Yesterday SHA sent a letter to Spike TV about their upcoming series American Diggers, and today we sent a letter to the National Geographic Television show Diggers, which also recovers archaeological artifacts to be sold. Diggers is especially demoralizing since it airs on National Geographic Television and carries with it much of the scholarly respect that the National Geographic Society has earned over more than 120 years. National Geographic has profoundly shaped how many of us view archaeology and cultural diversity, and some of the most astounding archaeology sites in the world have been excavated with National Geographic support. Diggers follows the exploits of an American treasure-hunting firm that markets “awesome and bizarre metal detecting videos” and devotes most of its time to historic resources recovered in metal detector surveys. The show promises that “Unless you’re in a coma, it’s almost impossible to find treasure hunting … anything less than exhilarating. Many of you know first-hand the rush of unearthing a silver coin, badge, ring, or other relic dating back to the gun-slinging glory days of the Wild West.” Of course archaeologists do know the excitement of discovery, but we also appreciate that it is a complex process that carries on long after an object is recovered, includes a lot of objects that might not initially seem very interesting at all, and requires a broad range of skills to tell a powerful story.
These shows are disappointing, but we can continue to approach them as teaching moments and acknowledge that even thoughtful viewers may not immediately grasp the ethical shortcomings of such methods or understand what they risk losing in the hands of a haphazard metal detector survey. We do not need to surrender our preservation ethics or scholarly rigor, and while we may not transform everybody we can reach many thoughtful people who respect precise fieldwork, community scholarship, and responsible preservation. Lets hope that we can enlist the National Geographic Society in that cause as they receive letters from SHA, the Society for American Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the National Association of State Archaeologists (NASA), the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA), the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology (CNEHA), and a flood of grassroots resistance including online petitions and blogs that reach far beyond narrowly defined professional circles alone.
The Montana State Archaeologist and State Historic Preservation Officer responded on March 6th to the February 28th episode that was filmed at Montana’s National Register-listed Old Territorial Prison. They concluded the episode violated state law because the show did not secure a State Antiquities Permit.