'Glamorization' of Looting?
Archaeologists Protest 'Glamorization' of Looting on TV
by Keith Kloor
Archaeologists are mounting a campaign against two new cable TV shows that they say encourage and glamorize looting of American archaeological sites.
On 20 March, Spike TV will premiere a new show called American Digger, while a show called Diggers on the National Geographic Channel made its debut 28 February. Both shows "promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites," Society for American Archaeology (SAA) President William F. Limp wrote in a message posted earlier this week to the SAA listserv.
The premise of American Digger, which is being hosted by a former professional wrestler, was laid out in a recent announcement by Spike TV. A team of "diggers" will "scour target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history." Similar locales are featured in National Geographic's Diggers. In the second episode, set in South Carolina, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 buttons, bullets, and coins were recovered at a former plantation.
After viewing the first two episodes of Diggers, Iowa's State archaeologist John Doershuk posted a review to the American Cultural Resources Association listserv, in which he lamented: "The most damaging thing, I think, about this show is that no effort was made to document where anything came from or discussion of associations—each discovered item was handled piece-meal."
"It was ironic that they [the show's on-air diggers] are destroying the entire basis of what they're interested in," Doershuk told Science Insider by phone. "These are non-renewable sources. There's only so many of them from these time periods."
The archaeological community is trying to make its views known. In addition to Facebook petitions, professional societies such as SAA have sent letters of condemnation to Spike TV and National Geographic. (Copies of the SAA letters are on its Web site.) Limp said Tuesday on the SAA listserv that Spike TV had not yet responded to its concerns. He wrote that National Geographic indicated that it would place a disclaimer into its show that affirms there are laws in place protecting archaeological and historic sites.
Despite the treasure-hunting theme of both shows, neither appears to be violating federal and state regulations against unlawful obtainment of antiquities. The on-air fortune seekers are not venturing into National Parks or other federal lands, but dig on private property. 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 ScienceInsider. "Our show is shot on private property," she said. "They're getting artifacts that are otherwise rotting in the ground."
But archaeologists remain concerned. "These programs encourage looting," University of Colorado, Boulder, archaeologist Steve Lekson wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. National Geographic's imprimatur also rankles some. "Its reputation as a credible scientific and educational institution" effectively "normalizes" the looting aspect of its show, says Washington State University archaeologist William Lipe.
"Two hundred years ago, archaeology was a treasure hunt—finding fabulous things for museum collections," says Lekson. "But we learned long ago that archaeological sites were really books to be read, pages of history. We can learn a great deal about pasts we would otherwise never know, by studying sites themselves and artifacts (simple or spectacular) in their original contexts at sites. When treasure hunters loot sites, ripping artifacts out of the ground, we lose any chance of understanding context—what was with what, its date, how it was used, what it can tell us about history—all so somebody can have a trinket on their mantelpiece."
These archaeologists seek to convey the essence of "archaeologie ueber alles" -- an archaeology-centric perspective based on the doctrinaire dogma that excavation of artifacts by anyone other than an archaeologist (even in strict compliance with the law) is "looting and destruction of archaeological sites," and that an educational television program depicting recovery of artifacts that would otherwise almost certainly perish is "glamorization of looting."
As Keith Kloor points out, this program is produced on private property, where the artifacts recovered would otherwise remain rotting in the ground (with no prospect of ever being excavated by an archaeologist).
Perhaps the most appalling aspect of this dogmatic perspective is its pervasive reliance upon "doublespeak" that is undisguised propaganda. "Archaeologese" deceptively masquerades as English, and is easily confused with the plain English in which the rest of the world (other than archaeologists) communicates. A non-archaeologist encountering "archaeologese" will very likely be misled into beliefs archaeologists wish the public to have. Those who prefer to think for themselves should understand what terms in this deceptive and pejorative jargon actually mean. Translations follow, between "archaeologese" and plain English for the terms appearing in Kloor's article:
"archaeologese" >> plain English
looting >> excavation of an artifact by anyone other than an archaeologist
archaeological site >> any place in which an artifact is buried
destruction of archaeological sites >> excavation of artifacts by anyone other than an archaeologist
treasure hunters >> all non-archaeologists who search for buried artifacts, even if lawfully
treasure hunters looting sites >> all non-archaeologists discovering buried artifacts, even if lawfully
ripping artifacts out of the ground >> excavation of artifacts by non-archaeologists
context >> the relationship between an artifact and its undisturbed place of burial
trinket on the mantelpiece >> an artifact possessed by a non-archaeologist
It sometimes seems as though archaeologists think the entire world is an archaeological site, and that they own it.