Where does conservation figure in TV archaeology? (The ethics of television archaeology, Part 4 of 4)

by Karen Martin-Stone

The conservation of the archaeological resource is rarely depicted in TV archaeology, as it doesn’t usually contribute to the story. But does television archaeology increase risk to the archaeological resource?

The explosion of television archaeology over the past decade or so has most likely increased the number of excavations happening, with some of them being funded by TV production companies. Archaeological excavation is, by its very nature, destructive and the archaeological record is correspondingly finite. Therefore, conservation of the archaeological resource has been one of the primary motivations in professional archaeology since the 1970s (Lynott 2003:21). Archaeologists and filmmakers need to be mindful of this conflict when producing ethical content.

It is also possible that sites could be damaged in the process of creating TV archaeology, or through increased visitation, looting or uncontrolled excavation by amateurs as a result of greater awareness in the viewing public.

Of course, it’s unlikely that filmmakers are deliberately or inadvertently damaging sites in the making of their programs. While I’m at it, I’d like to emphasise that I don’t think filmmakers are an unethical bunch of cowboys – far from it! I don’t want to give that impression in these posts.

I also don’t want to imply that the viewing public are perched on the front of their couch, shovel in one hand, metal detector in the other, just waiting to be told the location of buried treasure.

But the risk remains.

The most recent example of great concern to archaeologists is Spike TV’s American Diggers program. This series features a former pro-wrestler turned ‘relic hunter’ who uses metal detectors and uncontrolled excavation to recover artefacts to sell for profit. The show premiered on 20 March 2012, despite objections from archaeologists and others.

The Society for American Archaeology strongly expressed their serious concern at this “highly destructive and possibly illegal” television series (Limp 2012). In a New York Times article, Sharon Levy, the executive vice president for development at Spike TV, defended the presenter and the show. “He has a right as an American citizen to do this,” she said. “He’s not going anywhere he shouldn’t be. He’s not digging up the pyramids.” (Carter 2012).

It is yet to be seen what impact this show will have on the prevalence of looting in the US. However, this is a good example of why archaeologists need to engage with producers of television archaeology to debate ethical concerns.

Reference list:

Carter, B. 2012 TV digs will harm patrimony, scholars say. New York Times, 20 March 2012, viewed 16 April 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/arts/television/spikes-american-digger-draws-concern-from-scholars.html 

Limp, F. 2012 Letter from Society of American Archaeology to Kevin Kay, president of Spike TV, dated 24 February 2012. Viewed 16 April 2012. http://www.saa.org/Portals/0/SAA/new/American%20Digger%20Letter%20-%20Spike%20TV.pdf  

Lynott, M. 2003 The development of ethics in archaeology. In Zimmermann, L, K.D. Vitelli and J. Hollowell-Zimmer, Ethical Issues in Archaeology. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

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