The Ethics of Historical Archaeology
Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons…
UPDATE: This post by Charlie Ewen has received a great deal of response, both here on the blog and in backchannels. Because the SHA Blog is a space for dialogue and discussion, we have modified this posting to include a dissenting opinion from Archaeologist Dan Sivilich, as well as a commentary by SHA President Paul Mullins summarizing and contextualizing the debate. There contributions can be found after the initial post. Please continue the discussion in the comments!
Is it Better?
On Tuesday, January 15, 2013, nearly a million viewers tuned into National Geographic’s reality show, Diggers. I figure in that half hour, more people were exposed to that archaeological message than everyone who has ever read everything that I have, or will, ever write. Granted, I don’t crank out many bestsellers, but I have managed to publish enough not to perish. The point I am making is that, even on a second tier cable network, you can reach a lot people.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, there is a price to be paid when reaching out to the masses. Moving into the realm of the media, especially network or cable television comes with an entertainment price tag. Here, the real question is, how willing are archaeologists to work (read: compromise) with the entertainment industry? Do we take the high road and lose relevance with most of the public or do we sell out and lose our professional souls? Is there a middle ground?
In a previous blog I discussed meeting with the National Geographic Channel to discuss how they could make their show more acceptable to archaeologists. The producers discussed the challenges National Geographic Society (NGS) faces in the highly competitive world of commercial television. They reminded the archaeologists present of the on-going role of NGS as an enabler of world-class research and a source of great story telling, highlighting the challenge NGS now faces in its effort at becoming more expansive in communication without losing sight of core mission and ethical principles that have always guided the Society. In this context, the producer outlined the Channel’s interest in seeking advice from the archaeological community about the ethical guidelines that any future programming could both operate within and promote, while advancing the goal of reaching broad audiences using contemporary television storytelling.
So, how do you make a show that is both popular AND ethical?
I think it appropriate here to make explicit our archaeological ethics. The SHA has a codified seven ethical principals (a synopsis is presented below):
Guided by these ethics, many suggestions were made to make the show more palatable to the archaeologists. To me, the main points were that a concern be shown for location and context (principle 1 & 4), and that the artifacts not be monetarily valued or sold (principle 6). It was suggested that the show’s hosts work with professional archaeologists, helping them out while abiding by their rules.
The National Geographic Channel has actually re-imagined their show to address our main concerns. They partnered with some ongoing digs and had their hosts, “KG and Ringy”, assist in the recovery of artifacts. I have seen a couple of the new shows in the National Geographic series and they ARE better. Yes, the boys are still over the top in their enthusiasm to find “nectar”. But they are actually under the direction of qualified archaeologists who point them in the right direction. And, yes, NGC did hire a staff archaeologist, Kate Culpepper, who follows after the boys and records what they found and, more importantly, where it was found (a process that led to the very recent discovery relating to the Hatfields and McCoys). I also saw no mention that the artifacts were to be sold. (Actually, I was told that the Diggers had never sold any artifacts. They simply had them appraised on camera because people always want to see what their finds are worth). So, that addressed my major concerns: research design, context and no trafficking in artifacts.
That being said, there is plenty to quibble about. The boys are still annoyingly silly. You’d think if they’ve been doing this for as long as they claim they wouldn’t fall into a grande mal seizure every time they found a colonial-era button. And, according to some of the archaeologists whose sites were used, the shows ARE somewhat scripted (not to the extent of their rival, Spike’s American Diggers – but that’s more pro wrestling than pro archaeology). However, I am encouraged that the producers are making a good faith effort to improve the show.
I would also add that the shows are genuinely more entertaining. The professional archaeologists seem to work well with metal detectors and the boys seemed to be even more enthused (if that is possible) about making contributions to our knowledge of the past. There is an accompanying website for the show which I found to be informative and entertaining. The bits about responsible metal detecting and doing archaeology are educational without being preachy.
But not everyone is as happy with the new shows. I have heard from several archaeologists who are unhappy with the fact that the artifacts are still given a monetary value at the end of each show. They also decry the absence of a visible archaeologist in the shows. You actually have to visit the show’s website to see the extent to which National Geographic has tried to comply with archaeological ethics. These are valid points. Assigning a value to an artifact does increase it marketability. However, virtually every reality show of this type (e.g. Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Storage Wars, etc.) ends with a valuation of the items collected. What I do like about the valuation of the artifacts on Diggers is that it serves as a realistic counterpoint to the wildly inflated values assigned to artifacts by Ric Savage on American Diggers. Getting $10 for a Civil War Minnie ball is a poor justification to invest in a $600 metal detector. And to be clear, these artifacts are NOT being sold. And the archaeologists HAVE been peripheral characters on the show (though not on the actual projects). Still, it is the perception that needs to be dealt with here.
Our job is to explain to the general public (because we can’t do it alone) why our ethical positions are important. Archaeology is more than just finding stuff. It’s determining the story the stuff has to tell. The daring search for treasure is a compelling hook we can use to engage the public, but it is just the beginning of our work. Now I think archaeology is entertaining all by itself, but even I must admit that some days it is like watching paint dry. Obsessing with a tape measure and a Munsell book may be good archaeology, but it is poor television. So, do we put up with a bit of slapstick before the real archaeologists deliver the educational punchline at the end of each show? Or do we write off a large chunk of the population as beneath our intellectual reach? It depends upon whom you want to reach.
Nobody learns if they aren’t listening, but how low must we go to reach the average television viewer? Was the History Channel’s Digging for the Truth breaking new ground or making it up? Even the archaeologically thoughtful Time Team out of Great Britain makes American archaeologists cringe when their stalwart crew arrives at an archaeologist’s site to solve all their vexing problems in three days’ time. The American version has had trouble securing an audience – even on Public Television!
Surely there is some middle ground that gets our point across without boring the public to tears? We will see if Diggers can strike that balance. It has become apparent that these ‘reality’ shows are not going away. They are cheap to make and audiences like them. And whereas almost a million viewers watched the last episode of Diggers, more than a million watched the last episode of Spike’s travesty, American Diggers. Boom baby, indeed!
I read the SHA blog about the NatGeo TV “Diggers” show and I could not disagree more with the idea that the show has improved. I was one of the 14 people that were invited to National Geographic TV for our input on how to clean up the show. It was carefully orchestrated by a professional moderator. I tried to bring up my concerns about the cast but, my questions were directed away. Yes, they did hire an archaeologist, who is never seen or mentioned on the show. She works in the background. The viewing audience has no clue about serious archaeology. They simply get the message: dig holes and remove objects. The show still puts a monetary value on the objects. So what has been improved?
“Diggers” recently did a show in NJ at a Revolutionary War historic site and dug musket balls. There was no mention of archaeology, mapping, artifact context, spatial relationships or a site report. I must have missed seeing a GIS map of the site? I found out that the archaeologist mapped the finds using a handheld GPS. The area where artifacts were found appeared to be primarily wooded. In 2006 I published a paper on how inaccurate handheld GPS units are under the best conditions. Here are a few of the repercussions of their NJ show:
We should not condone the actions of “Diggers” simply because a few people think it is entertaining. It is an embarrassment to anyone who seriously wields a metal detector: archaeologist or hobbyist alike. I have yet to find one person who uses a metal detector that actually likes the show or has a different opinion. I have spoken with several metal detector manufacturers and even they will not support this show in its current format.
For many archaeologists, television portrayals of archaeology are inevitably shallow, focused on inconsequential details, or verging on unethical practice. From National Geographic’s “Diggers” to the press conference discussing the University of Leicester Archaeological Services’ excavation of Richard III, many of our colleagues have apprehensively monitored how the discipline is being represented, and many scholars are not especially pleased with archaeology’s popular cultural and mass media presence.
This week no archaeological story has received more press than the confirmation that a skeleton excavated in Leicester in September 2012 is almost certainly the mortal remains of Richard III, the last Plantangenet King of England. The presentation of that data on February 4th and the revamped “Diggers” force us to think about how such scholarship shapes the public perception of archaeology and if the media presentations of archaeology risk becoming the tail that wags the dog. Can we capture the complicated methodological practice of archaeology in a television show? Can the complex details of nearly any archaeological study be distilled into a palatable, entertaining, and intellectually rigorous popular representation?
The Richard III project has been told in thoughtful detail by a University of Leicester page detailing the excavations, and in many ways it is unfair to use this particular project as an example of how archaeology is presented in the media. The Leicester project was faced with distinctive if not utterly unique challenges: since they potentially held the bones of a British monarch, there was exceptionally intense interest in the results of their analysis, and it had little to do with the analysis of the medieval friary where Richard apparently rested for half a millennium. The Leicester team in many ways controlled the public representation of their scholarship by holding a press conference, and while the astounding global press must be well-received in the halls of University of Leicester administration, good scholars presented the evidence in a preliminary form and did their best to manage the way their work is represented. Yet in the end much of the press will fixate on the bones of a monarch and likely miss the many thoughtful details the ULAS scholars have outlined.
Since SHA representatives met with the National Geographic Society in May to register our complaints over the research ethics of their metal detecting show “Diggers,” the show has revamped its presentation of the two avocational detectorists out digging historic artifacts. The most critical change perhaps was the addition of a staff archaeologist to monitor that all excavation was conducted with the parameters of ethical and legal practice, and she catalogs all the artifacts the two detectorists locate. The show continues to display the estimated value of artifacts at the end of each program, though they do not actually sell any artifacts. SHA President-Elect Charlie Ewen’s assessment of the show this season is that it has improved in many ways as archaeology, even if we may individually not find the show itself especially compelling.
Dan Sivilich is among the SHA members who remains disappointed with “Diggers’” representation of historical archaeology in general and avocational metal detecting in particular. In his blog posting here, Sivilich (who attended the National Geographic meeting in May as an SHA representative) concedes that the show may have employed an archaeologist to supervise the two detectorists, but she has almost no screen presence and the show does not make any significant effort to represent archaeological research methods or insights. He remains firmly opposed to any valuations of artifacts at all, a move that he argues encourages looting. While the show may technically be in keeping with SHA Ethics that do not accept the commercial exploitation of artifacts, his argument is that simply conceding exchange value risks encouraging people to simply see artifacts as commodities.
But perhaps his most strongly held sentiments revolve around how the show represents metal detectorists. The stars of the show–“King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor—are, in Charlie Ewen’s charitable words, “annoyingly silly.” Dan is less charitable, fueled certainly by his own long-term work with a vast range of avocational metal detectorists who have partnered with archaeologists. For some of our members metal detecting has long been caricatured in popular media and by professional archaeologists, and detectorists want to stress their professional practices in keeping with archaeological research ethics. But these two guys prone to bizarre phrases of excitement risk undoing much of the professionalism honed by avocational detectorists.
Regardless of how we each feel individually about “Diggers,” it presents some ethical complications as we present complicated science and interpretive narratives in the inevitably reductionist sound-bite medium of the media. This was what chagrined many observers of the Richard III media coverage, with Mary Beard complaining in The Times Literary Supplement that “What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype … plus the sense that–intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king–there wasn’t all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.”
Beard wondered over “the question of whether media interest starts to set research agendas. This runs through many areas, but especially archaeology. … I’m quite prepared to believe that this skeleton is Richard III (he’s where we would have expected him after all) — but he is part of a climate which pushes people to celebrity history and archaeology, and may even detract from more important work that doesn’t have that glitz.” Indeed, we may find that much of what archaeology does simply is not readily adaptable to mass media discourse. Yet in a moment that archaeology is under fire we may feel compelled to use the media to keep us on the radar of the state and our University administrators, even if we are apprehensive of how our work will be represented in the hands of journalists without any significant archaeological background. Is any press—even if it is simplistic or stereotypical–good press?
I am disinclined to simply walk away from the media and popular culture because it is not really an option: what we do is simply too visible and holds significant interest to quite a few people. But we need to be firm and fair partners when we choose to work with the media, and we need to register our complaints when we think our work is not being represented fairly. So let us know what you think of “Diggers,” Richard III, and your own experiences with the popular representation of archaeological research, and lets work toward asking what works well and how more of us can borrow from those success stories.
What are your thoughts? Please continue the discussion and debate in the comments below!