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Has Reality TV Gone Too Far? Spike TV’s American Diggers Angers the Archaeological Community

By Ariel Greenberg

Living up to its moniker, Spike TV’s new show American Digger has indeed ‘spiked’ quite the controversy. Set to air in March, the show, which resembles the National Geographic Channel’s Diggers, features former pro-wrestler Ric Savage as host and his team digging up “target-rich” historic battlefields and archaeological sites in search of archaeological relics to sell for profit.

The show has caused an outcry from scholars, historians, curators, and archaeologists nation-wide, who have expressed their frustration by circulating a petition called “Looting Our Collective Past.” The petition, which has gained 11,000 signatures, articulates the concerns of the archaeological and historical communities: that the show glorifies looting of historical sites and that irreplaceable historical information be lost forever as a result of the show’s haphazard excavation tactics.

Many members of the archaeological and historical community have spoken out publicly. Jack Gary, director of Archaeology and Landscapes at Poplar Forest, expressed his concern, pointing out that archaeological recovery of artifacts is “painstaking, careful work.” Gary further explains that “a lot of information is lost, not only in the removal of these objects, but also in the techniques used by these groups.” For example, the “diggers” use metal detectors to search for buried metal objects, such as bullets, canon balls, buttons, and buckles. This clumsy and destructive practice often produces many holes, disturbing provenance and crucial archaeological data. Further, Iowa’s state archaeologist John Doershuk posted to American Cultural Resource Association’s listserve, lamenting that “the most damaging thing about this show is that no effort was made to document where anything came from or discussion of associations–each item was handled piece-meal.”

On the other hand, neither American Digger nor Diggers violates federal or state regulations against unlawful obtainment of antiquities. Shana Tepper, Spike TV spokesperson, who has publicly defended the show, pointed out that it is not shot on public land. The teams on the shows dig only on private property. A landowner’s approval makes it legal, and landowners may do as they wish with artifacts found on their land.

But lawful or not, what are the implications of this type of entertainment, which appears to glorify irresponsible excavation practices? The concern is that these shows will lead to a new generation of fortune hunters, harkening back to an era when archaeologists raided, rather than studied, sites. Archaeologist Steve Lekson of the University of Colorado, Boulder eloquently summarizes the concerns of many in the archaeological community:

“Two hundred years ago, archaeology was a treasure hunt—finding fabulous things for museum collections. But we learned long ago that archaeological sites were really books to be read, pages of history. We can learn a great deal about pasts we would otherwise never know, by studying sites themselves and artifacts (simple or spectacular) in their original contexts at sites. When treasure hunters loot sites, ripping artifacts out of the ground, we lose any chance of understanding context—what was with what, its date, how it was used, what it can tell us about history—all so somebody can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.”

For more information: Archaeologists Protest ‘Glamorization’ of Looting on TV,
Archaeologists Against New Relic Hunting Shows