Should Archaeologists break bread with looters?

Can professional archaeologists collaborate with shows like #BattlefieldRecovery?Cultural resource management archaeologists: Want to hear something that will make your blood boil? Remember that grave-robbing, site-looting show “Nazi War Diggers”? It’s baaaaaack. The most recent rendition is called “Battlefield Recovery” and airs on the UK’s Channel 5. More digging skeletons out of context. More unnecessary burial excavations. More gratuitous artifact pictures. Somehow, television executives just don’t understand why digging up human remains looking for artifacts to sell makes for bad television.

While I may not have noticed the show’s premiere, the folks at Archaeosoup have been on the case for months. Evidentially, the show has been on for a couple seasons. Here’s one of their videos:

Other archaeologists chimed in against the show and got it pulled from the History Channel (shame on you History). Historians also joined the fray against the show.

It’s hard to keep from judging people that go out and dig up World War I and II graves in order to create a TV “show”. It’s also hard for me to be compassionate for the safety of people that dig in a battlefield embedded with unexploded ordinance. So what if they get blown up? My biggest problem with shows like this is the fact that it glorifies grave robbing and makes it ethically untenable for archaeologists to collaborate with “collectors,” “hobbyists,” and “preservationists” like these.

The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) just drafted a statement suggesting archaeologists should freely collaborate with collectors, avocationals, and metal detectorists. Should we be collaborating with people like the ones featured on #battlefieldrecovery?

Nazi-Grave Robbing is on the Rise

A recent article in Bloomberg Business delves into the increasingly popular side hustle of digging up World War II German war graves in order to sell the artifacts and body parts. The “Rise of Nazi-Grave Robbers” is shocking even though it should be expected. Looting archaeological sites is an international business and, as long as you can find a buyer, looting Nazi graves is just a piece of a much larger problem. Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities has been covering some of the hotspots for looting for the last five years. Dr. Donna Yates has spent years chronicling the illicit antiquities trade and has continued to lobby against shows like Battlefield Recovery. These archaeologists are not alone. Right now, looting ancient sites in the Middle East is a major business for Islamic extremists but it is a profession in every part of the world.

The question for archaeologists is not “How do we stop sites from getting looted?” Looting and the illegal antiquities market is the product of poverty, ignorance, and the willingness of others to pay money for artifacts. You cannot stop site looting without addressing poverty and convincing collectors that their activities are morally wrong.

The question we must ask ourselves is; “How can we collaborate with the good guys without helping the bad guys?” Sites are usually looted by locals; however, the Bloomberg article mentions a new market for looter-related tourism that is growing in Latvia and other communities near World War battlefields. Most professional archaeology societies prohibit archaeologists from selling artifacts. This pretty much prohibits ethical archaeologists from collaborating with site looters or site looting programs like Battlefield Recovery. How do we keep our efforts from helping looters get better at their craft? Or, give their work an air of legitimacy? If our goal is to investigate human pasts through the material culture left behind, do we have a duty to communicate with looters, collectors, and/or hobbyists? How can we turn looters into archaeologists?

A draft statement by the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) Task Force on Professional Archaeologists, Avocational Archaeologists, and Artifact Collectors outlines several premises for archaeology-collector collaborations. Among other premises, the SAA states, “Professional archaeologists have an ethical obligation to engage with those who possess knowledge of a project area or an interest in the past” and that “Sharing knowledge via public education and outreach is the single best way to maximize awareness of and strong stewardship for the archaeological record on the part of all stakeholders.” This is the crux of public outreach. How can we be sure the information we share will not be used to destroy sites?

It continues to suggest archaeologists should work with collectors, metal detectorists, avocationals, and others interested in learning about the past in an environment of mutual respect. The goal is to recognize that not all of these folks will be interested in collaboration, but professional archaeologists are encouraged to work with non-archaeology history aficionados in order to conduct fruitful research. It is also implied that working closely with non-archaeologists can help them understand the important of preservation and create a cadre of individuals interested in protecting sites.

I can understand why the SAA would take this approach. They want to build bridges and get access to collections that would otherwise be off limits. At first I thought it was little more than an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality, but, upon reflection, I realized there is much more behind the SAA’s efforts. The intent is good: To learn more about the past while fostering community. In the process, they hope some of our ethos as professionals will rub off on these folks.

As a historical archaeologist, it is hard for me to believe the metal detectorists, privy diggers, and other hobbyists that tear up archaeological deposits without documenting their activities are little more than the enemy. Digging on private property is one thing. Aside from removing burials, it is a property owner’s prerogative to let non-archaeologists destroy sites on their property. But, excavating sites on public lands without a permit or without the permission of the property owner is criminal. I’m not sure what the laws regarding human remains and archaeological sites are in Latvia, but I know it is still unethical to dig sites without proper recordation. Why would I want to join forces with criminals, especially when my professional ethical standards prohibit this kind of relationship?

Who is an archaeologist?: Toeing the Line between Professionalism and Criminality

Professional (n): engaged in an activity as an individual’s paid occupation; engaged in or qualified in a profession

To me, it’s pretty clear who is and who is not a professional archaeologist. There are three categories of professional archaeologists:

1)  Those who are paid to do archaeological work (i.e. archaeological field technicians, avocationals getting paid to do honest-to-God archaeology, field school students getting paid to do archaeology, and academicians that do not meet the Secretary of Interior’s [SOI] Standards for Archaeology).

2)  Individuals that meet the SOI Standard for Archaeology AND get paid to do archaeology (i.e. CRMers, college professors, ect.).

3)  Those who adhere to current archaeological method and theory, properly document their activities, and share that information with government agencies and professional archaeologists but do not get paid to do archaeology. Qualified, ethical volunteers/students/enthusiasts deserve respect from the archaeological community even though archaeology is not how they derive their income. These individuals, often times, are doing necessary work for places that would go unnoticed. They are the backbone of most university anthropology/archaeology programs.

Hobbyists, collectors, detectorists, television personalities, (most) backhoe operators, and a host of other archaeology fans are not archaeologists. Just because you dig for artifacts does not make you an archaeologist. Professional archaeologists should collaborate with ethical avocationals who sincerely care about preservation, heritage, and the past, but we have no obligation to work with those who break the law or mine sites looking for stuff they can sell on the internet.

The ethical line gets really blurry when discussing the World War II diggers in Latvia and other Eastern European countries with less straightforward laws regarding artifact hunting and metal detecting. The Bloomberg article focuses on the founder of an unmarked graves repatriation group called Legenda. Their website says they are a “Military Archaeology” group, but, to me, that’s a stretch. They aren’t trained in archaeology and don’t collaborate with professional archaeologists from what I saw. Whatever I think about their methods, it is true that Legenda is doing a necessary job for the families who lost relatives in World War II. Check out some of their videos to get an idea of what they do:



I believe connecting with groups like this is what the SAA meant when they drafted their statement. This group is toeing the line between ethical archaeology and destroying the archaeological record even though they clearly state that they do not sell artifacts and have stored dozens of items for future study. While Nazi memorabilia dealers work with the Legenda diggers, the Bloomberg article tries to make it clear that they work in opposition to the “black diggers” who loot graves. They portray themselves as good guys working to repatriate the dead to their families and recover bodies for a proper burial.

By watching their YouTube videos, you can see they aren’t using archaeological method and theory. But, it wouldn’t take much training to get them to proper archaeology as they recover the bodies. It would take a lot more effort to turn Legenda into a group like the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) that is used to recover the remains of American soldiers. I’m sure it would almost be cost prohibitive to do JPAC-level investigations for the mounds of corpses that resulted from WWI and WWII. We’re talking about 36 million dead individuals scattered around the world. Despite its protocols and use of professionals, even JPAC has been accused of unethical work. Perhaps this may not be the best model. And, it also raises the question: Should archaeologists even be digging up skeletons unless they are threatened by development?

Best case scenario: An intergovernmental agency partnered with some universities could fund Legenda’s work and provide some professional bioarchaeologists to assist with the excavations and repatriation. Part of this funding could stipulate they will refrain from selling artifacts and help track down “black diggers” so they could be prosecuted. SAA Members: If you’re reading, how does this sound? People in Latvia are digging up Nazi graves because they can make money from it. They’re doing it because they’re poor or addicts/alcoholics or uneducated and have few job opportunities.

Nobody is paying Legenda to properly repatriate these skeletons. It would be a miracle if they weren’t in on the illicit Nazi artifact trade. Turning diggers into professional archaeologists (i.e. ethical individuals paid to do archaeology in accordance with archaeological method and theory) is one of the best ways to cut down on stuff like Nazi war digging.

Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know

I am pretty sure looting isn’t going to stop any time soon. There is such a strong financial motivation that it’s like fighting the United States’ War on Drugs. I have no idea how we could combat looters on their own terms. The idea that education and information will end the trade is naïve. Education will not stop poor people from selling artifacts. It’s probably not going to stop people from buying them either.

One thing we can do is stop shows like “Battlefield Recovery” from happening. This blog post is part of a salvo that needs to be aimed at Channel 5 and its parent company Viacom, the corporation that also owns Spike TV which hosts American Diggers/Savage Family Diggers—a show protested by the American Anthropological Association for its glorified portrayal of site looting. Cherokee villages, privies, even the English colony at Jamestown have all been the subject of American Diggers episodes.

Okay, once again we all have to complain about another site looting show. Get on social media and start telling the world why it’s wrong to dig up Nazi graves for stuff to sell. Tell everyone why it’s worse to post that stuff on national television. It seems strange that we have to keep saying this, but I’m up for the challenge. They’ll drop this show if we scream loud enough.

In a larger context, cultural resource management could also play a pivotal role in changing public opinion about archaeology and the role it plays in our heritage. We could collaborate with organizations like Legenda to bring our take approach to archaeological deposits, respectful treatment of human remains, and repatriation to their efforts. We could also push state, national, and international law makers to fund the repatriation of dead soldiers. It will have to be a collective effort, but, I believe, this is the spirit of the SAA’s recent statement on collaborating with non-archaeologists.

While we may not be able to completely stop Nazi grave looting, our uprising could slow its spread. Getting shows like Battlefield Recovery off the air is a step towards ending the glorification of grave robbing and site looting.

Can archaeology education stop Nazi grave robbers? Write a comment below or send me an email if you have anything to add to the discussion?

Becoming an Archaeologist kindle bookHaving trouble finding work in cultural resource management archaeology? Still blindly mailing out resumes and waiting for a response? Has your archaeology career plateaued and you don’t know what to do about it? Download a copy of the new book “Becoming an Archaeologist: Crafting a Career in Cultural Resource ManagementClick here to learn more.






Blogging Archaeology eBook

Check out Succinct Research’s contribution to Blogging Archaeology. Full of amazing information about how blogging is revolutionizing archaeology publishing. For a limited time you can GRAB A COPY FOR FREE!!!! Click Here





Resume-Writing for Archaeologists” is now available on Click Here and get detailed instructions on how you can land a job in CRM archaeology today!





Small Archaeology Project Management is now on the Kindle Store. Over 300 copies were sold in the first month! Click Here and see what the buzz is all about.






Join the Succinct Research email list and receive additional information on the CRM and heritage conservation field.

Get killer information about the CRM archaeology industry and historic preservation.

Subscribe to the Succinct Research Newsletter

* indicates required

Email Format

Powered by MailChimp