American Anthropological Association’s President on “Dig Wars” TV Show

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July 22, 2013 at 8:08 pm  •  Posted in Advocacy by  •  7 Comments

digwarsLeith Mullings, president of the American Anthropological Association wrote a letter to Matt Sharp of Sharp Entertainment offering his feelings on the Dig Wars program on The Travel Channel:

Dear Mr. Sharp:

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its 12,000 members worldwide join other professional organizations and concerned communities in urging you to withdraw or modify the new reality television show, “Dig Wars.” This program actively encourages the needless destruction of the archaeological record. Its theme is a competition among teams with metal detectors to determine which team can locate and dig up antiquities from the ground. These are treated as “loot” (the show’s term) and assessed for their monetary value.

Reasonable viewers watching this program may be mistakenly led to believe that such behaviors are ethically acceptable. On the contrary, the looting as portrayed on the show is deeply disturbing. The overall message is that this nation’s cultural and historical heritage is “loot” that is up for grabs for anyone with a metal detector and shovel This the wrong message to give the public, especially in an age when so many historical sites are disappearing.

 The show focuses on taking teams of metal detector enthusiasts to known archaeological sites of historical interest (notable examples include Fort Saint Phillip, Louisiana, and Eastover Plantation, Virginia). The historical interest of these places is important to the program and is an obvious reason for showing it on Travel Channel. However, the program’s emphasis on digging at those archaeological sites to retrieve relics described as “treasure” is at odds with maintaining the historical integrity of these places. Your viewers are encouraged to consider these historical sites as places to plunder, experienced through the activities of the metal-detecting teams. It is at best a mixed message for your program to feature historical places as worthy of travel and tourism and at the same time promote their wanton irrevocable damage, robbing them of historical value.

 The winning team is determined each week on the basis of the total monetary worth of their “finds,” as assessed by an appraiser at the end of the show. The value of historical relics is reduced to dollars and cents. The Travel Channel’s message is that any value ofhistori al places and objects as reflecting our common heritage is negligible compared to the money to be made trafficking in looted artifacts. That disturbing message causes grave concern among the archaeologists and historians who seek to preserve and protect our historical legacy .

This is doubly unfortunate because the program has the potential to promote the historical value of these -artifacts.  It should be retooled to enlighten Travel Channel audiences explaining how the objects found by metal detecting enthusiasts can be used to interpret the historical past. For example, instead of being appraised, the objects could be assessed for how they tell a story about the past, as evaluated by local historical societies or local archaeologists. Such stories could make for more compelling programs on these historical sites, drawing in larger and more diverse audiences.

As an example of how this could be done, last year the National Geographic Channel, working with professional archaeological associations and metal-detector enthusiasts, modified its “Diggers” program. It now focuses on topics in American history from the point of view of two hobbyists working in coordination with local historians and archaeologists. That program became an opportunity for a multi-platform franchise that provides entertaining content for a broad TV audience and celebrates our shared history.

The AAA urges you to modify the contents of”Dig Wars” so that it will enlighten the public, encouraging respect for cultural heritage and for the many surviving historical sites of interest that are worthy of travel and tourism. We would be happy to help you locate and work with trained archaeologists to communicate the excitement of discovery and of history in a more responsible, ethical, and engaging manner.

Fort StI felt she did a good job of communicating the problems with the “cha-ching” approach these shows take – apparently to retain an audience.  But I don’t think that approach is necessary for these shows to be genuinely good entertainment which could attract advertisers.  The same discussion occurred when Diggers came on, with well known detectorists such as Chicago Ron… (I’m going to omit “American Digger” as the Randy Savage show was just outrageous.)  The trouble is that archaeology is a slow, slow grind..a one-day skim across a large site is not going to cut it.   You’re not going to prove much in that short of time… you need control and coordination.   In the meantime, your impatient viewers flip to something else to watch.  So the show creators feel they need to provide some kind of immediate “reward” … and thus, the finds are appraised and there’s a weekly winner with the highest dollar amount.   This formula is so predictable.

I don’t think that a day-long dig at a multiple-acre site is going to do much damage to provenance, but it would be good for the show to make it clear that artifacts stay with the site – or are inserted into the site’s artifact collection or used for education at a museum or visitors’ center.    We all know that most of area of these sites will never be excavated and studied by professionals and most of the found items are scattered, so I doubt taking a few non-ferrous objects will move the needle on the sites’ integrity.

But they are removed, and Archaeological methods and technology will improve.  Archaeologists consider an infinite timeline and prefer to leave objects in a stable, buried situation.   But for how long?  Eventually they will vanish or be damaged beyond recognition and their context blurred with time.  Will the magic 3-d burrowing archaeology nanobots of the year 2280 give us the ability to visualize the entire site in perfect detail (without shovels, screens or breaking a sweat?)   Possibly – but what happens to the objects and their environment in the meantime?   There is a balance, and both sides need to figure it out.

There are plenty of creative people in television – so why there cannot be a show which captures the excitement of archaeological outcomes with the fun of metal detecting is beyond me.   I think a historical archaeology television show could be a great thing – with detectorists and archaeologists working together.  I’ve found most of my discussions with Archaeologists to be riveting and love the intellectual and physical challenges posed by their hypothesis.  I hope someday others find a formula for making THAT the focus of a wide-audience program.

 photos: the Travel Channel

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7 Comments

  1. Byron / July 29, 2013 at 8:53 pm / Reply

    How on earth do organizations as big as the Travel Channel or Nat Geo get suckered into promoting such a destructive view of our hobby? Instead of applying peer pressure to get detectorists to behave respectfully, we now have major TV players hyping detecting as a lustful looting of history?

    I guess the name Dig Wars was just too tempting after Cupcake Wars was so successful. Didn’t anybody raise their hand at the brainstorming meeting and say, ‘You know, maybe this isn’t such a great idea.”

    More likely, because these TV guys aren’t dummies, they said, ‘Let’s make a few million off the show by letting these metal detecting looters dig the grave for their own hobby.’

    I haven’t seen the show, so maybe the guys on the show do the hobby proud, but operating under the name “Dig Wars” is enough to tarnish our reputations by itself. That’s not what I’ve been led to believe the hobby is about, but maybe I’m just naive.

    Byron

  2. Scott Clark / July 29, 2013 at 9:31 pm / Reply

    Thanks! I have to say that some of the personalities on the show are enjoyable, particularly Chicago Ron. But the show’s approach is mostly designed to appeal to advertisers. They pitched the show with the cha-ching climax at the end, which is part of the formula.

    To just build a show around the intellectual stimulation of proving an archaeological hypothesis or locating a new site and starting an excavation is likely too cerebral for the target audience.

    I would like to see them try the American Pickers formula where they involve local archaeologists, detectorists and historians to help solve mysteries around the country.

    So.. it’s cha-ching or nothing.

  3. EJ / September 19, 2013 at 9:50 am / Reply

    To ho it my concern: I liked watching these type of shows this AAA or The American Anthropological Association I bet they would play US Government on us to say that Metal Detecting is illegal & against the law connected with jail time! They are whining & saying we are destroying the land. I for one do not do this, I make sure I don’t defaced the land. I follow the rules that are put down for us(Treasure Hunter’s Code Of Ethics).These people want to play GOD on people like me & others like me who like getting out in the fresh air getting exercise losing weight & feeling good about one self !!! I am 56 year old And I like doing this. I look on line(internet) and these laws they have for State & Federal or National Parks or the BLM. I like it very much , my tax dollars at work! So people like me can go out & see these places. So I for 1 will join a club dealing with this hobby of mine, so you people at The AAA will not get upset with someone like me? So, how is it hurting you all because it is maybe a money situation. I take offense at the words like looter, grave robber. So,what is next with these people. Are they going to get arrested the minute they are on the show. So the people that put these shows on on the air. You people think that they maybe have the funding pulled so others will not do the same???

    • Scott Clark / September 19, 2013 at 1:27 pm / Reply

      EJ,

      Thanks for chiming in EJ… I understand your frustration, but this type of angry attitude will never help the detecting hobby. It’s the reason that we consistently come out on the losing end of legislation and committee votes. What is a historic commission or politician going to do if they have angry notes like yours on one hand and articulate, well-constructed letters from a large university on the other? We have to totally change how we approach this conflict if we want to save this hobby.

      Also, it seems to me that you’ve not spent much time around (the right) Archaeologists or Anthropologists to understand their point of view or motivations. Most are not accusing us as being Grave Robbers and Looters, trust me. But they all agree that removing an artifact from a historically significant site takes it from context, and information about that object is lost… where it is, how it laid and what’s around it are all parts of the puzzle. This is a fact and not in question by detectorists or professionals. What can be in question is what sites are historically significant and what the professional community spends their limited time and budget on (before the information is lost anyway due to erosion, deterioration and other perils.)

      The existence and rights of millions of amateur archaeologists and metal detectorists on private land is very real, and must be acknowledged, much like it has been in the UK. Detecting will never be banned in the US on private land because of our culture. The hobby will live on. The question is, will the professional community embrace those of us inclined to bridge the gap? I think the professional community are wasting a huge resource in the US right now, and one of the big reasons is they don’t want to risk their professional reputation by inviting unpredictable, angry detectorists into the mix.

      I hope you’ll take the time to have a discussion with a professional Archaeologists someday. We need to do more handshakes and beers together and a bit less flaming each other.

      GL/HH!!

  4. Richard G. Williams, Jr. / December 17, 2013 at 2:54 am / Reply

    I have mixed emotions about this whole topic. First of all, I don’t particularly care for the AAA’s elitist attitude. Many (if not most) of the sites relic hunters detect are of little or no interest to archeologists. Besides, they require grants and funds to do what they do, we do it for the pure passion and curiosity of saving history. That being said, I detest the “hype” on these shows. While some are enjoyable (I prefer Dig Fellas), the drama is a bit much and comes across as fake – and much of it is. Regarding one show in particular (I won’t mention which one), I had been contacted by the producers about being one of the detectorists as they’d seen some of my videos. I submitted the “test” video and it was rejected – probably because I focused on the history of the hobby. One of the other detectorists I referred them to was chosen and is a regular on one of the shows. Prior to sharing the opportunity with him, we both agreed we would request the other appear for these hunts if either of us were chosen. And we both agreed in our telephone conversation that, if chosen, we’d avoid the “drama and hype.” I didn’t get the offer, he did and this person did not adhere to our gentleman’s agreement – either part of it. Though we had exchanged numerous emails about this opportunity, I never heard anymore from him once he “got the gig.”

    There’s a lesson here – at least for me. Money and “fame” – even in this relatively small venue – can change attitudes and perspectives and blind us to what this wonderful pass time is really all about. In retrospect, I’m kinda glad I wasn’t chosen.

  5. sam / March 24, 2014 at 1:02 am / Reply

    What is really weird, is that I was told in archaeology classes when I was in college (Indiana State University)… that digging artifacts out of the ground was technically against the law; That if the artifacts were on top of the ground that was fine…. but to dig them out was a no-no unless part of a crm type recovery. One prof. even went as far as to say that if something was only partially sticking out of the ground… if you had to use a stick to dig it out… it still violated the law. I don’t know if that is a regional thing, or if it was true then (back in the mid 1990′s) and not now?? But — IF it is correct, then shows like this are encouraging people to not only disregard the historical significance of properly obtained cultural artifacts, but also to break the laws? Is that right? This is blowing my mind right now.

    • Scott Clark / March 24, 2014 at 12:49 pm / Reply

      There are regional variations as well as differences in how specific areas are managed in the US. Federal land, for example, has specific rules about artifact collecting, and some state laws do as well. I think that your professor must have been referring to some form of public land or defined archaeological area or feature. I generally detect only on private property with owner’s permission or with an archaeology team. I am also learning techniques for mapping, collecting, analysis and preservation. The US has a strong private ownership rights culture that is not going to go away. Both academics and amateurs would likely benefit by cultivating a cooperative middle ground where information about private land finds are shared so the data set is improved. Archaeological analysis of finds is NOT… I REPEAT NOT… beyond the capabilities of metal detectorists, despite what you may hear. The trouble is that when we are clustered together as one massive grave-robbing, money-grubbing collective. Cooperation, and in turn, dataset/context collection is lost as a result.

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