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

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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