Putting the hurt on heritage
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.”