Monthly Archives: April 2012

Deconstructing Ric Savage

A wide range of archaeologists, avocational metal detectorists, and community preservation advocates have lamented Ric Savage’s Spike TV show “American Digger” for, among other things, reducing heritage to a tradeable commodity; failing to document any of its finds; and ignoring rigorous archaeological methods and instead embracing bizarre artifact recovery techniques—witness the barrels of fire he employed to thaw the Alaska permafrost on his northern expedition or his creative use of dynamite.  Savage’s fixation on hawking a few select artifacts for artificially inflated prices absolutely breaks from the most fundamental archaeological ethics, and plenty of observers have thoughtfully pointed out how this approach to materiality and preservation threatens our shared heritage.  Nevertheless, Ric Savage’s overblown braggadocio is simply transparent acting, and it may help archaeologists, avocationalists, and all our allies to remember why archaeology provides fascinating insights into our collective heritage that are even more exciting than “American Digger’s” shallow act.  And we might actually find more common ground with Ric Savage than his show lets on.

Like all reality TV, Ric Savage’s show caricatures everyday life by displaying its most spectacular dimensions and accepting that life and archaeology actually can be kind of boring.  Some observers complain that the show is utterly orchestrated, but frankly it is true that whole days of archaeology are often prosaic if not outright dull, and everyday life is not nearly as interesting as most any decent movie.  We could probably forgive television programmers for reducing monotonous archaeological fieldwork to a handful of exciting moments and recognize that everyday life is pretty boring.  Nevertheless, we certainly could make an archaeological show that thoughtfully partners with avocational detectorists, is based on ethically responsible practice, and is actually intellectually interesting and challenging.

Savage and “American Digger” ultimately capitalize on a few compelling things.  First is his populist appeal that he is a “regular guy” who is as earnest and goofy as many of our neighbors but also charmingly “larger than life.”  Much of this image depends on stereotypes of archaeologists, and he told The Post and Courier that “`Archaeologists have always hated relic diggers. They’ve always considered relic diggers to be the trailer trash of the archaeological community. They have their PhD’s, but the relic hunters are just a bunch of blue-collar guys out there in their pickup trucks driving around and digging holes.’”  Savage’s stale populist complaint that professional archaeologists are disconnected eggheads certainly doesn’t represent archaeologists accurately at all, but it’s also nothing more than shallow television programming that exploits a general mistrust of academics and scholarly knowledge.  We can un-do this by continuing to demonstrate the many ways archaeologists partner with a broad range of constituencies including avocational detectorists and demonstrating that archaeologists are not elitists insulated in the ivory tower.  Archaeologists bring concrete skills and training to the recovery of material things, the interpretation of the past, and complex local histories, and we need to underscore that professionals and the best avocational detectorists spend lifetimes honing their skills.  Savage’s rhetoric is unfortunately not trying to find common ground, but we can upset “American Digger’s” caricatures by using this visibility to show people what we really do and who is part of the archaeological community.

Second is the show’s incessant appeal to the narrow exchange value of history, and this may have received more attention from archaeologists than other dimension of “American Digger.”  Spike TV’s absurd question “Can what’s in your backyard make you filthy rich?” will probably not unleash hordes of optimistic artifact hunters uncovering priceless septic tanks.   In a moment of widespread economic uncertainty a host of shows are encouraging us all to imagine our fortunes are in the attic, unclaimed storage shelters, and even the flower bed, and some observers worry that these shows may unleash naïve people who troop off to hunt for artifacts on a locally protected historic site.  We need to collectively demonstrate what archaeologists actually do and define how we establish the “value” of a past that is ours collectively and is not controlled by individual landowners, archaeologists, or the first treasure hunter to reach the wreck.  Even American Digger magazine parted company with Savage, arguing that their long-term columnist risked breaking with their intent to be “A good digging magazine for those more concerned with historical values than market values.”  Spike TV itself has reduced the value of archaeological and heritage to a few places and things, with Spike executive Sharon Levy suggesting that “He has a right as an American citizen to do this. … He’s not digging up the pyramids.”

The third thing that we should be most excited about is that Savage is truly fascinated by the material traces of the past.  In a 2007 interview in American Digger magazine Savage advised new collectors to “focus on your underlying passion for history, not just the value of what you collect.”  He waxed about his “first relic” a dug bullet his parents purchased for their 12-year-old son at Appomatox Court House, noting that “I still have it in my bullet display.  … I never lost the bullet.  I guess it shows what really has meaning.”  Savage told Charleston, South Carolina’s The Post and Courier that part of his interest in the Civil War was based on having “six ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.”  He told the Chicago Sun Times that “I’m not trying to please archeologists or other metal detectorists, I’m trying to take somebody who may not have any interest in history whatsover and make them find a way to get into it.”  Indeed, for all his overblown on-screen theatricality, Savage really seems fascinated by history; he shares the excitement shared by many archaeologists upon finding an artifact; and he sees that material things hold important stories.

Yet in “American Digger’s” overdone portrayal of the sellable past, Savage misunderstands or simply misrepresents the very ways archaeologists and most avocationalists place value on our collective heritage.  At one point Savage acknowledged to the New York Times that he shares with professional archaeologists a curiosity about the past, but “The only difference is I’m doing it to make a living. They’re doing it to write papers and make it to associate professor and get tenure.”  Some professionals do secure tenure based on archaeological scholarship, and while we are not becoming rich off of archaeology we are absurdly fortunate; every academic archaeologist I know feels very lucky to have a privileged role telling our collective historical stories and teaching scores of people about the very things that excite us.  Obviously, though, most professional archaeologists have negotiated a much more insecure livelihood than tenured academics, yet those archaeologists persist because they are fundamentally fascinated by the past, privileged to interpret our community histories, and absolutely excited to share those stories with our neighbors.  It would be convenient if archaeological employment or selling off the traces of the past made us all filthy rich, but archaeologists and avocationalists alike understand that something very empowering and valuable comes from preserving and rigorously interpreting places and material things, not simply from selling them off.

I personally think most television viewers are smart enough to recognize these shows as the same sort of distorted reality and enjoyable spectacle as Survivor, Disneyland, or pro wrestling.  Lots of people are fascinated by the past and the very material things that excite archaeologists, so we should not assume that these shows are going to simply disappear.  Instead, they provide us a profoundly important moment to partner with new constituencies and tell archaeological stories in ever-more powerful ways.

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.