Why do archaeologists care about looters?–Part 1 2

Recently, I read Paul Mullins’ blog post “Historical Archaeology will be Televised” on the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) Blog. Among other salient topics the SHA has chosen to address, this article discusses efforts taken to revise/ alter the new popular shows that glorify archaeological site looters: NatGeo’s Diggers and Spike TV’s Savage Family Diggers.

This article briefly touched upon the success the SHA has had with making changes to Diggers (i.e. adding local archaeologists to the show’s casts, providing anti-looting info on their websites, and attempting to eliminate on-air artifact price quotes). Evidentially, Spike TV was unwilling to make changes. (But, why would we think that a channel with near constant MMA and “1001 Ways to Die” reruns would be interested in changing their show that likens “Heavy Metal” Ric Savage to an avocational archaeologist? I’m not surprised.)

The crux of Mullins’ argument is summarized in his synthesis of how the media portrays archaeology:

“Archaeology and material culture programming is inevitably all over the spectrum of contemporary cable channels, but the realities of archaeological investigation and scholarship risk being ignored for splashy aesthetics, contrived archaeological questions, and practices that are questionable scholarship if not ethical violations.  Programmers have now populated cable television with a host of television series that weave sensational narratives, stress engaging aesthetics, and feature “big” personalities… Popular culture is a distorted reflection of society, letting us glimpse ourselves in compelling, spectacular, and sometimes deluded dimensions that strip away all the prosaic realities of everyday life: can archaeology flourish in media structured around such principles?Paul Mullins (http://www.sha.org/blog/index.php/page/2/).

The answer, Paul, is YES….but, not in the manner that big media does it.

After reading this post, several questions immediately came to mind (Before you read these questions, remember: I am a historical archaeologist. CRM archaeology is how I pay my mortgage and feed my family. This is my dream job–the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do for a living–and I plan on getting paid to be an archaeologist until the day I die or retire. I’m simply asking questions that need to be asked):

  1. Should we care how the media portrays us?
  2. Who are we (archaeologists) to tell the T.V. stations to change their show’s content?
  3. Is destroying non-human archaeological remains on private property any of our business?
  4. How can pro wrestlers and metal detectors influence the public’s perception of archaeology?

Here are my (biased, personal, unprofessional) answers:

1.         Yes and no: We should care that national television is showing the country that archaeological “treasure” can be unearthed in their backyards because it may cause some people to go digging. However, there already are thousands of Americans that plunder privies and wells around the country all the time and broadcast their exploits all over the internet. We’ve known we have competition for a long time. They just don’t go digging with Ric Savage (Don’t believe me? Check out “Privy Locating and Digging” (http://www.19thcenturybottlediggers.com/privylocatingdigging.htm) , http://www.privydigger.com/, http://privymaster.org/, The Secrets of Privy Digging (http://www.bottlebooks.com/privyinf.htm) and any of the more than 413,000 other results I got when I Googled “privy digging”).

So, these new “flashy” shows about finding and looting archaeological deposits are nothing new.

We have competition and we should always try to eliminate this threat, but I don’t think it’s going to eliminate the field of archaeology. Digging with hand tools is hard, dirty work that, fortunately, very few Americas want to do. That’s a good thing for us archaeologists. I live in Arizona and can’t tell you how many people are amazed that I dig in the desert for a living. They always ask the same questions: 1) isn’t that hard work, 2) don’t you get hot, 3) have you ever found any gold? My answers are always disappointing: 1) yes, 2) yes, 3) no. Looks like I’ve turned another group of people away from archaeology and, most likely, privy digging.

The fact is most Americans are too lazy to do the backbreaking labor that archaeology entails. Hell, most aspiring archaeologists don’t want to do it after the first week. If Americans were motivated and willing to do physically demanding work, we’d all be slim, trim, professional athletes. And, we aren’t.

Plus, archaeology is mandated by Federal law and it can’t be done properly by Ric Savage.

We should be worried about these shows on NatGeo and Spike TV… well not so much Spike TV, but definitely NatGeo. While Spike TV is a smutty, unrespectable network appealing primarily to single, young men, National Geographic is one of the most respectable research organizations in the U.S. Coming in close to the Smithsonian and NASA on the scale of scientific respectability, NatGeo is an outgrowth of one of the most venerated research publications published for the general public. The National Geographic magazines are what kept me interested in exploring the world around me. Their coverage of Egyptian archaeological digs was very important to me during my formative years and was a driving force that compelled me towards archaeology as a career. The fact that their cable network has shows like Diggers and many other sensationalist programs makes me question how dedicated National Geographic is towards genuine, scientific inquiry.

All I can say about Diggers is, National Geographic, you should be ashamed of yourself.

2.         We are the self-proclaimed authorities of archaeology and history in the United States, that’s who we are: This is both a good and bad thing. It’s good that the SHA had the authority to step up to these two cable networks and make an honest attempt to reform their programming. I wish I could have overheard the conversation between the two organizations. It must have been like the first time European explorers saw the Native Americans: both groups had almost nothing in common (SHA management is primarily PhD, academic archaeologists and the network execs at NatGeo and Spike are in the business of the entertainment business– no matter how low-brow). It must have been awesome.

I am thankful that the SHA went to bat and made some significant changes in Diggers that will mitigate some of the glorification of looting inherent in these shows. Kudos SHA.

But, as the archaeological authorities, the simple fact that these networks created these shows should be an indication of what a poor job we’ve done in conveying the importance of archaeology to the general public. I wonder, how many huge community activist groups formed to stop these shows? Do local communities come out and protest when Diggers or Savage Diggers shows up in their town? Are there any celebrities speaking out against looting? (Not even our role models Harrison Ford or Angelina Jolie??!?!?!? [Actually, Harrison Ford is against looting]).

The simple fact is: we haven’t told the public what it is an archaeologist does for a living and why it is important for modern society. I have given talks to several high school history and western civilization classes and very few children have any idea what an archaeologist does. They barely even know we dig. In 2012, I recorded over 70 archaeological sites and excavated thousands of artifacts across the State of Arizona. That was just what I accomplished with a crew of less than 5 other people. Other crews in my company accomplished much more. How many people from the general public learned about these discoveries: ALMOST ZERO. About 120 high schoolers learned about some of that stuff and I told about 20 of my friends. Unless they talked with me in person, almost nobody from the general public learned about what I did last year.

Part of that sad state of affairs is the nature of CRM work. Sometimes I’m not allowed to tell anyone about my work. Part of it is my fault. I made little effort to go the extra mile and tell the public about the archaeology under their feet. Part of this relates to how we archaeologists go about our business. We work in small groups, publish alone or in small groups, distribute our work to a small group of people, and put all the data in a box that goes in a warehouse FOREVER.

As a result, an ex-pro wrestler is showing our kids how archaeology should be done.

3.         It isn’t our responsibility to protect archaeological sites on private property: I have wrestled with this in my head for years, but I’ve come to a conclusion that it really isn’t our job to tell property owners what they can do with their property. The government can, but, unless we’re working for the government, we archaeologists are not responsible for what happens on private property.

We can try and convince them to “do the right thing” and let archaeos have a crack at the site. We can strongly suggest saving a site from the bulldozer. We can try and foment public indignation and let local communities take care of their own heritage. Most importantly, we can give professional advice on how to handle a cultural resource for the betterment of the scientific community, local interest groups, and future generations. But, we have no more business telling landowners they can’t destroy their own property than we do telling overweight people they have no right to destroy their own bodies.

It sounds like blasphemy, but look at what we’ve done with all the stuff we’ve already dug up. It’s literally bulging out the seams of state repositories. We almost never revisit old collections. Some of us are even culling assemblages or conducting “field analysis” in order to cut down on how much stuff we curate. I think we already have our hands full with all the stuff coming in through legitimate compliance and research-oriented archaeology work that we don’t really need to tell landowners what to do unless it’s an exceptional case or codified in law.

4.         We shouldn’t be pissed off at network execs or pro wrestlers; we should get mad at ourselves: I think the thing that makes us the most angry is the fact that our own professional images as archaeologists is tarnished every time a sensationalist Alien Archaeology or archaeology looting show hits the airwaves. It’s frustrating to study at a university for years, all the while knowing that communities across the country are allowing amateur actors to wreck sweet archaeological sites on national television as a form of “entertainment.”

It’s also sad that we haven’t taken better control of our own personal images as professionals, scientists, and folks working for the public good. You don’t see amateur surgeons doing plastic surgery on Spike or unqualified architects building skyscrapers on NatGeo. Why does the general public think anyone can do archaeology? Primarily because the public doesn’t know what it takes to do what we do because we haven’t spent any time telling them. We can, and should, change this situation. The blame is all our own.

Here’s an unrelated example that shows how a community can change how it is portrayed by the rest of the country. African Americans were portrayed as ignorant brutes in the media for most of U.S. history. On stage, Black actors were always subservient. Even worse, blackface Vaudevillian performers were racist caricatures of African Americans that fueled racism and perpetuated popular paradigms regarding the intelligence and capabilities of African Americans. Advertising showed Black folks as nothing more than monkey-like servants. We were something to be laughed at–the joke of America. A race dedicated to serving and entertaining white America.

Things changed. Great works created during the Harlem Renaissance and the activities of activists like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Hubert Harrison and many others ushered in a period of reflection amongst black people that forced us to reevaluate who we were as a people. This instilled a new vision in Black America that rapidly grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s, reaching a crescendo in the 1960s.

All of a sudden, it was inappropriate to make fun of African Americans on television, the radio, and on stage. Now, it would be almost unthinkable for national networks like NatGeo or, even, Spike TV to make a show that portrayed African Americans in a negative light (we can do that for ourselves on BET). That’s also a major reason why there is no African American Honey BooBoo or Moonshiners on cable TV. It took generations, but, eventually, negative portrayals of Black people on mass media outlets are at an all-time low (unless you count most of the rap music genre as a reliable portrayal of African America). This whole campaign started when Black people changed the way they thought of themselves and publicized the personal image they’d created across the country.

It’s time for archaeologists to take similar action. It’s time for us to take on the corporate media world and fight for the championship belt.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss some of our best hopes for preventing shows like Diggers and Savage Diggers from showing up on national television. It’s an ambitious plan that will take years of meticulous, thankless work–exactly the type of project archaeologists are up for:

I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

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2 thoughts on “Why do archaeologists care about looters?–Part 1

  • Marcus Espinosa

    It’s funny because my prof loves these shows,and finds them very entertaining, though he does acknowledge the potential danger in supporting such television. His response (and the response I think most archaeologists have) is exactly what you’re saying:it’s our own damn fault. We do exciting, interesting, and important work, but we do very little to engage the public. I’ve met archaeologists who seem to think that engaging the public isn’t their responsibility. That blows my mind. I wish everyday that some archaeologist would step up and become the Neil Degrasse Tyson of archaeology, a science professional who makes the science of archaeology accessible and exciting for the general public. I hoped Time Team America would do that, but so far, no dice. Our field is very exciting and interesting, and it seems that every time we reach out to the public we get a solid response. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I just wanted to say that I agree with you. The public wants to know what we do, and we could use the support. Museums shouldn’t be the only way people engage with archaeology, and I hope soon archaeologists realize the opportunities that will arise from engaging the public, and jump on the chance to show the public all the cool stuff we do.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for reading, Marcus. There are a bunch of archaeos that are combatting public misconceptions, but we all need to band together to help them out. My blog is one small voice in the choir.

      One step is to follow the few of us that are active on social media. The Obama campaign demonstrated what can happen when we harness social media. Another step is to help build a network between the archaeos you know and local preservation groups. Third is keep up the dialogue.

      I’m coming out with a playbook for how we can address public misconceptions. It goes live on Friday. See you then.

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