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.

Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (http://oneeleuthera.org/), CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” (http://oneeleuthera.org/). This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (http://umassheritagearchaeology.com/), that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.

SHA 2013: Kibworth, Leicestershire, and the Story of England

British blog readers will recall the BBC series Michael Wood’s Story of England, which was originally broadcast in 2010, and repeated at the end of last year. The series followed 2000 years of English history, through the lens of a typical English parish – which just happened to be Kibworth in Leicestershire, only a few miles from the University of Leicester, where SHA’s annual conference in 2013 will take place. Now American viewers will have a chance to watch the series on PBS, starting at 8pm on Tuesday 3rd July.

Michael Wood and Carenza Lewis with the residents of Kibworth

Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood introduces the series in this blog. Staff and students from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at Leicester University were involved in the making of the programme, working with residents to devise a community archaeology project to research and excavate sites in the parish. You can find out more about the Kibworth outreach programme here, and some of the results of the excavation, as well as interviews with Michael Wood and Leicester University’s Archaeology Outreach Officer Debbie Miles-Williams, were featured on the BBC Leicester website.

Kibworth’s interest in its history did not end with transmission; the residents of Kibworth (which comprises three villages; Kibworth Harcourt, Kibworth Beauchamp, and Smeeton Westerby) have put together their own website, which looks back at the production of the BBC series and the parish’s history, and at contemporary events including celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the Olympic torch relay. An online museum will soon be available on the website.

Image: BBC