Tag Archives: relic hunting

“Television’s not about information at all.”

An archaeologist was kind enough to share his thoughts on the brace of new artifact-hunting TV shows.  His whole comment is worth reading (click on yesterday’s post to see the whole thing), but take note of this excerpt:

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.…Of course, doing the actual archaeology would take a lot longer than bulldozing a backyard for a cannon. le sigh.

That sums it up pretty well, I think, it and echoes what I’ve been saying quite a bit lately—the media saturates us with “the past,” but generally does little to foster a real historical consciousness or understanding.

One of my all-time favorite authors is the late Michael Crichton.  Longtime dinosaur nut that I am, I’d probably find it hard not to be a fan of the man who brought Jurassic Park into the world, but it wasn’t until I’d been reading him for several years that I came to appreciate him as an intellectual force to be reckoned with.  Here was a guy who had modern civilization’s number.

One of his most overtly issue-driven books is Airframe, a story about an investigation into a commercial air disaster pitting an employee of a plane manufacturing company against an ambitious TV news producer.  On one level, it’s a thriller; on another, it’s an indictment of the media in this so-called Information Age.

At one point in the story, as the main character is about to be interviewed for a major investigative news program, her company dispatches a media expert to prep her for the experience.  “A lot of people complain that television lacks focus,” the expert tells her.  “But that’s the nature of the medium.  Television’s not about information at all.  Information is active, engaging.  Television is passive.  Information is disinterested, objective.  Television is emotional.  It’s entertainment.”  The reporter who will be interviewing her “has absolutely no interest in you, or your company, or your airplanes.…He wants a media moment.”  Crichton, of course, didn’t originate the practice of critiquing TV along these lines, but he made the case more powerfully and in a more articulate manner than most.

Hence the way in which TV handles the past.  The complex, detailed, and messy business of reality is not very congenial to the medium of television, but making sense of that reality is what historians, archaeologists, and scholars in related fields do.  Their work requires the assimilation of lots of complicated information and a carefully constructed presentation of their findings.  The issues with which working historians and archaeologists grapple—the need to determine what happened, why it happened, and what it all means—are not subject to the quick, neat solutions that characterize so many TV shows.

The problems with which the characters on reality shows deal, by contrast, are generally pretty simple and straightforward.  Some guy has brought an old musket into my pawn shop, and I need to know what it is and how much it’s worth.  This is the stuff of “the past,” but it’s not really the stuff of history.

Of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying.  I’m sure we could all come up with examples of solid and scholarly TV shows that make a real contribution to our understanding of the past.  But those examples serve only to demonstrate the culpability of the media in general, because they show that the trifling nature of so much of our “historical” TV programming is not an inevitable result of the medium’s inherent limitations.  As for those of us in the audience, it demonstrates our culpability, too, because the people in control of the lineup are ultimately just giving us more of what we already watch the most.  We shouldn’t be too eager to blame the producers of culture for our predicaments, because culture is simply an expression of our collective appetites.

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Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory

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