Nazis, Ethics and Tolerance

Last week a student rushed into my office exclaiming “My God Dr. Ewen, have you seen this video on the National Geographic Website!?!” A little while later I received an email from Terry Brock alerting me to activity on Twitter and Facebook relating to the video my student wanted me to see. It was the now infamous clip from the proposed reality show Nazi War Diggers.The two and a half minute video depicted three guys in camo gear rooting around in a hole and coming up with a human femur (which they at first thought was a humerus). This was followed up by the trio speculating about the horrible manner of the soldier’s death. The video was a distasteful display that demanded an immediate response. This is what happened next:

I thought, oh no, not again! I was transported back two years to when the National Geographic Channel debuted their metal detecting reality show, Diggers The reaction to that show was just as vociferous, if not as swift. The National Geographic Channel listened to us then, perhaps they would now.

I emailed David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channels and said that the preview of their new show, Nazi War Diggers, had offended many archaeologists, myself included. I also emailed Jeff Altschul, president of the SAA, who had been getting an earful from his constituency.  He decided to make it a two prong attack and take their objections to the National Geographic Society. David Lyle responded to my email relatively quickly and said that the clip had been taken out of context and provided me with the full description of the show. He also said it would only be aired in Europe  My response was that the SHA was an international organization and that it was being joined by other international organizations (SAA, AAA, AIA, EAA, and the EASA). Our list of concerned was growing larger and growing impatient. They got the message.

Jeff Altschul drafted a joint letter that all the major organizations signed, but by then the National Geographic Channel had already issued this statement:

“National Geographic Channels International, in consultation with colleagues at the National Geographic Society, announced today that it will pull the series Nazi War Diggers from its schedule indefinitely while questions raised in recent days regarding allegations about the program can be properly reviewed. While we support the goal of the series, which is to tell the stories of long lost and forgotten soldiers, those left behind and still unaccounted for, and illuminate history working in concert with local governments and authorities, we also take seriously the questions that have been asked. National Geographic Channels is committed to engaging viewers in the exploration of the world and all of us associated with National Geographic are committed to doing our work with the highest standards.  We know the same holds true for our producing partners, including our partners on this series.”

So, mission accomplished.  Or was it?

Is this only a temporary reprieve till the next outrageous show comes along?  Will this be a rolling battle against edutainment with no end in sight?  Perhaps not, but we are going to have to be willing to work with the networks.

When the offending video was posted the howls of righteous outrage began almost immediately. Archaeologists began gathering pitchforks and torches to storm the National Geographic castle. The internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook created the flashmob and the Nazi War Diggers webpage had nearly 200 negative comments before it was taken down.

Interestingly, all that was known about the show was the few paragraphs and the clip on the website. Admittedly, the producers could not have picked a more inflammatory video to post and with their initial missteps with Diggers, the archaeological community was not inclined to cut them any slack. Still, Jeff and I have seen that the NGC had worked to make the show Diggers better and we were willing to hear them out and work with them on Nazi War Diggers.  However, the program has been shelved and it doesn’t look like it will be aired without substantial reworking, if ever.

So what does this tell us? I think it tells us that the NGC is willing to work with the archaeological community if we are willing to work with them. I know many of you will scoff and insist that there is no working with this unethical machine. Yet our negotiations have produced results. Say that about Spike’s Savage Family Diggers or the Travel Channel’s Dig Fellas or Dig Wars. There is no redeeming archaeological value to any of those shows, but I hear no hue and cry to boycott those networks. Probably because we know that they don’t care.

Let’s keep working with the National Geographic Channel to help them make shows that, if not something we want to watch, is at least something that doesn’t offend our sensibilities. If this is a trend in programming, we need to take a proactive stance and work to make these shows less about finding past things and more finding things out about the past.

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]