Historical Archaeology will be Televised: Ethics, Archaeology, and Popular Culture

The hallmark of digital democracy may well be C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), the network that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the US Congress.  One 2009 poll indicated that 20% of Americans watch the non-profit channel, which provides oppressively thorough and largely unfiltered coverage of the Congress and American political events.  C-SPAN aspires to present unmediated news that moves at the speed of real-life: Congressional meetings, for instance, are long stretches of bureaucratic discussions punctuated by consequential but somewhat understated decisions.

Oddly enough, C-SPAN’s pace is a lot like archaeology.  In contrast, most 21st century consumers are accustomed to receiving news as reductive “talking points,” acrimonious quotations, or short messages scrawling along the bottom of the screen during a football game.  This presentation of the news is nearly indistinguishable from all our other televised entertainment, which washes over us with instantaneity and is focused on the spectacular moments.

This makes archaeology a somewhat challenging fit with media discourses.  Archaeology is of course a laborious experience that involves long days of mundane chatter across excavation units, hours washing and identifying artifacts, and the long process of weaving it all into a persuasive and rigorous analysis.  Yet archaeology is still a staple of popular culture:  We often dig in aesthetically striking places; the prosaic things we recover establish emotionally compelling relationships with the past; and lots of archaeologists are articulate and thoughtful narrators.

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.   Much of the attention the SHA is giving to such programming today has been triggered by television shows that violate archaeological ethics, misrepresent archaeological and preservation laws, glamorize looting and “treasure-hunting,” and reduce artifacts to commodities.  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?

As President-Elect Charlie Ewen has reported, one of the television shows misrepresenting archaeology was National Geographic TV’s show Diggers, which features a pair of American metal detectorists.  Their initial programs resulted in a groundswell of alarm from archaeologists and allies, and National Geographic met with SHA and Society for American Archaeology representatives in May, 2012 to discuss ways changes to the show.

We are now seeing these new shows, and they force us to ask two basic questions.  First, the narrow question is how do historical archaeologists feel about these revised Diggers shows?  Do they reduce archaeological scholarship and preservation commitments to superficial entertainment?  Do they encourage viewers to appreciate our archaeological heritage or even search out local archaeologists?  Or do they instead issue an invitation to set off in search of backyard treasure?  Second, the broader issue is what in our collective imagination would constitute a “good” historical archaeology program?  If we were given control of a television series about historical archaeology, what would it look like and could we make the programming compelling to a broad range of viewers?

The producers of Diggers agreed to make some changes following that May meeting, and I want to identify what seem to be two key shifts and ask all of you to assess those changes.

  1. First, perhaps the most significant change was the introduction of an archaeologist to the show and the network’s agreement to contact local archaeologists (several have worked with the National Geographic TV’s film crew since May).  The programmers agreed Diggers should focus on research questions framed by an archaeologist that metal detecting can illuminate.  It was agreed that episodes focusing on archaeological or historical sites should feature archaeologists consulting with the show’s detectorists.
  2. Second, the network agreed that ethical guidelines for responsible metal detecting would be referred to during the program and on the show’s web page.  The archaeologists indicated that the show could not include any commercial sale of artifacts.

The revamped web page supporting the show addresses some of the complexities of archaeological recovery and context and the ethics of metal detecting, but the show itself remains the vehicle of the two detectorists, “King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor.   The archaeologists who are now involved with the show are not always particularly visible, and complex heritage narratives are inevitably transformed in the hands of the show’s two avocational detectorists.  Wyant and Saylor’s amplified personalities, naïve curiosity, and overblown joy finding artifacts have disappointed some avocational detectorists who argue that the stars’ seemingly contrived personalities are not appropriate reflections of the hobby’s professionalism.  For some detectorists, misrepresentations of the hobby are stigmatizing and actually damage the potential for research partnerships.

In February, I and SAA President Fred Limp wrote to National Geographic and advocated providing archaeologists more visibility within the show, arguing that coordination between avocational detectorists and archaeologists provides an important model for both professionalism and collegiality.  For instance, Kim McBride, a historic archaeologist with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, was part of an episode on the Hatfields and McCoys; Don Southworth of Sagebrush Consultants worked on an episode filmed in Idaho; and Harvard Ayers appeared on an episode on the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain.  Yet the show has in some cases had trouble finding archaeologists who will work with the producers.  Wyant and Saylor are perhaps choreographed characters that reflect what TV producers believe is entertaining, but the only way to change such stereotypes is to have compelling scholars’ voices in such programs and advocating for sound practice.

We have long argued that commercial exploitation of artifacts is unacceptable.  Antiquarians have sometimes sold artifacts for charitable causes, and as museums de-accession some holdings it is likely that some archaeological artifacts will be sold.  But historical archaeologists have generally tried to avoid that slippery footing and resisted all commercial artifact sales, a code that is being tested by the newest wave of television shows.  On Diggers, for instance, the show still indicates how much artifacts are hypothetically worth:  this does not involve the sale of artifacts, but it does venture into problematic territory that concedes artifacts have an exchange value.  The show’s producers argued in May that audiences find these values compelling, but we may conclude that the concession of exchange values risks issuing an implicit invitation to plunder historic sites in search of ebay loot.

From a television programmer’s perspective, exchange value may provide a readily apprehensible meaning most people recognize:  the audience mulls over the value of an object during an Antiques Roadshow assessment, for instance, and the appraised value delivers a compelling punctuation for the object’s narrative.  However, the imposition of such exchange values on archaeological artifacts and the persistent fascination with “treasure” may fatally compromise our ethics by allowing exchange value to shape how people see material things and heritage.

While National Geographic TV is willing to work with SHA, Spike TV continues to produce its Savage Family Diggers (formerly American Diggers).  Savage Family Diggers, the vehicle of former wrestler Ric Savage, educates its audience on how to find privies and wells (though their web page cites the Society for American Archaeology’s metal detecting laws webpage), and they have shown no interest in partnering with archaeologists.  Spike TV’s Sharon Levy, the executive vice president for development for the channel, said last March that Savage’s show is part of “a crowded genre … called `object-based television.’”  This places treasure hunting shows amongst the rich range of series examining storage bin auctions, antiques, and pawn shops, and an even broader range of shows on heritage and history.

For some archaeologists, science simply may not be reducible to satisfying media representations, but professional archaeologists are never going to control how the discipline is represented in popular discourse any more than we can dictate how communities choose to address their heritage.  Is it a Faustian bargain to partner with the media?  Are we doomed to simply be props while our real insights fall to the editing room floor?  Can archaeology secure a role in contemporary popular culture in which archaeological scholars influence minds and politics?  What do we really have to gain from doing these television shows?

The answers to those questions are not entirely clear, but the death rites for the traditional archaeological documentary and the unassailable academic have been written.  The question is not if popular culture is going to seize on archaeological narratives and material culture; the issue is how archaeologists are going to become a presence that pushes media planners to do thoughtful and responsible archaeological programming.

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