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.

Archaeological Personalities and the Profession’s Future

We live in a moment in which the profession of historical archaeology seems characterized by an odd divide.  On the one hand, material things and archaeology are staples of popular culture: a vast range of people seem to be enchanted by material things and everyday histories, and nearly all of us can tell stories of communities and students whose lives have been shaped by historical archaeology in modest and consequential ways alike.  On the other hand, though, the discipline is under fire in the face of a withering economy, a government shutdown, a wave of political critics, and a steady flow of well-trained archaeologists growing desperate for employment.  The very things we and many of our constituencies are so interested in may be simultaneously receiving their professional death rites.

Perhaps an “archaeological personality” of sorts is emerging outside our modest scholarly circles; that is, the things historical archaeologists value are fascinating (if not important) to many people:  the allure of material culture, the compelling stories of everyday people, and the importance of community heritage all seem to find receptive constituencies.  Yet at the same moment the profession in its present form is radically transforming.  CRM firms are forced to manage modest budgets while they treat employees fairly; museums and preservation organizations have been gutted; politicians routinely criticize anthropology and archaeology; and even insulated university faculty are soberly advising students about the future of archaeological employment both within and outside the walls of the academy.  Just as we seem to be turning everybody into an archaeologist, the profession of scholars doing archaeology for a wage seems under risk.

We may need point no further than the television set to confirm that an archaeological engagement with things and everyday heritage has captured public imagination.  That broadly defined archaeological personality is reflected in forms that are sometimes clumsy, shallow, or unethical.  For instance, Antiques Roadshow, Storage Wars, and American Pickers are among a host of shows that revolve around pillaging things from attics and storage sheds; a wave of genealogy series illuminate our mass quest for heritage harbored in the lives of anonymous ancestors; cable is littered with alien fantasies and concocted historical mysteries revisiting the builders of the pyramids or Stonehenge; and a wave of metal detecting shows has staked a populist claim on archaeological resources. Continue reading