You can do something to oppose unethical relic hunting
Spanish archaeologists are calling on Discovery Communications (petition is in Spanish) to pull or modify the “reality program” American Digger, hosted by former pro wrestler Ric Savage, which the network has begun broadcasting in Spain. The American Anthropological Association has issued a laudable request for support of that effort, and written letters to management of Discovery and Spike TV opposing the program as “contrary to the ethics of archaeological practice” (see this page for English and Spanish versions).
I’ve written before about the trouble with programs like this one: how they propagate a vision of the material past as a for-profit resource and (however obliquely) encourage illegal private collecting, which the ethical hobbyist collector community opposes. I’m not just pulling that out of thin air, either. Spike TV has noted, in its press for American Digger, that “there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit”
Earlier this year there was an outcry over the launch of American Digger (Spike TV) and Diggers (National Geographic Channel), which included this eloquent dismantling of the rationale for the programs by Society for Historical Archaeology President Paul Mullins, and this thoughtful call for responsible public outreach from archaeologist Jamie Brandon. Following letters from the AAA, SHA, Society for American Archaeology and other professional organizations, National Geographic Channel officials took steps to address legal and ethical concerns about its program. Spike TV and American Digger? Not so much.
I wrote this at the time, and nothing has changed:
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 accessible 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.
American Digger has been picked up for a second season. Spike TV is super-proud of the 1.2 million viewers of the show’s debut season, especially its share of the male 18-49 demographic.
Of course, SpongeBob SquarePants pulled 1.2 million men 18-49 earlier this month, plus another 3.4 million kids, as it’s been doing for more than a decade, all without destroying or privatizing a single piece of prehistoric or historical material culture.
So please, read the AAA’s letter, consider signing the petition, and encourage Spike TV to follow the National Geographic Channel’s lead in taking steps to ensure its program doesn’t encourage illegal and unethical behavior.