Tag Archives: American Diggers

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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Filed under Archaeology, Uncategorized

Another sorta-kinda history series

Next month Spike TV will debut a new show in which Ric Savage and his team of associates will root around in people’s yards in search of valuable artifacts.  If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because Savage gained national fame by beating grown men within an inch of their lives as a professional wrestler.

“Heavy Metal” Ric Savage had a prolific seven year career in the sport, competing in nearly every wrestling organization, among them the WCW (World Championship Wrestling), the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) and the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance). Following his retirement from professional wrestling in 1997, Savage returned to his other passion, the Civil War era, by getting his start in relic hunting.

These endeavors have not been unprofitable.  Savage now runs one of the leading artifact recovery enterprises in the country.  Here’s how the show works:

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. 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.

Mr. Savage is pictured below in the act of wielding a chair.

From Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m not about to tell that guy he can’t dig up my property.  In fact, I’d tell him to go ahead and tear up the floor of my living room and then help himself to whatever I had in the fridge, and perhaps have his way with my wife and daughters if he felt so inclined.

Is the launch of “American Digger” a sign of the public’s interest in history?  I’m not so sure.  As I’ve said before, I’m becoming convinced that Americans aren’t so much interested in history as interested in the past.  Lots of people enjoy the subject matter of history, but the process of history, the scholarly discipline of making sense of the past, goes largely ignored.  Hence we have wildly popular TV shows which depict people digging up artifacts, haggling over the price of heirlooms, and firing old guns, but the level of historical sensibility among the public can simultaneously remain low.

I don’t intend this as criticism of the show; I think I might give it a look.  I’m just suggesting that the appeal of the past is not necessarily a reliable indicator of any widespread historical awareness in America.

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Filed under History and Memory