Author Archives: martinstone

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. 

Limp, F. 2012 Letter from Society of American Archaeology to Kevin Kay, president of Spike TV, dated 24 February 2012. Viewed 16 April 2012.  

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.

Where are all the women? (The ethics of television archaeology, Part 3 of 4)

by Karen Martin-Stone

Filmmakers acknowledge that they hold a power over their subjects, and run the risk of exploiting them (Nichols 2001:9). Editorial decisions are not usually collaborative and, as such, a participant can be disempowered.

There are lots of participants who have a stake in TV archaeology, including archaeologists, landowners, cultural stakeholders (Indigenous and descendant communities), the public / audience, and other interest groups, such as professional industry bodies. Each stakeholder would quite reasonably expect that his or her concerns would be treated sensitively and accurately.

In my conference paper, and in this post, I’m going to talk about the representation of women in TV archaeology. Before looking at the current situation it’s important to understand how it came about, so I will look at the history of women in the media and women in archaeology.

Like many professions, women have held a marginalised position in television media from its outset. Early studies of gender in the media found that women were being subjected to “symbolic annihilation” through the condemnation, trivialisation and absence of them in mass media (Tuchman 1978:8). The portrayal of “women in/as entertainment” has improved considerably over the last three decades (Byerly & Ross 2006:35), but the current situation still reflects inequality and discrimination.

In February of this year, the BBC lost a landmark tribunal case on age- and sex-discrimination brought by former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, 54. The case led Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, to admit that there are “manifestly too few” older women being broadcast on the BBC, and that “the public have every right to expect it to deliver to a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences.” (Thompson 2012).

Women in archaeology were also in the minority from the outset. Fortunately, the proportional representation of women in the discipline is increasing. From British statistics available in 2010, women comprised 55% of archaeology students and 41% of archaeologists (Pitts 2010).

However, archaeologists were slow to embrace the feminist movement. Discussions of women and gender in archaeology arose in the early 1990s, approximately 20 years after feminism began to make advances into other areas of academia. Feminism in archaeology is not just about the proportional representation of women in the discipline – it is also about having a gendered understanding of past human culture (Balme and Beck 1995, Gero & Conkey 1991).

Archaeologists have also been slow to denounce the portrayal of women in television representations of the discipline. As with broader television representation of women, TV archaeology tends to favour older, male presenters and experts. When women are present, they tend to be young and attractive. There has been very little discussion of this in archaeological literature. Piccini mentioned as an aside that there was an issue around gender, but did not investigate it (Piccini 2007:230), and Holtorf featured an illustration (Fig. 1), but did not discuss its meaning (Holtorf, 2007:96).

Fig. 1 (Holtorf 2007:96) 

These tacit acknowledgements of women as decoration in the serious, male business of television archaeology underscore the current situation. Women have gained ground in the archaeological profession in recent decades, but this is not being reflected in television archaeology.

Reference list:

Balme, J. and W. Beck  (eds), 1995 Gendered Archaeology: The Second Australian Women in Archaeology Conference. Canberra: ANH Publications, Australian National University.

Byerly, C.M. and K. Ross 2006 Women and Media: A Critical Introduction. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Cohen, G.M. and M.S. Joukowsky 2004 Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Gero, J. and M. Conkey (eds) 1991 Engendering Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Holtorf, C. 2007 Archaeology is a Brand! The meaning of archaeology in contemporary popular culture. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Nichols, B. 2001 Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Piccini, A. 2007 Faking it: Why the truth is so important for TV archaeology. In Clack, T. and M. Brittain, Archaeology and the Media. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.  pp. 221-236.

Pitts, M. 2010 Where Are All The Women? Viewed 16 April 2012.

Thompson, M. 2012 The BBC must change – older women should no longer feel they are invisible. Mail Online, 8 February 2012, viewed 16 April 2012.

Tuchman, G. 1978 Introduction: The symbolic annihilation of women by the mass media. In Tuckman, G., A.K. Daniels and J. Benet (eds), Hearth and Home: Images of Women in the Mass Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

You want the truth? (The ethics of television archaeology, Part 2 of 4)

by Karen Martin-Stone

Do archaeology documentaries tell the truth? Whose truth do they tell?

Understanding what ‘non-fiction’ means, in a television sense, is important because these programs are expected by their audience to impart a ‘truthful’ message. Yet, a non-fiction television show (or book or film) is a constructed reality (Eitzen 1995:82). It has a point of view and selects its contents to argue that point of view. Fundamentally, it tells a story – and it uses this story to pull the viewer through from the beginning to the end, to convince them of the argument.

This can be a problem for archaeologists who expect documentaries to report their research findings journalistically. Cornelius Holtorf has done a lot of research into archaeology in popular culture (both fiction and non-fiction). He looked into why archaeologists weren’t happy with their image in the mass media, and found:

“Many archaeologists still think that the most important criterion for the way they are depicted in the mass media is the degree to which these representations conform to their own perception of being an archaeologist – “but in reality it’s not as shown in that program”; the extent to which the information conveyed would be academically defensible – “but you simply cannot put it as simplistically as that”; or whether it might harm their own professional interests in society – “but this implies that anybody could go and retrieve ancient artefacts.” (emphasis in original) (Holtorf 2007:31-32).

It seems that, for these archaeologists, there is one way of presenting archaeology – and it is a serious business.

Television archaeology often uses reconstructions and dramatisations to re-enact the past human culture the archaeologists are studying. These creative aspects of television archaeology are often the most troubling aspects for archaeologists, as shown by Fagan:

“With TV programs involving dramatizations [sic] or reconstructions, you are usually not going to win. All you can do is ensure that the science is compromised as little as possible, realizing that some loss of integrity, some overstatement, is inevitable.” (Fagan, in Fagan & Rose 2003:165)

But what do the audience want?

It seems they don’t want a serious lecture from a po-faced academic. Hill (2005:60) found that audiences are “more likely to trust dramatized reconstructions than documentaries”, and that “viewers place more faith in the accuracy of these overtly dramatic performances than in the academic or expert performances provided by presenters and interviewees”.

So filmmakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand, they have an audience who are engaged by dramatisations, and on the other, they have archaeologists who resent dramatisations as ‘compromising the science’. It is also difficult to tell a story of past human culture in the audio-visual format without dramatisations or reconstructions.

I think debating the nature of truth and authenticity in television reconstructions of the past is a conversation worth starting – because both archaeologists and filmmakers are trying to educate an audience about past human culture.

Reference list:

Eitzen, D., 1995. “When is a documentary?: documentary as a mode of reception” in Cinema Journal 35:1:81-102

Fagan, B. & Rose, M., 2003. Ethics and the media. In Zimmerman, L.J., Vitelli, K.D., and Hollowell-Zimmer, J. (eds), Ethical Issues in Archaeology.

Hill, A. 2005. Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television, London: Routledge.

Holtorf, C. 2007. Archaeology is a Brand! The meaning of archaeology in contemporary popular culture. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

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.