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Editorial

Reality TV shoveling for show

As they raze the earth in search of pieces of treasure, artifact diggers popularized on TV reality shows may be destroying pieces of history.

April 03, 2012
  • Spike TV's "American Digger" follows the exploits of the archaeological equivalent of bounty hunters who, with property owners' permission, dig and occasionally blast their way to underground artifacts, which they hope to sell to collectors for profit.
Spike TV's "American Digger" follows the exploits of… ('American Digger' / Spike…)

Hunting for buried treasure — whether it's in the ground, in an abandoned storage locker or at the bottom of the ocean — seems to be a primal urge. But when does digging up your backyard cross the line into sullying the study of history and culture?

According to some archaeologists, two cable TV reality shows have done just that. National Geographic's "Diggers" and Spike TV's "American Digger" follow the exploits of the archaeological equivalent of bounty hunters who, with property owners' permission, dig and occasionally blast their way to underground artifacts, which they hope to sell to collectors for profit. The issue here isn't so much the legality of what the diggers are doing, but the ethics.

In the U.S., numerous federal and state laws protect Native American and other historic burial grounds, as well as archaeological sites designated as landmarks. But, there is no cultural patrimony law in this country that gives authorities the right to take possession of any finds on private property because they are historically significant.

Archaeologists who have criticized the shows aren't particularly worried that Ric Savage, the former professional wrestler turned star of Spike TV's "American Digger," is going to unearth another La Brea Tar Pits or vestiges of Pocahontas' 17th century wedding attire. Most significant historic sites in the U.S. are already under federal or state control. In fact, some say that the bullets and belt buckles and shards of pottery that the diggers find are of meager value to collectors and almost no value to museums. Nevertheless, there is a real danger, they contend, in damaging the sites and essentially destroying the historic record of where and how the items are found.

Savage says he is a lover of history, but he is also a lover of entrepreneurship and making money, as are the Spike TV executives. That's fine. We believe that people have a right to do whatever lawful excavating of their own flower beds that they want. But we do wish the producers of shows that glorify it would seek out schooled archaeologists to cast a watchful eye and make records of the finds. National Geographic TV is already heading in this direction, having at least temporarily stopped airing its show until it has further meetings with archaeologists. Spike TV has vowed to continue without changes. The science of archaeology, with continually evolving techniques, is about research and discovery and is often about leaving things in the ground. As such, it's at direct odds with artifact diggers.

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