Archaeology on the telly (The ethics of television archaeology, Part 1 of 4)

by Karen Martin-Stone

This blog post, and the next three I’ll write, is all about a research paper I’ve written as part of a ‘directed study’ topic. The directed study is part of my graduate diploma in archaeology, and the research paper is one I’ll be presenting at The Archaeology Channel’s Conference on Cultural Heritage Film in Eugene, Oregon, next month.

I’ve been interested for a while now in how archaeology is communicated to the public. I decided to study at Flinders University because it offered the opportunity to combine screen and media studies with archaeology. In addition to learning production and post-production skills, I’ve also studied non-fiction form and ethics with Dr. Julia Erhart. This topic piqued my interest in the ethical side of archaeology documentaries and television.

That led me to my first conference paper, which I presented at the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage in November. My paper was on the ethics of archaeology documentaries. It focused on what kinds of codes of ethics existed which apply to maritime archaeology, and whether they applied to filmmakers making underwater cultural heritage (UCH) documentaries. I found that there were a range of ways that ethics were managed in UCH, from codes established by industry organisations, to legislation and international legal instruments, like the UNESCO 2001 Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. I also found that the documentary filmmaking profession has resisted establishing a code of ethics, as it is seen as a creative endeavour that could be restricted through the imposition of conformity.

In my 2011 paper, I also briefly looked at what the ethical considerations are in archaeology documentaries. I classified the three main ethical concerns as the representation of truth, the treatment of participants and conservation of the archaeological resource.

In my current research paper, I’ve changed my focus. I’ve taken a more in-depth look at each of the three ethical concerns using topical examples for two of them. I haven’t restricted myself to underwater archaeology, and I’ve focused on what I call ‘television archaeology’ – documentaries and factual entertainment that includes ‘reality’-style entertainment like Time Team. I’ve looked only at television shows that are non-fiction in their intent.

My next three blog posts will each look at one ethical dilemma in more detail, and show the concerns of both archaeologists and filmmakers. Hopefully, by understanding how television archaeology is constructed, archaeologists can collaborate with filmmakers to produce content that achieves the aims of both professions.

Reference list:

Martin-Stone, K.C. 2011. The ethics of archaeology documentaries, in Proceedings of the Inaugural Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage. Asian Academy for Heritage Management. Manila, Philippines. pp. 479-490.

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