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Reality Television & Archaeology

April 27, 2015

SARThe latest issue of the Society for American Archaeology‘s (SAA) Archaeological Record Volume 15, No. 2, March 2015 contains a special section – Archaeological Practice on Reality Television – edited by my colleague and former SAA Executive Board liaison for the Public Education Committee, Sarah Herr.

The “From the President” column of the issue provides an excellent introduction and context for the reality television discussion.  President Jeffrey H. Altschul is to be congratulated for taking on the reality television and archaeology topic in a way that proved quite productive.  Too often, our professional disciplines only become involved when our turf is directly threatened and then in a rather holier-than-thou manner.  Over a multi-year period Jeff has been intimately engaged in the reality television topic.  As his SAA President’s term comes to an end, he has begun to see the fruits of that work.

His column details the multi-year conversations with the National Geographic Channel around their portrayal of value, broadly defined, of the material culture at archaeological sites.  Jeff’s leadership in this area produced visible changes in the popular Diggers program, including the opportunity for archaeologists to comment and make recommendations on the rough cut versions of episodes.

The entire issue of the March 2015 Archaeological Record is relevant to the diverse publics interested in cultural heritage preservation and presentation:

  •  Articles by Jim Bruseth, Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Carrie Dennett discuss the economic and other implications of the SAA considering a variety of Open Access options for the organization’s journals.
  • Sarah Herr introduces the section on reality television, providing some background for the discussion.  Sarah also interviews John Francis, Vice President for Research Conservation and Exploration at National Geographic Society (NGS).  Francis reviews the more than one century of NGS contributions to archaeology and specifically discusses the Diggers show and how he did not expect some of negative feedback.  While agreeing to the need for substantive change in the show, he also encourages archaeologists to consider the challenge of holding an audience’s attention when reporting research and to develop an eye for storytelling.
  • Eduardo Pagán, the four-season co-host of PBS’s The History Detectives provides an excellent overview of the history and economic considerations of reality television.  He concludes by stating “I remain hopeful that scholars and professionals in the field can discover ways of harnessing the power of television.  We must reach beyond our classrooms to find effective ways of demonstrating and sharing what we do as scholars and professionals . . . “
  • Meg Watters writes about the reality show Time Team produced for 20 years in the UK and the more recent Time Team America in the US.  Meg writes that  “Time Team America‘s goal is to represent the diverse archaeological resources in the United States and to address global issues such as climate change or the movement of people.”  A difference with Diggers is Time Team America’s focus on archaeological methods of research at each site that are also reported online.  Watters notes that the Time Team America members follow the advice of John Francis to link science and storytelling.  Watters notes that the archaeologists and other researchers at the sites investigated by Time Team America report the program has a positive impact on the public support for the site research.  Watters concludes that for archaeology reality shows to succeed professionals must be more than consultants but involved in program development.  She sees Time Team America as beginning that process.
  • Giovanna Peebles advocates using reality television to be part of the solution and not add to the problem. Giovanna chaired the SAA Task Force on metal detecting of archaeological sites on reality television.  She notes that the “Task Force quickly identified three distinctive but related opportunities for the SAA to explore: improving communications and public education, enhancing relationships with metal detectorists, and working together with the producers of reality television shows.
  • articles by Matthew Reeves on working with metal detectorists, Richard Pettigrew on video production, and Jeffery Hanson on creating a preservation ethic.

This thematic issue of the Archaeological Record is an important read for all cultural heritage professionals and students.  I am particularly pleased that the SAA charged Sarah Herr with pulling together the diverse group of experts for the issue.  The volume speaks well of the SAA understanding of the need to engage with the multiple publics who through their tax dollars and other time and resource commitments make the work of cultural heritage professionals possible.

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