The Ethics of Historical Archaeology

This originally appeared in my Presidential Column on the SHA blog on February 27, 2012.

Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons because we know that such objects provide historical stories that might otherwise pass completely unnoticed. Consequently, it is gratifying and not surprising that lots of people who are not professional archaeologists become committed and reflective avocational archaeologists or are simply fascinated by heritage and respect the complicated process of piecing together archaeological narratives.  Nearly all of us with relatively active projects have dedicated local volunteers, supportive communities, and streams of visitors who share our own fascination with archaeology and heritage, because archaeological excavations and interpretation are an exciting process of thoughtfully weaving together remarkable stories based on the most modest items.

It is not at all surprising that archaeology and material heritage would find its way into popular culture, and some television shows, magazines, and web pages have done exceptionally thoughtful presentations of archaeology.  Nevertheless, with that popularity there inevitably will be some popular interpretations of archaeology, preservation, heritage and value that archaeologists will resist because they break with our most fundamental ethics.  The most recent challenge comes from Spike TV’s American Diggers, hosted by former professional wrestler Ric Savage.  Like many professional and avocational archaeologists alike, Savage indicates that “I’ve been a history buff my whole life,” but in the hands of Spike TV that interest in history demonstrates no real respect for archaeological methods, community heritage, or preservation law, since the show’s central goal is to recover items that amateur “diggers” can sell.  In Spike’s own words, “In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.  `American Digger’ hopes to claim a piece of that pie as the series travels to a different city each week, including Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, NY, Chicago, IL and Jamestown, VA searching for high-value artifacts and relics, some of which have been untouched for centuries.”  The show proudly proclaims that “After pinpointing historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, Savage’s first task is to convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property using state-of-the-art metal detectors and heavy-duty excavation equipment.  The team will then sell any artifacts found for a substantial profit by consulting experts and scouring the antique and collectible markets, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.”

The show has been greeted by a host of archaeological voices who recognize such work as indiscriminate looting of our collective heritage, a heritage that archaeologists professionally document so those materials and stories are preserved for all of us.  We may not transform Spike TV’s shallow interest in simply presenting profitable “larger than life character” shows, but many thoughtful people may not initially recognize the dilemmas of Savage’s ambition to excavate the “hidden treasure found in the back yards of every day Americans.”  It is those audiences who share our interest in documenting and preserving history for generations to come that we need to reach.  We need to recognize that this is a potential “teaching moment” in which we can inform more people about historical archaeology and encourage a more responsible preservation ethic among the many people who are excited by heritage and materiality.

Savage transparently caricatures historical archaeologists and paints himself as a sort of working-class self-taught scholar with whom his audience of homeowners and history buffs should identify, revealing that he does not know any archaeologists or know much about what we do.  He told the St Augustine Record that “’Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,’ Savage said. `The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.’”  Of course many historical archaeologists have exceptional community-based excavation teams staffed by volunteers committed to their local history, and many volunteers routinely become solid scholars with a genuine understanding of and appreciation for archaeological method and interpretation.

Savage clumsily suggests that he is protecting a past that will disintegrate if we do not recover it now.  When Savage descended on St. Augustine in February he said that “diggers are able to recover relics `that are rotting in the ground and (would) never be found’ as archaeologists wait for grants or for construction to trigger an excavation.”  Of course virtually no artifacts are “rotting” in the ground, least of all the metal artifacts on which Savage focuses his excavations.  If anything, removing those artifacts from a stable soil matrix accelerates their decomposition.

Archaeologists have always rejected commercial exploitation of archaeological resources, and professionals do not seek to “convince reluctant homeowners” to excavate saleable things from their otherwise preserved property, much less encourage people to excavate on and around historic sites like Jamestown or Civil War battlefields that are legally protected.  Professional and avocational archaeologists alike have always strongly resisted commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and selling the products of his digs are Savage’s fundamental goal.  It is unclear what other artifacts with no real commercial value—scatters of clothing snaps, broken plates, splintered marbles—were found in Savage’s digs or what happened to them, but of course those things that cannot be sold are what fill most historic archaeological collections.

St. Augustine has been the scene of exceptional archaeological scholarship on some of the very earliest European immigrants to the New World, so it is especially distressing that some of this rare material might be lost to somebody digging haphazardly in search of the purported “gold nugget” Savage suggests he recovered in St. Augustine in February.  Kathleen Deagan provided a thoughtful response to the St. Augustine Record based on over 40 years of her own archaeological research in the city, and local avocational and professional archaeologists have responded rapidly and thoughtfully.  The city’s archaeology project has done an outstanding job documenting the city’s earliest European occupation and even earlier prehistoric settlement because St. Augustine has committed itself to preservation.

American Diggers professes to share our concern for documenting national and international heritage, but it actually appears to promote the destruction of that heritage.  It simply finds and plunders the past and fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands archaeological research, preservation law, and the community heritage that we all aspire to protect.

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Posted on April 8, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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