The demise of #naziwarhunters is one small step toward reclaiming the public’s image of archaeology

Stop archaeology site looting showsThis week, the HISTARCH listserv and the rest of the blogosphere celebrated the crushing defeat of NatGeo’s poorly planned series Nazi War Diggers. As I wrote before, the show was basically a glorification of battlefield archaeological site looting with the added bonus of human remains desecration. It was an all-around bad idea that sparked the general public’s ire and provoked a legion of archaeologists who wrote letters, tweets, blog posts, and a petition all urging NatGeo to rethink this program. Sensing a juicy “story”, the New York Times picked up on the issue writing an exposé “TV Series is Criticized in Handling of Deceased” that specifically cites the outrage emanating from the archaeological community.

In the face of withering criticism, NatGeo initially backpedaled saying in the NYTimes article the video they featured on the website (which has been suppressed) was taken out of context. In case you didn’t see it, this is the video that showed two World War II site looters and a Nazi paraphernalia dealer ripping a femur from the ground and briefly (ignorantly) pondering what part of the body that bone represents. Known for their meticulous and thorough research, the archaeology community picked NatGeo’s argument apart. Some of us mentioned the fact that, in archaeology, context is everything. Ripping body parts from the sidewall of an unrecorded excavation (looter’s pit) is a good way to destroy any semblance of context from that portion of the site. There’s no way NatGeo can cover up the fact that they were conducting unrecorded excavations and inappropriately treating human and archaeological remains.

Three days after the NYTimes piece, NatGeo wisely indefinitely cancelled the series. Other news outlets quickly picked it up. Hopefully, the message this campaign sends is: the entire world (archaeologists included) are against grave robbing and site looting.

The truth is: most of the world may be against grave robbing, but they definitely aren’t against site looting because most people don’t care about archaeology.


Social media, specifically blogging, played a significant role in the defeat of Nazi War Diggers. Archaeology blogs were prominent and became a steady stream of activism against the show. As Doug Rocks-MacQueen wrote, “it (archaeology blogging) does make a difference.” I hope all archaeology bloggers and blog readers understand the power we all possess as arbiters of information. We really do have the power to stop truly unsavory acts from happening, including the destruction of archaeological sites and historic properties. This recent campaign demonstrates that we really can use the Internet, social media, and our own personal wherewithal to cause change.

That being said, the reason shows like “Nazi War Diggers”, NatGeo’s other archaeology destruction show “Diggers”, and SpikeTV’s even more disgusting show “American Diggers” get airplay is because we archaeologists don’t keep up the attack. I’ve ranted about this before when I asked the question, “Why do archaeologist care about looters? Part 1 and Part 2.” All around the world: sites get found and they get destroyed to make way for yet another Walmart or outlet mall. Just like Chris Webster posted this week, looter shows get created in order to make money. There is an audience that wants to see sites get wasted and artifacts get commodified. Many of these assholes go out and start looting sites themselves.

Archaeologists allow this to happen because we don’t do enough to make sure media outlets promote a positive, realistic portrayal of archaeology on television. Many of us believe that the work we’re doing is beyond the pale—so incredibly valuable that the rest of the general public is crazy that they don’t see it the same way we do. Guess what? We’re wrong. Most of the public doesn’t care about archaeology any more than they care about the grass growing, or the Federal deficit, or the WNBA. The public is not monolithic but it does care about a lot of other things and archaeology, generally, isn’t one of those things.

That fact may be startling to some, but it’s a reality that we must accept. And, it’s a reality that makes it even easier for us to push our agenda of archaeological and historic preservation. A small segment of the general public does care about archaeology and historic preservation. Those are the folks we need to connect with. In addition to reaching out to schools and exposing young people to archaeology (which is an easy way to create preservation “converts” that never even knew they cared about the past), we need to reach out with open arms to all the other archaeology fans out there. Like Chris Webster said in his post: We’ve gotta be more vocal and advocate for our interests. Fortunately, we don’t need to reach out to everyone. We just need to connect with our fan base.

The Nazi War Diggers campaign gave us a perfect opportunity to find out who our public is. Here is something we should take away from this:

1) Remember all the reporters that wrote about the demise of this show. Write down their names and, when a site is about to get wasted in your neighborhood, tell them about it. Explain why this matters and urge them to write an article on it.

2) Remember all the bloggers that posted against the show. Not only are these folks activists, they have an outlet to spread the word about issues in archaeology and are listened to by an audience. No matter the size of their following, these bloggers are a huge resource in historic preservation and archaeology activism.

3) Follow all the folks that were vocal about #naziwardiggers on Twitter. These are archaeology fans that actually spoke out against the show on social media. They can probably be relied upon when you need them.

4) Pay attention to what’s going down in your neck of the woods. Read the local paper and see how archaeological sites are being treated. Take notice when Native American groups or preservationists pressure the government or developers about a specific site.

5) Most importantly: Speak up when you see bullshit going down. Mobilize your network. Write a guest post or letter to the editor. Spread the word.

The indefinite cancellation of Nazi War Diggers doesn’t mean the show is actually cancelled. It just means this particular battle in the war is finished. If we want to stop these looter shows, we’ve got to mobilize every time they’re proposed. Getting our fan base juiced and going is our best tactic for combating the proliferation of site looter shows.

“Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have.” Saul Alinsky (1909–1972)

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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