Posted By Prof. Heather Walder on March 7, 2012
As a historical archaeologist and anthropology instructor, I work to inform both my students and members of the public about the importance of preserving the archaeological record for the benefit and education of future generations. Two new cable television shows promote the reckless and uncoordinated destruction of archaeological sites for the purpose of profit, adventure, or “reality entertainment.”
“American Digger” is a show that is going to air soon on SpikeTV, and “Diggers” is a similar show already airing on the National Geographic Channel. You can find out more about the movement against these shows here.
Professional organizations such as the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, and others have already spoken out against these shows, but I would like to share with you the responses of my “Introduction to Archaeology” students at Wisconsin Lutheran College.
These students have only been studying archaeology for five weeks, but they already demonstrate an excellent understanding of the critical importance of artifact context and association. After just five weeks of class, they already know that members of the public and professional archaeologists must work together to preserve our national heritage. It is my hope that the programming executives of the National Geographic Channel and SpikeTV will come to share this understanding.
(The following student responses were sent as an open letter via email, modified to address either “Diggers” or “American Diggers” as appropriate.)
Responses of archaeology students at Wisconsin Lutheran College:
“No excavation ought to ever be permitted except under the immediate eye of a responsible and trustworthy superintendent. Superfluous precision may be regarded as a fault on the right.” - Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers
The quote above is an example of the serious nature and precautions that should be taken when collecting artifacts from a site. Archaeological excavations are very important processes that should be respected as well as handled responsibly. As reality television starts to devastate content and disregard important methods, it is upsetting our national heritage. As viewers are forming opinions about the show, what they might not see is that we risk losing crucial context due to a haphazard excavation just for a recording. It is important to keep in mind that once a site is excavated, it is not replaced, that piece of history is gone, and it should be regarded as so.
- Elizabeth L.
The idea of modern archaeology has recently been evolving. In the past the goal of archaeology has been to excavate, discover, and study previous cultures. Modern archaeology has changed in the fact that preservation has become part of the role of the archaeologist. Preservation of the context and association of artifacts has become a key part of the study of past cultures. New technology has made this possible, such as ground penetrating radar. Many archaeological sites that are discovered in recent times have been left untouched, due to the level of importance of preserving the past culture, because excavation is naturally a destructive process. The site is only excavated once and from then on it is permanently disturbed. “Diggers” and “American Diggers” are putting key archaeological sites at risk for distraction due to unqualified, so called professional, excavating a site, and permanently destroying the artifacts that may be present, all for the sake of making money on a television series.
- John K.
The TV show “American Diggers” is a disgrace to the archaeological field. Artifacts that are in the ground are in there for a reason; to stay there. When this TV show starts, people are going to be digging up the history of our ancestors. This is a horrible act. Even though our society is about knowing the past I believe that burials and other artifacts should not be moved. “American Diggers” is not respecting the land and our ancestors.
- Brett M.
In the days of antiquarianism archaeology, shows such as “American Digger” and “Diggers” might have been a little more acceptable, as they show treasure-hunting and destroy historical sites. Today, however, your show does not correctly portray the American archaeologist. Archaeology today is concerned with finding historic artifacts in their appropriate context, to better understand past cultures. It is clear that this is not the goal of the characters on the show. Besides misrepresenting the role of honorable archaeologists, your show may well incite Americans to begin treasure-hunting on their own. This would prove disastrous, as archaeology requires proper training, and the historical sites will suffer the damage from amateur excavation. Our ancestors deserve better than this.
- Nicole W.
Archaeology does not merely consist of treasure hunting, as “American Digger” and “Diggers” suggest. Archaeologists strive to discover more than a single, potentially profitable object. They are interested in the bigger picture surrounding objects and the sites they are found in. Meaningful insight regarding past civilizations and ways of life are hidden in these objects and the context in which they are found. The knowledge that can be gained is disrupted by shows such as these. Simply digging up objects for profit negates everything archaeologists have been working for so long to achieve. In order to be considerate to archaeologists and their processes, shows and characters such as these need to be stopped.
- Nicole M.
I am a student currently studying Archaeology at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. This past Tuesday, February 28, 2012, I viewed the [National Geographic Channel] show “Diggers.” It thoroughly disgusted me. You are sending America false information about Archaeological studies and how they are properly done. This show was inaccurate in multiple ways. The characters of this show did not properly excavate the field site. They removed artifacts from the sites without making any field notes. Field notes should have included mapping location, numbering and identifying the artifacts removed. Field notes are essential; they are the basis Archaeological studies. Artifacts are History, they help fit time lines together, and your show makes them out to be prized and only possessions. Soon, every American will be out with metal detectors attempting to find valuable artifacts. On top of your television show supplying false information, it does not even supply entertainment. Please, for the sake of Archaeologists, aspiring Archaeologists and the average American…cancel your show.
- Laura K.
I am a student studying archaeology at Wisconsin Lutheran College. On February 28, 2012, I watched two episodes of the new [National Geographic Channel] show “Diggers.” To my amazement, there were two men acting like they just purchased their first metal detectors frantically digging in the area of an 1871 ranch and at the Jones Island Civil War Battlefield site. Their disregard for proper fieldwork procedures was quite disturbing. They removed artifacts from the sites without making any field notes, which should have included mapping location, identifying and numbering the artifacts removed. These valuable field notes are essential for archaeologists to support or falsify their hypotheses and are records for future archaeology fieldwork in the area. I feel the real problem that will arise from the airing of this show is the overwhelming response of your viewers to purchase metal detectors and go on their own treasure hunts, disregarding the historical value of the artifacts found and the area in which they are removed from. Once these artifacts are removed improperly, you cannot go back and repair the damage that is done.
- Jacob R.
Response from Jeremiah C., WLC anthropology research assistant:
As a person of Native American descent and an archaeology/anthropology major in college, I am against the new cable television shows “Diggers” and “American Diggers.” It is unprofessional and immoral that these men are not only allowed, but encouraged, and paid to find for profit, items or artifacts of history. These artifacts, if recovered from properly recorded contexts, could be used to expand our knowledge of history, but this does not seem to be a goal of these series. Perhaps artifacts of a sacred nature will be disturbed in the course of these activities. If these shows are allowed to continue the possibility of these men finding culturally or religious artifacts increases exponentially. This will open these men and the producers of the show to not only public outrage but also legal and possibly monetary fines and repercussions.
Five anonymous responses from “Introduction to Archaeology” students:
Consider going into war with a BB gun, your odds for survival would be slim to nothing. Instead, soldiers carry quality weapons when heading into battle to give themselves the best chances possible for survival. In the same way, the validity of archeological research relies on quality of the site which is being surveyed. Many factors can affect an archeological site. Natural occurrences such as wind and rain can cause erosion that changes the layout of artifacts or carries artifacts far from their original resting place. More destructive than natural factors is poor archeology, in which a site is destroyed forever and can never be reexamined. These new shows, “American Diggers” and “Diggers,” are in effect the most harmful thing to happen to American archeology since nature.
Even though this new show “Diggers” might bring a new interest to archaeology, it is not going about excavations in the proper way and therefore is ruining pieces of American History. First of all archaeology is not a treasure hunt. This is how archaeology first started off, but it has advanced far further in its systematic discovery and collection of humanity’s past. If care is not taken to properly extract artifacts, by taking extensive notes and care to the area around the artifacts, many things that could have been learned about the objects and their past will be lost with the carelessness of those who are greedy to find the “treasure.” The art of archeology, which helps the rest of the world learn many things about the past, is poorly represented in the show “Diggers.”
The context and association of an artifact is so immensely important that without the context, an artifact is almost useless. While some information can still be deciphered from the artifact itself, so much more is shared and known when an artifact is found in context. That context can be used to understand the use of an artifact or the people it belonged to. While television and movies make finding these magnificent artifacts look easy and adventurous, the truth is archaeology is a lot of little scraps and broken pieces. Those pieces and scraps only make sense when they are found and identified at the site and in their context. Nothing ever makes sense taken out of its original context. Archaeology is no different.
Having recently been introduced to the subject of archaeology and all that it entails, seeing shows such as “American Digger” and “Diggers” appear on TV causes slight alarm for me. These shows appear to be careless in how they are excavating artifacts and simply selling them. By making reality television shows like this, they could potentially ruin our collective national heritage by not taking into account artifact context. I have recently been given a chance to work in an archaeology lab helping to classify artifacts and have seen first-hand how important context really is. By knowing as much as possible about the site and area the artifact was excavated from it makes it easier to classify them as well as learn about the people who lived in these areas before us, what their life may have been like, and what types of activities they did. These shows do not appear to take all of this into consideration. In my opinion it is unethical for them to do because they are simply on their way to destroying our collective national history and leaving us with little to no information about the people before us.
Archaeology has come a long way since the days of antiquarianism, becoming a profession. These shows disrespect and throw away that history and evolution. Artifacts need to be documented in the context they are found in because context is a major factor in having a true understanding of culture history. Pieces of cut-up kettle metal may not be considered treasure, especially in terms of monetary value, but the information that can be learned from them has value money can’t buy. Archaeology is the study of human society, and learning about artifacts in their true context is necessary in order to accomplish the goals of this science. These shows will be a step back in the profession, a regression to antiquarianism.
Below is the contact information that the students used to contact each show and network. Readers, please feel free to add your own response.
National Geographic Channel
National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036-4688
Scott Gurney and Deirdre Gurney
Gurney Productions, Inc.
8929 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 510
Los Angeles, CA 90045
Kevin Kay, President
New York, NY 10019
Press Contact For “American Diggers”
Philippe Dauman, President and Chief Executive Officer
New York, NY 10036