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.

 

Race and the SHA

It is common for us to feel invigorated by the annual conference, after hearing great papers, discussing innovative ideas, renewing relationships, and embracing a new resolve to do the work of making SHA a better organization that we all be proud of. Although our poster wasn’t officially sponsored by the Gender and Minority Affairs Committee (GMAC) (they helped to inspire it), Cheryl LaRoche and I presented on “Race and the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA): Steps Toward Claiming an Anti-Racist Institutional Identity.” It generated considerable interest, raised important issues, and will serve to support the board’s decision to embark on anti-racism training, for which they should be commended. The board’s commitment to doing this work is a bold step in an important direction that can truly transform our organization and make it more inclusive.

What follows is the text of our poster, a considerably condensed version of an essay we contributed to the Winter 2012 issue of the Newsletter.

Archaeology and Racial Hierarchy

Archaeologists know that racial hierarchy structures the material world, yet we have seldom considered how white privilege influences our practice.

The Whiteness of the SHA

White men created the SHA and structured it to meet their needs as members of white society. This is reflected in its personnel, programs, constituency, and mission, and the ways historical archaeologists are trained in the academy.

Racial Socialization

We all have been socialized in a racist society and consequently carry and perpetuate attitudes of either internalized racial oppression or internalized racial superiority. This socialization process serves to maintain racial hierarchy.

Transforming the Discipline

We can effectively address the racial disparities in our profession and begin to claim and put into practice an anti-racist organizational identity by examining the way we recruit students, foster their development, and inculcate academic values. In order to transform the SHA into a truly diverse and welcoming organization we must address the barriers to access that continue to maintain our organization’s white, male, heterosexual, and middle class membership and principles.

Our Collective Responsibility

The mission of seeking diversity involves all historical archaeologists and should be our collective goal as we work to transform our field and our organization in an effort to claim an anti-racist institutional identity.

Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day at SHA 2012

 For the last two years, I have been lucky enough to bring my family along on our cross-country trips to the SHAs.  My husband and daughters get to visit with family and do some sight-seeing while Mom is off doing conference-y things, and we all meet up on Saturday to enjoy public archaeology day together. Each year at the SHA Conference, the conference committee organizes a day for the public, to offer local archaeologists an opportunity to interact with the public, and the public a chance to learn about the archaeology that happens in their communities. This year, it was held at the Fort McHenry National Monument.

Ellie: “I think that archaeology makes you learn a lot, and I like it a lot!”

Now, given the fact that I LOVE this kind of thing (education + archaeology = awesome), my husband and children have visited many, many public archaeology events.  They have been to sites, helped wash artifacts, helped screen excavated dirt, and they have just about every “Archaeology for Kids” book in publication.  The girls are, in essence, experts in engaging public archaeology exhibits.

There were several booths set up in a side room in the visitor’s center at Fort McHenry, and several more were located in a heated tent outside (which turned out to be completely unnecessary, as the weather was sunny and warm and absolutely perfect). Among those displays we were able to visit were The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County, NPS American Battlefield Preservation Program, the Prince George’s County and the Montgomery County Departments of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Archaeology in the Community, The District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office, Monocacy National Battlefield, the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (representing both the State Museum of Archaeology and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory), and the George Washington Foundation. Let me apologize in advance if I have missed any presenters, as I was there with my children and did not have much chance to linger and fully appreciate all the displays. Please drop your links below if you’re not represented in this list!

Abbie: “I liked the artifacts you could touch and the puzzles.”

In going back through the many flyers and brochures I picked up from the presenters, I noticed a few different flyers discussing “How to Report an Archaeological Find” with contact information for state archaeologists in Maryland and additional information on teacher training and children’s archaeology programs.  What a great venue in which to communicate such important information! There was also a free archaeology tour for SHA members, but I was unable to attend. If any readers participated in the tour and would like to comment below, I would love to hear more about it.

Almost every exhibit had a professional display describing their site and/or agency, and a few of the exhibitors had hands-on activities.  For the most part, my girls went immediately to the tables with some sort of interactive display.  The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County and the Prince George’s County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had excellent artifact assemblages for the kids to handle, and the latter had both artifact photos and feature photos that had been turned into puzzles for the kids. 

The girls got so into the spirit of it all that they couldn’t wait to show me a brick they had discovered outside the visitor’s center!

The girls also enjoyed the display by the DC Historic Preservation Office.  The artifacts displayed were off-limits for handling, but the display incorporated questions on large cards that acted as a guessing game for the kids.  Ellie told me later “I like guessing the artifacts!”

When I asked them afterwards what their favorite part of the day was they both gave me the same answer: “I liked being able to dig with a spoon and find artifacts in a can!”  Montgomery County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had really wonderful interactive activities.  Both girls LOVED their “Archaeology Site in a Can” activities, and their ‘excavations’ revealed fascinating artifacts including projectile points and historic-period ceramic sherds.

The girls get their hands dirty.

I was super-impressed when the girls figured out (on their own, with no help from Mom!) that their sherds from each can would cross-mend.  Like I mentioned, these girls have become real experts at kid-friendly archaeological activities!

The other big hit of the day with my girls was a seed identification activity, also presented by the Montgomery County group.  The girls had to sort through a mix of sand and seeds to find and identify six different types from the ten listed with examples on the display.

Identifying Seeds.

Now, as a mom, I am totally thrilled when I see my girls really excited and interested in such educational activities.   As a member of the Public Education and Interpretation Committee, I would also be interested in hearing from other attendees about what they thought about the day.  Did you attend the Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day?  What did you best enjoy?  What would you like to see more of as a member of the public? As an archaeologist, what more can we do to make these days as accessible and educational as possible?  Please leave your feedback, insights, and opinions in the comment space below!

Author note: See some more photos of our day at our flickr site.