting seems aesthetically homogenous, which is an inelegant way of saying we are overwhelmingly White and do not appear to reflect society.  I am not in disagreement with this observation as much as I hope we can push it to some substantive action.  I do not personally think that any scholarly discipline actually “reflects” society in an especially substantive way:  that is, scholars gravitate toward the academy, academic production, and particular disciplines because we have specific sorts of creativity, experiences, and personalities.  Nevertheless, even within that aesthetic of homogeneity there are a breadth of class, ethnic, international, or queered voices who come to SHA through a rich range of paths, and a vast range of us partner with community constituencies.  During the GMAC session Tim Scarlett suggested that it may well be that one thing we need to do is more assertively tell our unacknowledged stories of difference to encourage others that their voices matter in scholarship and SHA governance: that is, being an SHA member is a mechanical act of paying dues, but feeling that we are each an important part of the SHA discussion may be different for our colleagues who feel most marginalized because of race, class, sexuality, age, disabilities, or myriad other factors.

International Diversity

Second, a question sounded in Leicester was what constitutes diversity as we move beyond the confines of North America?  As we grow and become a truly international, wired organization connected across increasingly complicated lines of space and difference, SHA needs to assertively work to advocate for all our members and the diverse worlds in which we all live.  Our international membership provides a rich way to confront Americans’ distinctive experiences of lines of difference, so I hope we will cast diversity in the most complex social, historical, and international terms that are compelling to all our members and make all of us feel welcome in SHA.  We are an international organization in a transnational moment in which many of us are increasingly threatened by the decline of jobs in the private sector, agencies, and the academy alike, and for many of us SHA provides a refuge and a voice for our collective scholarship.  We must always assertively and self-critically assess shifting lines of difference, so I do not believe what we call diversity will ever settle into a few neat categories.

Diversity as Good Scholarship

Third, like all scholars, we will continue to have standards of scholarly rigor we are all held to regardless of our demography or identity.  Some of our work will always be somewhat particularistic and descriptive, and not every project or research context needs to be focused on inequality or public engagement: lots of us need to do the fine-grained artifact and documentary research that makes historical archaeology so compelling in the first place.  Respect for scholarly rigor and difference alike breeds civility and personal humility that encourages talent and makes for good scholarship: multiple and often-dissentious voices constantly destabilize normative methods and narratives, while homogeneity simply reproduces itself and is at best boring scholarship and at worst socially reactionary.  It is absolutely true that we are all part of employment and educational contexts that have a variety of structural inequalities that risk yielding social and intellectual homogeneity.  We should be prepared to acknowledge when some standards hinder our colleagues, and in SHA I think this means always pressing to be transparent, respectful, encouraging, and clear about the scholarship, service, and communication done in our collective name.  We remain committed to diversity simply because a welcoming and creative intellectual environment produces the best scholarship.

Diversity as an SHA Value

Will SHA resolve all those questions I posed at the outset of this blog?  Of course we cannot resolve structural inequalities that took a half-millennium to develop and now have a rich range of international faces.  SHA is one professional organization, and while we advocate for a rich range of scholars and our members touch the lives of countless people beyond our membership, our mission remains focused on encouraging the scholarly study of the last half-millennium.  Nevertheless, in recent years the Board of Directors has undergone diversity training, a Gender and Minority Affairs Travel Scholarship has been created, and we have begun to examine the concrete ways we can invest the organization from top to bottom with an embrace of difference.  Now we need every SHA Committee to ask itself what its stake is in this discussion on diversity: If these moves are going to create genuine change in SHA, then diversity needs to be on the agenda for all committees and not simply the GMAC.

At the 1968 SHA meeting in Williamsburg, Kathleen Gilmore, Dessamae Lorrain, and Judy Jelks were among a very small number of women at the conference, which apparently included no people of color at all.  Today our membership is nearly evenly split between men and women and our Presidents have included 12 women, including 11 of the last 24 Presidents.  We continue to work to ensure that we are the best possible advocates for all our members because we carry an important role, and we should never underestimate the many lives each of us profoundly touch, sometimes without even knowing it.  While we will not resolve the inequalities that hinder access to the academy or scholarship, we can place these issues in discussion, embrace them as our core values, and persistently press to be a good example of inclusion, respect, and acceptance.  I truly believe SHA members have always been committed to a truly democratic scholarship, and I think in many ways we are simply continuing to articulate the values of many scholars before us.  It is important to keep articulating those values and doing all we can to move this discussion to the heart of SHA’s culture.

Defining a Global Historical Archaeology

Every historical archaeologist has at some point defined the discipline to the visitors at an archaeological site, a roomful of students, or a colleague or community member.  Most of us have a pretty clear notion of what distinguishes historical archaeology, and while it may diverge from what our teachers once told us, the conventional definitions in reference sources, or even the SHA’s own definition, we do seem to return to some consistent elements:  for instance, material things always seem to lie at the heart of what we do; most of us see ourselves as multidisciplinary scholars; we value rigor and replicability (even if we entertain sophisticated theory or are sometimes wary of being labeled a “science”); and we focus on peoples living in the last half-millennium or thereabouts.

Nevertheless, it is still completely reasonable that we have some distinctive visions of precisely what constitutes historical archaeology (or should define it) (compare the historical archaeology course syllabi definitions at the SHA Syllabi Clearinghouse).  The discussion over what defines historical archaeology has roots reaching over more than a half-century, and the dynamism of the discussion over our field is a good indication of historical archaeology’s dynamism and growth.  As the field now stretches its chronological boundaries into the contemporary world, encompasses an increasingly broad range of intellectual traditions, and pushes its geographic horizons to every reach of the planet, that discussion may be as lively as it was in the 1960s.  The SHA does not need to impose a definition of the discipline onto everybody digging something we might call historical archaeology, and in fact the discussion of the rich range of historical archaeologies is more important than forging a universal definition of the discipline that encompasses every time and place.  Instead, we need to continue to promote a rich discussion that reaches across global divisions, lines of historical difference and contemporary inequality, and moments in time.

The differences in conventional definitions of historical archaeology are perhaps most apparent outside the confines of North America.  As we prepare for our annual conference in Leicester in January, 2013 and then Quebec a year later, it is increasingly evident that what North Americans call historical archaeology goes by a variety of labels in Europe, Africa, South America, or the Pacific World: post-medieval, modern, and contemporary archaeologies all describe some scholarship akin to American historical archaeology.  Historical archaeology emerged at roughly the same moments in North America, the UK (with the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology’s formation in 1966), and Australia (the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology was founded in 1970).  All of these scholarly traditions push the conventional North American framing of historical archaeology in productive and exciting ways.

The most influential definitions of North American historical archaeology tend to revolve around the cultural transformations associated with Anglo and European colonization.  However, that definition looks out at the globe from the New World and has often somewhat ironically not examined the very European and African societies sending peoples to the New World.  For our European colleagues doing archaeologies of the last 500 years, the transformation into a post-medieval world reaches well into the medieval period and reveals dramatic variation from the Iberian Peninsula into central and northern Europe.  Pictures of Africa and Asia likewise have a historical depth that is not easily accommodated to a narrowly defined focus on European colonization alone.

Many historical archaeologists have focused on the ways in which emergent capitalism and colonization transformed the planet and provide an intellectual framework for historical archaeology.  Yet that sprawling profit economy was never utterly homogenous and integrated despite its global scale.  Capitalist penetration into New World colonies, Africa, and the breadth of Europe itself was inevitably variable across time and space, and archaeologists have particularly rich data to dissect the contextually distinctive spread of capitalism and local experiences of capitalist transformations.

The rapid growth of contemporary archaeology encompasses a breadth of research subjects that likewise stretches our conventional notion of historical archaeology.  William Rathje’s garbology studies laid much of the foundation for archaeologies of the recent past and contemporary world, and Americans have conducted a variety of modern material culture studies since the 1970’s taking aim on everything from electric cars to pathways of migration to wartime detention centers.  Archaeologies of the present-day world have been exceptionally active in the UK and Europe, where contemporary archaeologists have conducted creative, thoughtful, and challenging research on everything from wartime landscapes and prison camps (in Finnish, but video images) to Cold War materiality to punk graffiti.  For many of us this scholarship is intimately linked to historical archaeologies that have focused on more distant pasts and should have a clear role in a global historical archaeology that reaches firmly into the present.

The transformation to an increasingly global historical archaeology may be bearing the fruit envisioned by the very first historical archaeologists, whose January, 1966 gathering at Southern Methodist University was dubbed the International Conference on Historic Archaeology” (my italics).  In 1968, SHA President Ed Jelks (1968:3) intoned that “Historical archaeology has much to gain in the long run from encouraging a spirit of concerted, interdisciplinary, international cooperation.”  Many of our colleagues in the nearly 50 years since the Texas conference have been committed to a historical archaeology that always thinks of global systemic relationships beyond our local sites, but we are especially fortunate to live in a moment in which there is a rich international scholarship of the last half millennium that is increasingly accessible thanks to digitization.

Indeed, that global historical archaeology may well be SHA’s next horizon for growth in terms of both the society’s literal membership numbers and the discipline’s more significant expansion as a scholarly voice throughout the world.  Historical and post-medieval archaeologists are researching nearly every corner of the world and bring rich scholarly traditions distinct from North American anthropology.  That global historical archaeology is profoundly shaped by the concrete connections made possible through online scholarship and communication across a wired planet, and it bears significant debts to the SHA’s own commitment to conduct international conferences.

The Society for Historical Archaeology is only one steward for this rich international scholarship, and that scholarship is inevitably richer for including a broad range of global archaeological methods, scholars, and approaches.  International historical archaeology provides increasingly rich possibilities for the scholarly growth of historical archaeology that is increasingly globalized, compelling, and intellectually rigorous.

Jelks, Edward B.

1968 President’s Page: Observations on the Scope of Historical Archaeology.  Historical Archaeology 2:1-3.