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Archaeologists Protest 'Glamorization' of Looting on TV

1 March 2012 3:50 pm
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Archaeologists are mounting a campaign against two new cable TV shows that they say encourage and glamorize looting of American archaeological sites.

On 20 March, Spike TV will premiere a new show called American Digger, while a show called Diggers on the National Geographic Channel made its debut 28 February. Both shows "promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites," Society for American Archaeology (SAA) President William F. Limp wrote in a message posted earlier this week to the SAA listserv.

The premise of American Digger, which is being hosted by a former professional wrestler, was laid out in a recent announcement by Spike TV. A team of "diggers" will "scour target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history." Similar locales are featured in National Geographic's Diggers. In the second episode, set in South Carolina, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 buttons, bullets, and coins were recovered at a former plantation.

After viewing the first two episodes of Diggers, Iowa's State archaeologist John Doershuk posted a review to the American Cultural Resources Association listserv, in which he lamented: "The most damaging thing, I think, about this show is that no effort was made to document where anything came from or discussion of associations—each discovered item was handled piece-meal."

"It was ironic that they [the show's on-air diggers] are destroying the entire basis of what they're interested in," Doershuk told Science Insider by phone. "These are non-renewable sources. There's only so many of them from these time periods."

The archaeological community is trying to make its views known. In addition to Facebook petitions, professional societies such as SAA have sent letters of condemnation to Spike TV and National Geographic. (Copies of the SAA letters are on its Web site.) Limp said Tuesday on the SAA listserv that Spike TV had not yet responded to its concerns. He wrote that National Geographic indicated that it would place a disclaimer into its show that affirms there are laws in place protecting archaeological and historic sites.

Despite the treasure-hunting theme of both shows, neither appears to be violating federal and state regulations against unlawful obtainment of antiquities. The on-air fortune seekers are not venturing into National Parks or other federal lands, but dig on private property. If property owners sign off, then it is legal--landowners can do whatever they choose with artifacts found on their land. That's the argument Shana Tepper, spokesperson for Spike TV, made to ScienceInsider. "Our show is shot on private property," she said. "They're getting artifacts that are otherwise rotting in the ground."

But archaeologists remain concerned. "These programs encourage looting," University of Colorado, Boulder, archaeologist Steve Lekson wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. National Geographic's imprimatur also rankles some. "Its reputation as a credible scientific and educational institution" effectively "normalizes" the looting aspect of its show, says Washington State University archaeologist William Lipe.

Lekson bemoans the yawning gap between the scientific approach to archaeology and the popular notion that the discipline is basically organized treasure hunting. In the United States, that perception dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when museums sponsored field expeditions to dig up Native American ruins. That ethos quickly gave way to the modern science of archaeology, which developed a set of ethics and practices that shunned its exploitative roots. But popular culture clings to the treasure hunting mythos.

"Two hundred years ago, archaeology was a treasure hunt—finding fabulous things for museum collections," says Lekson. "But we learned long ago that archaeological sites were really books to be read, pages of history. We can learn a great deal about pasts we would otherwise never know, by studying sites themselves and artifacts (simple or spectacular) in their original contexts at sites. When treasure hunters loot sites, ripping artifacts out of the ground, we lose any chance of understanding context—what was with what, its date, how it was used, what it can tell us about history—all so somebody can have a trinket on their mantelpiece."

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