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Putting the hurt on heritage

February 28, 2012
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Ric Savage hates history. Source: Wikipedia.

There have been and will be many casualties of this new era of unquestioned austerity: clean water and air, safe food, access to education and opportunity, and so on. Not surprisingly, archaeologists, historians and museum professionals are on the list as well. We’re constantly forced to justify our very existence, to do more with less. Without a dollar sign attached, the sentiment goes, what’s the value in studying our heritage?

Which is why it’s so discouraging, yet not so surprising, to read about the latest offering coming to your TV screen: “American Digger,” on the Spike network (the folks who also bring you “Rat Bastards” and “Tattoo Nightmares.”)

Spike has enlisted former pro wrestler Ric Savage, a history buff and relic-hunter looter-for-money, to present the program, which (surprise!) features his wife’s relic hunting looting-for-money business. The premise: Travel the country, talk property-owners into letting the team dig on their land, and sell the stuff that comes out – but, as a Spike press release self-righteously notes, “not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.”

Paul Mullins, president of the Society for Historical Archaeology, the largest professional organization for archaeologists working in the historic period, has dismantled the entire premise and rationale for the program in an eloquent post on the SHA blog. The Society for American Archaeology has voiced similar opposition.

The problem, as Mullins notes, is not a matter of protecting our turf – most if not all archaeologists have encountered or worked with dedicated, knowledgable people who are not professionals yet have a deep understanding of heritage, preservation, and the importance of methodical excavation. It’s a matter of glamorizing the destruction of heritage.

I’ll go one step further than Dr. Mullins: My problem is with profitizing and privatizing heritage. As the Spike press release breathlessly notes, “there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.”

A vast chunk, if not the majority, of archaeological research in the U.S. is publicly funded. With that trust comes the ethical obligation that the results of the work we do should be accesible to the public. This is accomplished through curation of artifacts in museums, through public displays of artifacts and interpretations, through public talks, interviews with media, and publications. The system’s not perfect – there are loads of un-analyzed artifacts sitting on lab and warehouse shelves, for instance. But the concept that publicly funded research should be publicly available is a strong one in my field. And that concept goes out the window in programs like this one, and in any case where excavation is done solely to fuel the (private) antiquities trade.

It’s frustrating that exploring and interpreting our heritage for the public benefit is devalued, while at the same time, short-term financial gain for property owners and profit-driven TV personalities is glamorized. If Spike and Savage were really interested in understanding and interpreting the past, they could visit professional excavations, they could follow museum staff who are preserving fragile artifacts and setting up displays, they could agitate for new interpretations of warehoused material culture. But I guess there’s no money in that, no glamour, and you risk cutting into your carry-over audience for “World’s Worst Tenants.”

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 11:27 pm

    Very well said! Let us hope we make enough waves to make a difference.

  2. February 29, 2012 9:06 am

    Reblogged this on time.space.shell. and commented:
    I realize I have nothing new to add that has not already been stated. Clearly Ric Savage and his family run looting operation (doesn’t that in itself raise a red flag?) suffer from a lack of ethics, a lack of national pride and community, and an understanding of how history and prehistory are preserved and documented. I am sure there would be huge uproar from the non-archaeology/history community if they wanted to metal detect at Ground Zero or the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. The fact that he has to talk landowners into allowing his thugs to dig in their backyards, likely by promising untold riches, fame, and glory, speaks volumes.

    Shame on Ric Savage. Shame on Spike TV. Shame on National Geographic (for airing a similar show). Shame on the uneducated and disinterested American public for creating a market for such a show.

    Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

    H.G. WELLS, The Outline of History

  3. Reboc permalink
    February 29, 2012 9:32 am

    Ahh, let it be a lesson to the United States of Stupidity, when you have laws that let you sell your grandmothers teeth for profit, its going to happen.

    As for Most commonwealth countries , including New Zealand and Australia even if historical artefacts are found on your property, they do not belong to you. To dig anywhere in Australia with the explicit intention to find archaeological remnants is illegal unless professionally supervised and with written permission from the government. You are obligated to notify the state authorities on all findings.

Trackbacks

  1. It’s time to practice (and reward) public outreach « Digs and Docs
  2. A bad day for a relic hunter « Digs and Docs
  3. You can do something to oppose unethical relic hunting « Digs and Docs
  4. We don’t need a TV show about looting Nazi battlefields | Digs and Docs

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