By Suzie Thomas (University of Helsinki) and Joseph A.P. Wilson (Fairfield University)
In March 2014, social media was alight with calls to axe the National Geographic show “Nazi War Diggers”. The collective online efforts of archeologists, historians and others led to the program being canceled before it was broadcast. In January 2016 we experienced déjà vu, as the UK’s Channel 5 aired “Battlefield Recovery”, the same program renamed and (possibly) re-edited. Twitter comments – not only from archeologists – have been largely negative, and the viewing figures have apparently plummeted with each episode. However, the show is also a reminder of why archeologists must continue to engage with the media and the wider public, and that we are not the only interest group looking to influence television programming with regards to cultural heritage and history.
It is always challenging for archeologists to decide how to respond requests for information to media companies. Many have been frustrated at seeing recommendations ignored, or at what seemed like a small enquiry ballooning into hours, even days, of work. One of us (Thomas) was approached – as were others – by ClearStory, the production company behind “Battlefield Recovery”. Thomas gave advice related to her area of specialism (the relationship between hobbyist metal detecting and archaeology), as well as recommending contact with specialists for other aspects of their plans. Subsequently she reflected on her ultimately negative experiences in the European Journal of Archaeology, writing to an academic audience, and noting how little control academic consultees have over a final product.
The show itself follows a group of three metal detecting enthusiasts and a militaria dealer, as they dig at various sites of World War II’s Eastern Front. Inspired by the American metal detecting series “Diggers”, the show brings this formula to Europe – incorporating WWII in a nod to war history’s enduring popularity on television. However, among the many concerns that archaeologists and others have with the show, the handling of human remains is particularly problematic, not only due to the absence of scientific procedure but also raising serious compassionate concerns. It is inevitable that the bones uncovered on camera are someone’s relatives. Although there are voluntary groups that seek and repatriate fallen soldiers (for example in Russia and Latvia), exhuming remains on film without forensic specialist supervision is deeply troubling. This is before we consider the safety risk of encountering unexploded ordnance.
Recently, the Society for American Archeology discussed the challenges of presenting archeology within reality TV. They noted that, while programs such as “Diggers” are still problematic, sustained dialogue with the National Geographic Channel has led to improvements, and may bring more in the future (read about Montpelier’s successful collaboration with the show). On the Society of Historical Archaeology’s blog, archeologist Charles Ewen noted regarding National Geographic Channel’s 2014 cancellation of “Nazi War Diggers”: “Is this only a temporary reprieve till the next outrageous show comes along? Will this be a rolling battle against edutainment with no end in sight? Perhaps not, but we are going to have to be willing to work with the networks.” Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Corp’s acquisition of National Geographic in November 2015 resulted in significant senior staff layoffs. Whether National Geographic preserves its reputation will likely depend on financial calculus. Communications professor W Joseph Campbell noted that Fox have a choice. They could move National Geographic toward greater professional respectability as they did with the Wall Street Journal, or they could move it “down-market”, as they did with the New York Sun and News of the World. Time will tell which path they choose. Whatever happens though, archeologists wanting to engage with a broader audience must work in venues such as these, or risk being resigned to obscurity in the echo chamber of the ivory tower.
Also in November 2015, Buzzfeed unearthed video footage from a 1998 university commencement speech where neurosurgeon-turned-Republican-presidential-hopeful Ben Carson voiced opinions on Egyptology. Dr. Carson suggested that biblical patriarch Joseph constructed the pyramids as grain-storage devices. Archeologists and Egyptian officials bemusedly dismissed his claims. Carson is not an archeologist, and his pet theory is based more on his religious views than empirical evidence. But much of the conversation has strayed toward questioning his fundamental competence, for example when the New York Post’s headline described Carson’s idiosyncratic view as a “crazy theory”. While it is appropriate for professional archaeologists to cite credible evidence when faced with quirky folk-theories about funerary monuments, online vitriol has arguably been counterproductive. For non-archeologists it can be challenging to differentiate between plausible and implausible theories. Interpreting archeological data can be extremely subtle on the best of days; those who fail to grasp nuanced arguments should not be judged too harshly. The scorn heaped upon Carson for his opinions appears (at least initially) to have strengthened his position among those who could carry him to a presidential nomination. Pejorative indictments of Carson’s odd assertions could be extrapolated to indict the ignorance of the public at large, which could encourage further entrenchment of popular anti-intellectualism. As the Washington Post put it: “Critics who focus on Carson’s pyramid quote miss that he called for better science education in the same speech, or that his comments about God, the Big Bang and evolution actually reflect that of most Americans, if not scientists”.
As archeologists, we should respect our audiences and remember that we are not the only interest group claiming knowledge, however inaccurate other interpretations might turn out to be. Nor should we “punch down”, attacking less well-educated opponents and following the playbook of culture wars. With the recent annihilation of Palmyra and the murder of an esteemed Syrian archeologist (for refusing to provide loot to Daesh), you could do better than see media turf wars as the discipline’s raison d’etre. “Battlefield Recovery” is not what any archeologist would want to see broadcast. The History Channel dropped plans to broadcast the program in New Zealand and Australia in light of critical feedback. However, the fact that both Channel 5 and ClearStory believe that it is fit for viewing, should be a rally call to archeologists to continue engaging with the media, and to do so with clear and accessible messages. We must remember that we are not the only voices out there. The “Battlefield Recovery” presenters doubtless regard themselves as experts of a different kind. Adopting a dismissive tone towards non-archeologists is tempting, but does not always help. The last thing we need is to appear is as elitists who do not want anyone else to encounter heritage. That is not our raison d’etre. Encountering heritage in an informed, respectful and scientifically sound manner, is.