The Week in Historical Archaeology

This week’s photo is of a calligraphy pen excavated from an Aboriginal settlement “at the margin of a Presbyterian Mission site near Weipa” that archaeologist and blogger Mick Morrison (@mickmorrison) has been excavating. Credit for the photo goes to Flinders University graduate student Amy Della-Sale. Mick was gracious enough to write an accompanying blog post about the pen, suggesting that the pen may have been part of a system of donations between the mission and a church goers in Melbourne or Brisbane. Please read more about this fascinating artifact, see additional photos, and give Mick your insight into this fascinating artifact!

SpikeTV and National Geographic Coverage

This week, there were not many news headlines, but the blogs were full information regarding the recent television shows being broadcast by National Geographic and SpikeTV. As you probably know, the SHA has written two blog posts and two letters to Spike TV and National Geographic. You can read the SHA’s official letters here and here.

Two Facebook Groups have also been started in opposition to the SpikeTV and National Geographic Show, and have been cataloguing the various responses from archaeologists and archaeological organizations. They also include a number of discussions between metal detector enthusiasts and archaeologists. This is the best place to get up-to-date information on the topics.

Bloggers have also had some opinions about the importance of context and the dangers of looting:

FPAN’s Shovel Bytes argues that you can’t put a price on context.

Anthroprobably states that “America’s Heritage is Not for Sale”.

John Roby at Digs and Docs also weighs in on the ethics of profiting on heritage.

Elsewhere in the world of historical archaeology:

Believe it or not, other things have been happening in historical archaeology this week:

FPAN’s recent public workshop about archaeological advocacy received some news coverage this week.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a useful chart for determining soil texture by feel.

March is Archaeology Month in Arkansas! Here’s a list of the activities. Please, if it’s Archaeology Month in your state, share with us!

Mt. Vernon has a question for the public about their mystery nails: do you know why they’re coated? Help them out at their blog!

The Recent National Preservation Institute is offering a series of seminars in Historic Preservation and Cultural Resource Management (pdf).

 [Photo used with permission from Mick Morrison]

The Ethics of Historical Archaeology

Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons because we know that such objects provide historical stories that might otherwise pass completely unnoticed. Consequently, it is gratifying and not surprising that lots of people who are not professional archaeologists become committed and reflective avocational archaeologists or are simply fascinated by heritage and respect the complicated process of piecing together archaeological narratives.  Nearly all of us with relatively active projects have dedicated local volunteers, supportive communities, and streams of visitors who share our own fascination with archaeology and heritage, because archaeological excavations and interpretation are an exciting process of thoughtfully weaving together remarkable stories based on the most modest items.

It is not at all surprising that archaeology and material heritage would find its way into popular culture, and some television shows, magazines, and web pages have done exceptionally thoughtful presentations of archaeology.  Nevertheless, with that popularity there inevitably will be some popular interpretations of archaeology, preservation, heritage and value that archaeologists will resist because they break with our most fundamental ethics.  The most recent challenge comes from Spike TV’s American Diggers, hosted by former professional wrestler Ric Savage.  Like many professional and avocational archaeologists alike, Savage indicates that “I’ve been a history buff my whole life,” but in the hands of Spike TV that interest in history demonstrates no real respect for archaeological methods, community heritage, or preservation law, since the show’s central goal is to recover items that amateur “diggers” can sell.  In Spike’s own words, “In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.  `American Digger’ hopes to claim a piece of that pie as the series travels to a different city each week, including Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, NY, Chicago, IL and Jamestown, VA searching for high-value artifacts and relics, some of which have been untouched for centuries.”  The show proudly proclaims that “After pinpointing historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, Savage’s first task is to convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property using state-of-the-art metal detectors and heavy-duty excavation equipment.  The team will then sell any artifacts found for a substantial profit by consulting experts and scouring the antique and collectible markets, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.”

The show has been greeted by a host of archaeological voices who recognize such work as indiscriminate looting of our collective heritage, a heritage that archaeologists professionally document so those materials and stories are preserved for all of us.  We may not transform Spike TV’s shallow interest in simply presenting profitable “larger than life character” shows, but many thoughtful people may not initially recognize the dilemmas of Savage’s ambition to excavate the “hidden treasure found in the back yards of every day Americans.”  It is those audiences who share our interest in documenting and preserving history for generations to come that we need to reach.  We need to recognize that this is a potential “teaching moment” in which we can inform more people about historical archaeology and encourage a more responsible preservation ethic among the many people who are excited by heritage and materiality.

Savage transparently caricatures historical archaeologists and paints himself as a sort of working-class self-taught scholar with whom his audience of homeowners and history buffs should identify, revealing that he does not know any archaeologists or know much about what we do.  He told the St Augustine Record that “’Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,’ Savage said. `The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.’”  Of course many historical archaeologists have exceptional community-based excavation teams staffed by volunteers committed to their local history, and many volunteers routinely become solid scholars with a genuine understanding of and appreciation for archaeological method and interpretation.

Savage clumsily suggests that he is protecting a past that will disintegrate if we do not recover it now.  When Savage descended on St. Augustine in February he said that “diggers are able to recover relics `that are rotting in the ground and (would) never be found’ as archaeologists wait for grants or for construction to trigger an excavation.”  Of course virtually no artifacts are “rotting” in the ground, least of all the metal artifacts on which Savage focuses his excavations.  If anything, removing those artifacts from a stable soil matrix accelerates their decomposition.

Archaeologists have always rejected commercial exploitation of archaeological resources, and professionals do not seek to “convince reluctant homeowners” to excavate saleable things from their otherwise preserved property, much less encourage people to excavate on and around historic sites like Jamestown or Civil War battlefields that are legally protected.  Professional and avocational archaeologists alike have always strongly resisted commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and selling the products of his digs are Savage’s fundamental goal.  It is unclear what other artifacts with no real commercial value—scatters of clothing snaps, broken plates, splintered marbles—were found in Savage’s digs or what happened to them, but of course those things that cannot be sold are what fill most historic archaeological collections.

St. Augustine has been the scene of exceptional archaeological scholarship on some of the very earliest European immigrants to the New World, so it is especially distressing that some of this rare material might be lost to somebody digging haphazardly in search of the purported “gold nugget” Savage suggests he recovered in St. Augustine in February.  Kathleen Deagan provided a thoughtful response to the St. Augustine Record based on over 40 years of her own archaeological research in the city, and local avocational and professional archaeologists have responded rapidly and thoughtfully.  The city’s archaeology project has done an outstanding job documenting the city’s earliest European occupation and even earlier prehistoric settlement because St. Augustine has committed itself to preservation.

American Diggers professes to share our concern for documenting national and international heritage, but it actually appears to promote the destruction of that heritage.  It simply finds and plunders the past and fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands archaeological research, preservation law, and the community heritage that we all aspire to protect.

I have attached SHA’s letter to Spike, which also went to its production company and the Executive and Senior Vice-Presidents in charge of original series at Spike. You may view it here.

 

Friday Links: What’s new in Historical Archaeology

It’s time to see what’s happening in Historical Archaeology once again. This week, our photo is from Valerie Hall, a graduate student at Illinois State University, of her children at SHA’s Public Archaeology Day, looking at the display from the Jefferson Patterson Maryland Archaeology Lab. You can read her post about their visit here! 

But now, it’s on to the links. As always, please share your links in the comments below!

Headlines

Conservators are working to preserve Civil War era graffiti in a former war hospital in Virginia.

The Society for Historical Archaeology was pleased to present Award of Merit to Historic St. Mary’s City this year.

Fiona Reynolds discusses the value and importance of cultural heritage to the economy, and government’s responsibilities to it.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation archaeologists have uncovered the Dyotville Glass Works (nice videos of their excavations).

DePaul students excavate at a home that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Resources

Looting Heritage is a new website that tracks and maps reported looting sites across the globe.

The Blogs

The Plowzone asks some questions about historical archaeology and New Humanism.

The MSU Campus Archaeology Program has released a new online exhibit.

Middle Savagery describes the physical effects of a long season out in the field.

Mount Vernon’s Mystery Midden’s Luke Pecoraro discusses the importance of clothing, and its representation in the historical and archaeological record.

And finally, a video about the Texas A&M Program in Nautical Archaeology, featuring some graduate research:

Photo Copyright All rights reserved by diggrrl on Flickr.