When I saw that there was going to be a program on Nat Geo TV called “Diggers” I wondered aloud if they were going to feature great excavations of the past like Morris at Aztec, Hodge at Hawikuh or Morley in the Maya lowlands.
No. That’s wasn’t it.
Or maybe they would highlight prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Southern Illinois and Arizona and their contributions to the science of archaeology.
What they are featuring is a bunch of guys with metal detectors ripping the pages out of the master book of the archaeological record. 4)
Even Heinrich Schliemann who plowed through seven layers of historic cities unsuccessfully looking for Troy; the classic treasure hunter masquerading as a scientist, is spinning in his grave.
And now these “Diggers” have targeted historic Tubac, Arizona. It seems like just so much innocuous fun as presented by the National Geographic Channel’s blurb:
Hobbyist metal detectorists “King George” Wyant and his buddy Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor travel the country looking for lost relics of history. Their enthusiasm is contagious, their humor quirky, and their vocabulary… one of a kind. “KG” and “Ringy” are kids at heart, driven not by money, but the thrill of not knowing what their next dig will unearth. They understand that every item has a story to tell, and Diggers brings history to life through graphics and historical context. They are invited by landowners, historians and archaeologists to go on a quest, and in their own way, a crusade, to unearth history that would have otherwise been forgotten.
(From NG Channel webpage) 1)
Sure, they are just looking for trinkets, coins and lost rings. Where is the harm in that? But then you see a story like this one: “Oldest Human Footprints in North America Identified.” 2)
Reading this story you find out that the footprints were dated by trace elements left behind in the very mud that took the imprints in the first place 11,500 years ago. Did we know about the presence of these elements even ten years ago? Probably not, and therein lies the issue with programs like “Diggers”. Archaeologists are constantly refining their techniques of obtaining information from ancient remains. We do not dig unless there is a very good reason because once we do the information cannot be retrieved in its original form. The environs around Tubac hold an enormous amount of Arizona archaeology and history. Are we ready to entrust a couple fortune hunters with salvaging that fragile history?
Most archaeologists will tell you that they dig for only two reasons: 1) the site they are working on is about to be destroyed and 2) they are testing a specific scientific theory. If one of these reasons does not exist archaeologists don’t dig! They leave the information for better techniques to come. Archaeology is a destructive process by definition. It extracts non-renewable resources from their position of greatest potential for information and then attempts to glean as much knowledge as possible in doing so. But it is a one-time offer.
The complete opposite of this philosophy is embodied in the information I found on the web site for the SPIKE TV show, “American Digger”:
Ric and his team then attempt to convince the homeowners to let them tear up their backyard in search of buried treasure. If the homeowners agree they go on their way and look for any pieces of American History that they can sell.
. . . they must first make an agreement with the owners of the home. The homeowners must agree to a certain profit percentage of the sold item or items. Once they agree, Ric and his team leave and attempt to sell the historic treasures for big bucks.
American Digger has received criticism by certain groups of people. The most concern is from scholars who believe that the show promotes historic items that symbolize our culture to be sold or destroyed.
(From ” American Digger” Webpage, emphasis mine.) 3)
It is interesting to me that the blurb not only clearly defines the purpose of the activity as finding historical objects to sell for profit but it also presents the argument against it. To me that says that they recognize the obvious disservice they are performing to the advancement of knowledge. 4)
That is not to say that because a dig is done with the best scientific knowledge of the day that is automatically is exempt from criticism about loss of valuable data. A friend of mine used to love to tell the story of Richard Wetherill cooking his famous pot of stew over a fire that was consuming the roof beams from Pueblo Bonito and lamenting the fact that they had no way of dating the ruin precisely; all the while he was destroying the data in the campfire: the very trees possessing the tree rings that are now used to precisely date site use.
But what archaeologists do not do is excavate for the purpose of acquiring goods to sell. It’s like the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the head of the department tells Professor Jones that “certainly the museum will buy the pieces” he brought back. I do not know an archaeologist who does not cringe while watching that scene.
The irony is not lost on professional archaeologists. In loving our work we offer information to the public which encourages them to go out destroy the very thing we are trying so hard to preserve and study. In a grave in Chaco Canyon the bones of Wetherill lament the state of his reputation for having sold archaeological treasures to fund his research and those bones should worry that they might someday become a target of the Reality TV ghouls. 4)
4) You can sign a petition protesting the activities of shows like “Diggers”