The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, February 27, 2012

American Diggers?

So, Spike TV has decided to put a new show into production: American Diggers.  The show will follow a group as they travel about the country, visiting historic sites and digging up items in order to sell them.

As Spike TV's press release puts it:

"American Digger" follows the American Savage team, led by former professional wrestler-turned-modern- day relic hunter Ric Savage as they scour target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history. In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.

This pisses me off.

The problem with this is twofold:  1) It is, essentially, the glorification of looting.  2) It legitimizes the notion that the true value of artifacts is their sale value.

To point 1:  Looting is a problem for archaeology.  A huge problem.  Looting is the unsystematic excavation of sites in order to obtain artifacts for either collection or sale, and it occurs all over the world and has resulted in the destruction of countless archaeological sites.  It results in the destruction of artifacts and features, as items of little to no financial value but of significant research interest are destroyed in an effort to get at the big-money items; it results in the destruction of stratigraphic and horizontal relationships which are of tremendous value to archaeologists trying to make sense of past human behavior, because these relationships are not documented by looters who are interested in collecting or selling the artifacts and not keeping track of where, exactly, they come from in a site; when materials are looted, their provenance is often not sufficiently recorded to allow later assignation to actual places or contexts, largely destroying their research value.

Now, it should be noted that the show seems to be aimed to going onto private land to do this.  This is legal, and I am not accusing the production company of being criminals.  Some would object to me using the term "looting" to describe a legal activity - but as the activity in question is clearly a mercenary destruction of historic information for the generation of profit, I think that calling it looting is perfectly fine.  It is possible that the show, if it is like other "non-scripted television" that I have seen will feature talking heads from the crew discussing how they are "unearthing history."  They are not.  They are destroying history in an extremely cynical way.

And while this crew is behaving in a legal manner, glorifying the activity by making people who engage in this the heroes of a television show is likely to make people who don't have access to materials on private land feel justified (or greedy enough, as the press releases indicates that the show will focus on potential profits) in going onto public lands to engage in this activity.  And on public lands, looting is illegal under the American Antiquities Act.

and before anyone asks what the difference between a looter and an archaeologist is, I will explain: archaeologists do everything in a systematic fashion, keeping track of what we are doing, where we are doing it, and where we find what we find, allowing future researchers to piece together now destroyed parts of sites by looking at our notes and records; archaeologists do not sell the artifacts that we recover, but curate them so that they can be studied or viewed by the public (less common, but it does happen); archaeologists are increasingly inculcated with a preservation ethic - excavate only what you have to, leaving as much intact as possible, which is the polar opposite of the looter's  "dig as much as possible to get the pricey stuff" ethic.  Archaeologists publish our findings or present them in public and professional forums out of a sense of professional and intellectual responsibility, making little to no money off of such activities. 

On to point 2:  The notion that it is better to understand the past than to make money off of it is, admittedly, a philosophical position.  But it's a philosophical position that I certainly hold, as does every archaeologist and historian that I know, and if the recurring polls showing support for historic preservation are any indication, it's one that most of the American public also holds to some extent or another.

Looters, on the other hand, see profit and/or collecting as being more important than historical understanding.  Certainly, there are looters who will claim otherwise, but their activities destroying sites and selling materials found in them indicate otherwise - their actions speak much louder than their words.  The problem is that there are many people who are in favor of protecting historic sites, but seeing looters portrayed as heroes coupled with seeing looting portrayed as a profitable activity, is likely to make looting seem more legitimate than simply seeing the market for looted goods would. 

If you are bothered by this project, try writing to Spike TV.  Also, you can sign an on-line petition here.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

signed... most "reality" shows neither bother me nor interest me. I find this idea appalling.