The Ethics of Historical Archaeology
Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons…
In my previous blog I reported on a meeting I attended at the National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington to discuss the problems with their reality show, Diggers (not to be confused with Spike’s American Diggers) You remember Diggers, don’t you? Two metal detectorists, “King” George Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor, would travel the country looking for treasure, competing to see who find the most loot at historic sites. Needless to say, the profession howled (read SHA’s response here) and National Geographic heard us. They pulled the show until they could get a sense of how to address the concerns of outraged archaeologists.
Two major points came out of the meeting. The archaeologists demanded an ethical show and National Geographic said they had to make money on it. To be ethical there were a couple of basic concepts that could not be breached. There needed to be an explicit concern for recording the context in which the artifacts were found and those artifacts could not be sold. National Geographic, on the other hand, could not produce a show that was a money loser. So, is their a solution that could satisfy both parties?
National Geographic is rethinking their show to address our concerns. In a letter to the profession the show’s producers propose the following:
• We will have a local supervising archaeologist during all metal detecting and digging.
• We will have a full-time crew position for a person with an archaeology degree and field experience; that person will keep a detailed catalog / map of every item we find, process the artifacts in the proper way, and see that whatever person or organization that takes ultimate possession of the artifacts is also provided with the documentation.
• At the end of each episode, we will meet with an archaeologist to discuss the historical importance of the items, and to place them in their historical context.
• We will not place a monetary value on the objects we find. Instead, we will focus on the “historic value” of the items, and the stories they can tell.
• Throughout each episode, we will feature “responsible metal detecting tips,” about laws pertaining to metal detecting: where it’s not okay to go, what to do if you stumble across an important archaeological site, etc. The tips relate directly to the content of each episode, so they will vary widely. These will help to actively discourage illegal relic hunting/looting, and stress that respect is the key to metal detecting responsibly: respect of the law, of the landowner, and of our common cultural heritage.
Sounds good, but they need our help to make it happen. They would like to partner with some ongoing digs and have their detectorists assist in the recovery of artifacts. I know, I know! I saw the shows and the thought of having those two silly men on my site is daunting and some projects are more suited to metal detecting than others. But think of the public you would reach. These are the folks that might normally be out pothunting sites rather than preserving them. I think we need to give Nat Geo a chance to make good on their early blunder, and they HAVE been great supporters of archaeology. So, if you have a site that you think might benefit from their involvement, contact Cory Adcock-Camp at firstname.lastname@example.org
And remember, no one learns if no one’s listening.