Dirt flying

Gordon Belt recently directed my attention an online petition directed against Spike TV’s upcoming reality series about artifact hunting. You can read it (and sign it, if you so desire) by clicking here.  There’s also a petition in support of the show, hoping that the program will “correct the false impression that relic hunting is unethical.”

Coincidentally, the president of the Society for American Archaeology is protesting a similar show which is about to premiere on the National Geographic Channel, and has written a letter of complaint to the National Geographic Society’s CEO.  Critics of this show have an online petition, too.

Personally, I’m not opposed to relic hunting on principle, at least within reasonable limits.  If somebody wants to take a metal detector and look for Minié balls or buttons on private land, that’s fine with me, as long as they have the landowner’s permission and the site isn’t particularly significant.

From Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to historically sensitive ground, that’s another matter.  Battlefields, the sites of prison camps and hospitals, burial sites, and things of that sort are best left to the pros, even if the land in question belongs to private parties who don’t object to relic hunting.  In archaeology, context is everything.  Indeed, the information about an artifact’s context is as valuable as the artifact itself.

Since the shows haven’t aired, I don’t know what sort of digging we’re dealing with.  If we’re talking about sites and finds that merit a systematic approach, I’d rather see them left alone than get picked over by relic hunters, even if a full-scale excavation in the near future is unlikely.

If this sounds snotty, let me point out that when it comes to archaeology, I’m not a professional, either.  History and archaeology are two completely disciplines, with their own separate methodologies, programs of study, professional associations, publications, and so on.  Historians and archaeologists draw frequently on one another’s expertise, of course, but even a terminal degree in history won’t prepare you to run a large-scale excavation.

A few years ago, I got the chance to work with a professional team of archaeologists for a few days, when they came to campus to do some shovel tests for a survey of the area.  It was fun and interesting, and I learned quite a bit, but by no means am I under the impression that I’m competent to interpret a site just because they showed me how to classify soil samples and screen for artifacts.

If it turns out these shows are promoting irresponsible behavior, then I’ll add my voice to the chorus of protest.  Until then, I’m going to wait and see what they’re digging up and where they’re doing it.

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3 Comments

Filed under Archaeology, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Dirt flying

  1. ArchLover

    Hi Michael,
    I thought you might appreciate the perspective of an archaeologist. For full disclosure, I’ve been doing archaeology for about 8 years now and am currently getting my PhD, but have also worked on the CRM side of things.
    Although some people I know might disagree, I actually sympathize with your position on relics…I think as a discipline we have to be really careful about the balance we strike with the public and avocational archaeologists; it does take a lot of time and training to become experienced, but I feel like we easily come off as arrogant and aloof, attempting to hoard sites for ourselves. When you add that to the somewhat dismal record we have for actually publicizing our findings, you have a recipe for disaster. Of course the other side is that people are often surprised to realize that we literally find trash – I can only think of a handful of things I’ve found archaeologically that even MIGHT have a resale value, and even then it’s unlikely because they’re not complete and they are of course worn from being in the ground (outside of the ethical issues).
    The problem we have with the shows on National Geographic and SpikeTV is that it is not about randomly going into anyone’s backyard and just seeing if you can find something. In fact the description for SpikeTV’s Digger specifically states that they are looking for “target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites,” and they go in there not just with metal-detecting equipment but heavy-duty machinery (I take this to mean backhoes). It’s no different than bottle collectors looking at Sanford fire insurance maps for the location of privies and then going around to landowners to get permission to dig them up. You don’t finance a show, or a salvage company, without attempting to have a pretty good chance of finding artifacts – and you can only do that by looking for specific types of sites. The same types of sites that are much more valuable from an archaeological/historical perspective but permanently ruined by such “relic-hunting”.
    I don’t know what the answer is to balancing the need for professionalism with the desire for people to be involved and the reality that if only archaeologists dug sites, most would never get dug…but these shows are certainly not it. I’d much rather see a show where professional and avocational archaeologists and community members all worked together to both dig and interpret sites, but I guess that wouldn’t fit with the current fascination with pawn shops, storage lockers, and antiquing, where one in a thousand items will net that lucky person with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The story that can be woven from one out-of-context item is engrossing, but it’s also inherently tied to it’s rarity and economic value in these shows. I’ve had enough problems with looters coming onto sites as it is, I want a show that will reach millions to emphasize the value of archaeology, not to encourage a whole new wave of people who won’t necessarily pay attention to federal and state laws looking for other rich archaeological sites. Of course, doing the actual archaeology would take a lot longer than bulldozing a backyard for a cannon. le sigh.

    • Michael Lynch

      Thanks very much for adding your perspective. I think you’re right about the need for more substantial programming, and in fact I’ve been posting lately about the distinction between shows about “the past” and shows that are actually historical, and reflect the ways we actually try to make sense of the past. We have a lot of the former but precious few of the latter.

      I wish network executives would put the current reality show craze to good use by actually showing what historians, archaeologists, and museum professionals do; if we can have a series about a pawn shop, it seems we could have at least one set in a museum or lab.

      –ML

  2. Pingback: “Television’s not about information at all.” | Past in the Present

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