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.