The Primal Fear: Historical Archaeology and De-Accessioning
In 1996, former SHA Curation Committee Chair Bob Sonderman (Museum Resource Center, National Park Service)…
Well it happened and it appears you missed it. I was on an episode of Diggers. I expected a torrent of disapproving emails from colleagues or, at least, a few snarky comments from friends. It’s been a couple of weeks and the only person I have heard from was a former student who thought it was cool that one of her professors was on television. And this was the show that was going to goad the metal detecting community into a looting frenzy?
So how did I feel about the program?
Initially, relieved. I was afraid that it would validate everything the naysayers had accused the show of doing and I would be run out of town on a rail. But it wasn’t like that. It certainly was not an impeachable offense. But it wasn’t very good either. None of my keen archaeological insights or witty repartee with King George and the Ringmaster made it into the show. I was reduced to a 2 minute bit at the end where I identified some of the swag the boys had recovered. How did that happen and what should happen next?
When I was approached about having the show visit one of my sites I was initially aghast. I did not want to have those two loons beeping around my site in search of “nectar.” However, I was a part of the group that recommended that, to improve the show, they should work with established archaeologists whenever possible. Hoisted by my own petard! I had originally arranged for them to look for an 18th century site rumored to be where Blackbeard lived, but they were unable to secure access to the property. Instead, I had them come out to a 19th century plantation I was surveying.
The shoot went well. The guys are really quite personable when they are not on camera and being directed in their silliness. The production company had their contract archaeologist lurk just off camera, to identify artifacts and mark the provenience of the finds. I, and my students, were filmed doing the right thing and they even allowed me the opportunity to wax eloquently about how archaeology was able to give voice to the disenfranchised slaves on this remote plantation. I left that day feeling like this might be a good show after all.
Apparently, the pirate angle was just too good to let pass and the director ditched the slave topic and stretched the story line to the breaking point to make it a swashbuckling themed show. Some of my keen insights made it onto the program’s website, but most of the good stuff was left on the cutting room floor. What finally made it on air was an entertaining puff piece. Not anything to really protest against, but is that the best that National Geographic or we can hope for?
I think not. There has been a shake up at the National Geographic Channels and I have already been in contact with the new program director as well as the head of research. There seems to be a genuine desire to make it a better show and include more real archaeology. They have to be careful, though. The show, as it exists, is a popular one and, as I was informed at a meeting at the recent SAA conference, National Geographic is a non-profit. The channel generates the funding that supports the society and allows them to give grants to archaeologists. So, if the channel doesn’t make money, then the support that many of us have enjoyed for our projects goes away.
Would I do again? You bet. To me, this was an opportunity to reach out to a demographic that doesn’t watch archaeology documentaries. If we can dispel the lingering ethical issues associated with the show (the placing of values on artifacts needs to go) and sneak in a bit more archaeology, I will be satisfied. Then we can take what we’ve learned and work with the National Geographic Channel to make a new show that does an better job of showing what we do.