Why Archaeologists Are Fuming

By Keith Kloor | March 2, 2012 12:02 am

Several years ago, a scholar wrote that the popular image of archaeology was characterized by three themes.

1) Archaeology is about searching and finding treasure underground; 2) Archaeological fieldwork involves making discoveries in tough conditions and in exotic locations; 3) Like a detective, the archaeologist tries to piece together what happened in the past.

In the United States, archaeologists have been unable to escape their own past.  They can’t seem to shake their early reputation as treasure hunters and grave robbers. As I write in this new article for Science Insider, “that perception dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when museums sponsored field expeditions to dig up Native American ruins.”

In recent decades, an adventurous but less exploitive image of archaeology has taken root in the public mind, reinforced by Hollywood stereotypes and popular TV shows. Archaeologists have pretty much made their peace with this cartoonish representation.

But now two new gimmicky programs on cable TV have many archaeologists fuming. One of the shows is called “Diggers” and made its debut earlier this week on the National Geographic channel. The other is called American Digger and premieres later this month on Spike TV. You get the idea?

In my Science piece, I report on the archaeological community’s furious reaction to both programs.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I have periodically covered archaeology’s pothunting legacy in the United States. The two new cable TV programs are a reminder that this treasure-seeking pastime endures in our popular culture.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Archaeology
MORE ABOUT: Archaeology
  • Martha

    Absolutely fascinating post.

    The show probably appeals to an enduring aspect of American frontier culture, and is a case of conflicting principles i.e., common heritage, respect for others’ beliefs, respect for the dead… vs. property rights and the spirit of adventure.. 


    I think modern archaeologists must be careful to avoid presenting this as a turf  between “˜unauthorized’ diggers and “˜authorized’ diggers, for a variety of reasons:

    1)  Since private landowners are agreeing to the show’s people digging on their private land, the show is really just exploiting pre-existing cultural attitudes and economic conditions.  So the  conversation has to meet people where they’re at rather than scholarship lecturing to them.

    2)  It is possible to stand the important heritage and education argument on its head with the idea that the show could actually positively impact a wide audience who have no easy access to archaeological storage or curated exhibits, by bringing history into their homes. So many people don’t have a curious thought in their head about the past, their identity, their culture, or meanings that they shre with others in society.  Maybe this will interest them,  although the characters on the show don’t seem so much like the educational type.

    3)  The environmental impacts of modern industrial development, and large digs by archaeologists, have been and often still are devastating to the historical past.  The surface activity metal detecting activity on this show probably has much less negative impact and since it is generally illegal to dig graves, including on private land, the show is not going to do that ““ even though it talks as if it could or it would (that is just hype).  They would be required by law to stop digging, immediately, if they thought that’s what they had found..

    4)  Archaeologists do 3),  too ““ and not on private property but in parks and heritage sites and with state or federal approval.  Not everyone is or has been o.k. with that.

     I wonder if what should and could be done is to include information about relevant law;  and increase the educational component by having archaeologists and these t.v. folks actually work together.  For example, archaeologists can be invited to do risk assessments (e.g. for possible burial or Civil War sites) before the activity on each show, and asked to discuss the history of the area or of what is found, for the educational benefit of both the show’s ‘stars’ and viewers.    

    Or something like this?

  • Keith Kloor

    Martha,

    Smart comment. You make a lot of good points. Would love to see some of my lurking archaeologist readers to engage here.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Salvage archaeology done in a hurry in advance of steam shovels has been going on long enough to make it possible to get valuable information in difficult circumstances–and I would think a TV set qualifies as difficult circumstances.

    I don’t think the public objects to the digging per se. It’s what happens to what is dug up that offends some.

  • Nullius in Verba

    It’s an interesting question as to who gets to decide whose interests and wishes get priority. Historians and archaologists want to know as much as possible about the past – not just because their livelihoods and careers depend on it – but also out of pure scientific principle; that irreplacable information shouldn’t be casually destroyed, for trivial reasons. Their feelings are understandable, but they are only one small group within society. Do their principles take precedence over what everyone else wants or thinks?

    There are a lot of people who question the value of archaology – it seems to be more a case of indulging one’s curiosity than producing anything actually useful. People take control of the sites, carefully dig it up, taking note of where everything is, write some obscure papers in academic journals that virtually nobody will ever read, and then pack them away in boxes in vaults – if your lucky a few select items may make their way into museums where the general public may be permitted to see a tiny part of their heritage safely behind glass, no touching. So what, exactly, do the public get out of the deal for their money?

    And in a couple of centuries time intellectual fashions will change again, somebody will sweep out all the expensive vaults full of forgotten detritus, and it will be lost permanently – and nobody will know or care. It already happens – there are historically significant buildings and collections that people have built up over years, and because there is no money to maintain them, they are allowed to decay or be dumped. Great uncle Albert believed in scientific posterity, but he’s dead now and his nephews don’t, so into the skip it goes. The thing is, history never stops accumulating, it costs money and resources to keep it, and we can’t afford to keep it all.

    So in the long run it arguably doesn’t matter. One of the things you see on pop archaology shows (we have a good one called ‘Time Team’) is that a lot of the stuff dug up was at the time just rubbish that people just chucked away. Houses were just abandoned and neglected and were slowly buried under weeds and rot. Broken kitchen pots were dumped and replaced. You get glimpses and fragments, but most of history was destroyed at the time by people just living their lives. And as we carry on living them, we stir through the junk of past lives and destroy it again. There is a brief fashion now and then for looking at some of it and reviving bits of the past, but in ten thousand years time it will be all the same.

    Yes, I do sympathise with the archaologists, but entropy always wins in the end.

  • EdG

    Rather sad to see what National Geographic has become. This ‘Digger’ pseudoreality show is typical. If their other programming is any guide, cue the dramatic music and contrived plot lines to jazz up the drama, and ignore the opportunity for actual education. 

    I’m just surprised it isn’t called ‘Diggers of Death’ or something more sensational.

    Back on topic, the biggest problem for American archaeology these days is political correctness, and the return of some extremely significant specimens to Native American bands. Great loss to science.

  • Anteros

    I can’t comment on the specificity of the US tv shows but NiV’s comment about ‘Time Team’ reminded me that archaeologists in the UK have a decidedly colonial past. This also true for the great Victorian naturalists who scoured the world for both living and deceased specimens, building up enormous (private) collections, but also the diggers of tombs and treasures.

    It may seem odd to those outside the UK but it seems completely OK to the majority of us that we could empty out Tutankhamun’s treasures, and steal the Elgin Marbles and justify displaying them, in London, in perpetuity.

    It’s not our own history that we have a relationship with – it’s everybody else’s.

    I’m expecting some appropriate condemnation of our imperialist arrogance from Martha at least..

  • Bill Lipe

        Nullius in Verba implies that we shouldn’t worry so much about preserving and studying the evidence of what happened in the past because “in the long run it arguably doesn’t matter.”  I think (arguably) it does.  Knowledge of the time depth and variety of human cultures is cumulative, and although individual pieces of evidence may be lost from time to time, and fashions of interpretation may change around the edges, much of that knowledge does endure.

        The modern worldview that we take for granted has been powerfully shaped by the accumulated knowledge of human origins and evolution, the rise and fall of past states, the common themes as well as unique patterns in global deep history, and the achievements and contributions of societies outside the Euro-centric world. Take a look at Steven Pinker’s recent analysis of the decline of violence over the past several centuries. One of the contributors has been a gradual shift from a local, purely ethnocentric view of who’s worth respecting to a broader acceptance of the humanity and worth of those remote from our experience in culture, space, and time. I’d argue that also contributing has been a shift from fanciful, self-serving mythological views of how we came to be in favor of much broader-scale, more complicated views grounded in the cumulative empirical work of archaeologists and historians. Take a look also at Mann’s “1493″, and his account of the profound ways that the modern world has been shaped by the global exchange of foods, genes, treasure, and culture set off by the European invasion of the Americas. His account relies on generations of work by archaeologists and historians. Or look at Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.”  

        Nullius asks what the general public gets out of the support it provides for archaeological research. Actually, if we count public attention to things archaeological, it seems that quite a few out there are finding something of value in it.  Witness the success of intellectually respectable shows such as “Time Team”, or consider  the many subscribers to Archaeology magazine, or count up the credible stories about archaeology that get circulated in the print media, and so forth. Given the small number of professional archaeologists, the field is actually quite successful at giving something back to the general public, in reciprocation for the support that makes archaeological research possible.  

        By and large that doesn’t happen because research archaeologists are out there writing popular articles or putting on TV shows themselves. Most archaeologists aren’t very good at bringing their own findings and insights to the public, but most are in fact willing to work with talented writers such as Keith Kloor, or the producers of TV shows such as Time Team, or the museum specialists who use real artifacts to give visitors a sense of contact with an authentic past.  Those “obscure papers in academic journals” provide the empirical basis for most of the publc interpretation of archaeology, just as basic research in engineering and materials science provides the basis for popular treatments of technology.

         People who make a living interpreting archaeology for the general public usually can’t stay in the game very long if they just make stuff up themselves. They really do depend on researchers who have “in depth” (pun intended) knowledge of the archaeological record, and on the articles and museum collections those researchers produce. Because of our culture’s accumulated and taken-for-granted knowledge of the outlines of human “deep history,” a writer these days is not going to sell many stories that claim handaxes were created by thunderbolts. Nullius may be willing to live in a world of rootless, “one interpretation is as good as the next”, made-up history, but I don’t think there’s a big interest in that kind of world among the general public.

  • Paul in Sweden

    It seems historical sites and all of the outdoors is to be reserved for a tiny privileged few in academia.
    Who will be left to bear witness to the academics as they terrorize and molest the penguins at their nesting sites adversely effecting their breeding?
    Who will believe the ‘scientists’ when they per-release their findings?
     

  • Keith Kloor

    Bill (7) 

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Paul (8)

    It seems you have not much to add to this discussion besides snark. 

  • Paul in Sweden

    No Keith, when I said “It seems historical sites and all of the outdoors is to be reserved for a tiny privileged few in academia.” I was not attempting to be snarky.
    Actually when you whacked my wrists(as blog proprietor you have all rights to do so) I was writing you a lengthy email so not to clutter your blog with a perspective that is not dealt with here but is of great concern to myself.
    There is a great deal of writing about ‘Climate Science’ communication these days. My concerns are regarding the adverse effects of Climate Science Policies on those that are stricken with poverty and least likely to be able to survive the whims of the “Climate Concerned Community”.(Yeah there was snark there…)
    I am frequently offended by archeologists and environmentalists. Keith do you realize the extent of the exclusion zones that have been created by a select few in the world of academia?
     

  • Bill Lipe

    Not sure what “exclusion zones” Paul in Sweden is referring to.  Paul, do you object to being excluded from digging up artifacts from historical sites for personal fun and profit?  Maybe I don’t know the situation in Sweden well enough to understand where you are coming from.

    On the US public lands, you can walk right over nearly all the historical sites of the archaeological variety without asking anyone’s permission.  The publicly owned sites where you can’t do that are often on display for public benefit in national parks or monuments.  Those you ordinarily can also walk on or through, but only on developed paths, and sometimes with a docent or guide. The exclusion on public lands refers to digging up artifacts without a permit.  

    Most of the “exclusion zones” in the U.S. are private lands, where walking around on sites (or anything else on the property) requires the permission of the landowner, as does digging up artifacts.  The TV shows that this thread has been discussing claim that the digging they show is legal because it is done with the landowner’s permission, and doesn’t involve excavating human burials (which is illegal in most U.S. states). The archaeological and historic preservation communities are not opposing these shows on legal grounds, but because they glorify the destruction of the archaeological record of human history for purely personal gain..  I think we need more “exclusion” of that kind of activity.

  • Bill Lipe

    Not sure what “exclusion zones” Paul in Sweden is referring to.  Paul, do you object to being excluded from digging up artifacts from historical sites for personal fun and profit?  Maybe I don’t know the situation in Sweden well enough to understand where you are coming from.

    On the US public lands, you can walk right over nearly all the historical sites of the archaeological variety without asking anyone’s permission.  The publicly owned sites where you can’t do that are usually those that are on display for public benefit in national parks or monuments.  Those you ordinarily can also walk on or through, but only on developed paths, and sometimes with a docent or guide. The exclusion on public lands refers to digging up artifacts without a permit.  

    Most of the “exclusion zones” in the U.S. are private lands, where walking around on sites (or anything else on the property) requires the permission of the landowner, as does digging up artifacts.  The TV shows that this thread has been discussing claim that the digging they show is legal because it is done with the landowner’s permission, and doesn’t involve excavating human burials (which is illegal in most U.S. states). The archaeological and historic preservation communities are not opposing these shows on legal grounds, but because they glorify the destruction of the archaeological record of human history for purely personal gain..  I think we need more “exclusion” of that kind of activity.

  • Bill Lipe

    Oops–sorry for posting twice.

    Bill 

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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