Using National Archaeology Day as a Response to American Digger

Looter trenches at Slack Farm, 1987

The Spike network is launching a reality series called American Diggers.  National Geographic has a similar reality series called Diggers.  The upshot of these programs is that they are treasure hunts.  The professional archaeological community responded with formal letters of protests and blog posts.  Petitions, newstories, and numerous blogs of outrage are up.

For their part, the Spike network responded saying:

“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 Science Insider. “Our show is shot on private property,” she said. “They’re getting artifacts that are otherwise rotting in the ground” cited from here.

The private property rationale is reminiscent of the Slack Farm debacle of the 1980s. Of note, National Geographic prominently exposed the Slack Farm looting. (See “Who Owns Our Past?”, by Harvey Arden, National Geographic, Vol. 175, no. 3 (March 1989), pp 376-390.)

I wholly agree with the outpouring of protest against these latest attempts to loot the cultural heritage of the U.S. for profit.  The reality shows are not even about mystery and intrigue ala Geraldo Rivera opening the Al Capone vault.  They are about profit pure and simple.  American Diggers and their ilk flow logically from other reality shows such as PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, along with the History Channel’s Pawn Stars and American Pickers.  Antiques Roadshow format goes – is it real? how old is it? and what’s it worth?  Although price is ultimately the punch-line for the two History Channel programs, American Pickers has a good bit of discussion on appreciation of the object along with temporal and personal context.

The public presentation of antiquities must move beyond the money.

In 1987, I enrolled in a field school class at the University of Cincinnati taught by the late Patricia Essenpreis.  Ten percent of our course grade came from how we interacted with the public.  Pat was adamant that we be able to explain the relevancy of what we were doing to anyone who asked.  She argued that if we could not justify how archaeology was relevant to the lives of folks today, we might as well stay home.  I struggled with this mandate for a long time.  I had a difficult time getting my answer to the relevancy question beyond a general interest and curiosity that folks have in a prehistoric landscape.  At the same time, the descendants of the women and men who lived on that landscape often prefer that we not excavate on their ancestral homelands.

Over the past 25 years, Pat’s question has always been on my mind.  I can now launch into a pretty long monologue about how archaeology, particularly in its applied or public form, can be a source of empowerment for descendent peoples, educate on respecting and celebrating diversity, and more, along with acknowledging the value in a more casual curiosity and desire to know about the past.  To present that total perspective takes a good bit of work from those of us in the museum and archaeological professions, but it is our mission to the public we serve.

As a profession, archaeologists seem to expend an above average amount of time and effort in public outreach.  That television offerings like Spike’s American Diggers and the venture of organizations such as the National Geographic Society into this genre of media suggests that we have a lot of work left to do.  So, perhaps when we sign the petition protesting American Diggers, we should also be writing to PBS about Antiques Roadshow, and be certain to take the time to respond to the teacher wanting a speaker on career day at their school, etc.

The Archaeological Institute of America has set October 20, 2012 as the second annual National Archaeology Day.  This date can be an excellent opportunity to tell our side of the excavation story.

There is plenty of time to plan!  How will you celebrate National Archaeology Day?

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16 thoughts on “Using National Archaeology Day as a Response to American Digger”

  1. The possibility of shows like “American Diggers” and National Geographic’s “Diggers” is horrifying. I would have thought National Geographic would be better than that. Would the artifacts include Native American objects? I can’t imagine any show here in Australia permitting Aboriginal objects to be collected as treasure and sold.

    I wish the American archaeological community all the best in the protest.

  2. The archaeological community needs to find an appealing and cogent response to the old line, “but it’s just rotting in the ground…” With the help of groups like SAA, SHA, SEAC, and the NPS, Alabama’s archaeologists are fighting this misconception as applied to underwater artifacts. Two bills before the state legislature propose to open Alabama waters to unregulated looting. I have yet to find an effective one- or two-liner that satisfies the average person as to why artifacts should be left to “rot” where they are. The inevitable response is that we, too, are hoarders, just of the ivory tower variety.

    1. Ashley,

      You raise important points on this issue. I agree that the professional organizations have tremendous resources available for public education on preservation of archaeological cultural resources.

      I suspect that there are not any one or two line answers, but slow and persistent process. I recollect that when I used to give Archaeo Month talks at the public library in Belzoni MS, just down the road from the Jaketown site, folks would come in with their collections. I would always talk about how at the Poverty Point site in Louisiana, the avocational archaeologist there, Carl Alexander, recorded the ridge and sector from where he collected the artifacts – and wrote that info on each piece. As a result, today we can place nearly 250,000 of those artifacts back into the landscape for spatial interpretation. I then noted how different places across the 1200 meter arc of ridges at Poverty Point were used for different activities. I then would ask the collectors in attendance if they found the same type of distinctions at the Poverty Point culture component of the Jaketown site. Heads would nod. The next year, those same folks would be talking more about provenience. Today there is a small museum in Belzoni that curates donated collections from the Jaketown site. I would like to think that some of those folks would be the ambassadors for preservation and pass that along for the future generations.

      It’s tough in a time of budget cuts to find the time, energy, and resources to take advantage of all the opportunities for preaching the cultural heritage preservation gospel. That is the challenge. I find that with the increased attention given to applied/public archaeology in college level anthro programs, we are able to educate the next generation of practitioners on the importance of public outreach. I have found book’s like Nasseney’s Archaeology and Community Service Learning, Paul Shackel and Barbara Little’s various titles that include lots of case studies of public outreach and education in applied archaeology very helpful.

      Perhaps this would all make for a useful session at SEAC this coming year in Baton Rouge?



    2. Fact is, alot of the metal artifacts are rotting in the ground. The ground breaks it down more every year. Just leave a wrench outside on the ground and look at it a year later. Copper,brass and iron break down in the ground with mineralization. Just look at the Titanic for instance, salt water breaking it down each year till there will be nothing left in 10-20 years.

  3. Ashley,

    The problem with state and national Archeological bureacrats is that they take themselves to seriously. Most of my life, due to my love of the near and distant past, I wanted to be anarcheologist. I took courses in college and found I wasn’t hardwired for it. What a dissapointment. I am enthralled with the William and Kathleen Gears “People of . . .’ seies, based on on site arecheological interpretation. They lead off with a dig, then the story unfolds. You can’t help but notice they are not to enthrlled with government archeological enforcers, with ample cause.

    I have read some horror stories of what these over intlated ego’s do to innocent people. One that stood out happened in New York a few years back. A father and young son were trout fishing in one of our states numerous streams. The boy constantly scanning for a place to cast spotted what looked like to him an arrowhead shaped rock. I turned out to be an old arrowhead.

    The father and son were thrilled. It was his first arrowhead find. After putting it in his pocket they continued fishing awhile. There were two men waiting for them at their car. Both identified themselves as New York State Archeology Department employees. They told the pair they had seen the child pick up the arrowhead and put it in his pocket. What began as a delightful father and son fishing excursion turned into a legal horror show for them.

    They right away told the pair they had broke the law by keeping the arrowhead. That in NYS it was a crime to take antiquities from a site. Instead of warning them and telling them next time they might not be so unfortunate, and confiscating the relic, they laid the full force of the law on them both. Right away they relieved them of fishing gear and car. They had to call someone to come get them. Then the prosecution began. It cost the father, and scared the child to death. It left a sour tasted in my mouth and gave me better understanding of the Gear’s complaint. It also made me leary of keeping relics I might find, and using my metal detector.

    At one time relic hunting, chiefly arrowheads was a favorite past time with kids.. I know several folks brought up on farms that openly collected relics after ploughing. One fellow even made display shelves and turned on of the rooms in his ample size mome a mini-museum. He is long gone now so he’s safe.

    I began researching archeology enforcement for each of our 50 states and the feds. Not good. I am for arresting professional relic hunters for profit that know it’s a crime. But relic hunting in general is not that popular as most people don’t even think about doing it. Some ocean bordered stated have fair ‘treasure trove’ laws. Europe has the same kind of law with a different twist. The oceanic border states in which Spanish treasure ship in route to Spain went down over the years
    as a result of hurricanes, some say there is a treasure ship about a mile and a half around the entire state of Florida, mostly the Atlantic side. There are ample sunken ships all along the Gulf Coast. especially Padre Island, nicknames Treasire Island off the coast of Corpus Cristi. A Hispanic friend of mine that I was stationed in Texas with told he his dad was a mine detector in WWII, who brought one of the early detectors home with him. Their basement looks like a Spanish treasure museum what whit everything they found over the years when all of Padre Texas did not enforce or have treasure trove laws for years.

    In Europe, if a relic or relics are found they are reported to and turned over to The Department of Antiquites. The object/s are taken and sold to museums for their full value at the time. The money is given to the finder and the item/s are placed in museums. Sicily allows no metal detectors into the country from the outside. So, the US of A could be more lenient, but refuse to do so. There are many thing of great value rotting away in the ground and will never come to light as we speak. Hence, American Pickers. Private property is out of bounds to the zealous archeologists. This should be an exciting show. My only concern is that it will begin a relic rush for bucks due to the eroding economy.

    Lighten up professional archeologists and work with the public you say you are serving. A little understanding reaps loads of cooperation.

    Howard R/ Reed

  4. I own a historical home . I’m getting ready to grade and landscape my property. Realizing there may be significant artifacts on the grounds I’ve tried the local archaeological departments, but have had no response from any of my inquiries to look at my property. I plan to contact these shows and will be greatful if they show an interest in helping me.

  5. Thanks everyone for all of their comments. We had an excellent discussion in my Applied Archaeology and Museums class tonight on this topic and will post some thoughts on all this shortly.

  6. ive metal detected since i was15 , i never trespassed on anyones property, and things ive found with initals and alot of research i returned to the orginal owners . i filled in all the holes i dug also. i see explosives being used , unfilled holes every where ,and the destuction of a very enjoyable hobby all for profit.this “american diggers “show is a disgrace and anyone that digs in a grave is a ghoul, in my book.

  7. The solution seems simple.

    Give real archaeologists and/or museums the right to buy every artifact found. This way, the labor of the new “diggers” can be used by real archaeology for the best interests of humankind.

    I would suggest not letting institutional / mainstream / orthodox archaeology be the beneficiary(ies), though. Please read my letter to “Archaeology Magazine”:


    Jock Doubleday

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