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.
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.