Dear National Geographic, what the f@#$?!?!

One of the enduring memories of my childhood was a stack of National Geographic magazines. My Mom bought them for me at a  flea market. My hunch is that she had a hunch that I was going to be a huge nerd.

For a kid with limited means and unlimited wanderlust, these magazines were a gold mine. I would spend hours flipping through them.

Needless to say, when people would mention “National Geographic,” it would immediately conjure up this image of a hallowed institution that sent people around the world with cameras to capture amazing things. As an adult and an archaeologist, I’ve participated in several projects that were funded by National Geographic, which I thought (in my own nerdy way) was pretty damned cool.

Well, I thought it was cool, until I saw this…

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/diggers/

and most recently this…

http://natgeotv.com/za/nazi-war-diggers

To their credit, they posted these two pieces on their webpage to justify their shows…

 

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/diggers/articles/metal-detecting-101/

and…

http://natgeotv.com/za/nazi-war-diggers/responsible-metal-detecting

 

There are a few things that I find striking here…

1) These people aren’t trained archaeologists. Would they be able to apply for grants to fund excavations through National Geographic? I doubt it.

2) If you read the “responsible metal detecting” link above, you see that these guys know the rules, which is why they’re going to Eastern Europe. Why? There are fewer laws prohibiting what we would call looting. I’m not an expert in European antiquities laws, but I can’t help but think if they tried their brand of “digging” in Western Europe, they’d be in some pretty hot water.

I can’t find the trailer for the Nazi War Diggers show, but this rundown has some clips from it…

3) If you watch the video above, you see them “digging” through a soldier’s grave with absolutely zero respect for the deceased. Their expert thought a femur was a humerus.

4) While they do have some quotes from a professional archaeologist on the Diggers page, I think one glaring, fundamental difference is glossed over. These “Diggers” are targeting locations not because they want to know anything about the past, but for material remains that are valuable commodities on the antiquities markets. They see artifacts as things to be bought and sold.

Think about this scenario – What if you found a hearth feature eroding out of a river bank, and then noticed that there was a channel flake and a prismatic blade sticking out of the hearth? What would you do? What would they do?

If it were me, I would be stoked about the charcoal. As a student of Southeastern Archaeology, I would know how few dated Paleoindian sites there are in the South. If there are additional artifacts, that would be great. However, the potential for a good radiocarbon date with a clear relationship to the artifacts in the feature is what would get me excited.

The Diggers? You can bet your ass they’d bust out that feature looking for a fluted point, which can go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay.

I could just keep enumerating issues here, but I’ll just say there are reasons why the SAA has a code of ethics. There are also criteria one has to meet to be a member of the RPA or to be certified by the Secretary of the Interior. It appears to me that the people in these shows don’t abide by the same code of ethics, nor could they meet the criteria in the links above.

This leads me to ask National Geographic one simple question: WHAT THE F@#$?!?!

People have written letters and submitted petitions to no avail. They do not care.

Why would they? Why listen to the complaints of the people who are also crawling to you for funding?

So, I pose these two questions to my fellow Southeastern archaeologists…

1) Does SEAC have a code of ethics? I’m assuming that a lot of members might not be members of the SAA or RPA. Is there anything that would prevent someone from joining SEAC and then appearing in one of these questionable “Diggers” shows in the event that Nat Geo decides to have a “Civil War Diggers” show? Do we have any way of saying, “Yo. This isn’t cool. Your membership is revoked” in the event that this happens?

2) Is it time to tell National Geographic to f@#$ off? Letters don’t work. Petitions don’t work. Angry blogs, tweets, and facebook groups don’t appear to be working, either. What if we, the professional archaeologists of North America, told National Geographic that we no longer want to be involved with their company as long as they keep producing ethically questionable shows. This includes no longer soliciting them for funding for projects.

I’m dead serious here. A line has to be drawn in the sand. Perhaps it’s time to cut ties.

Update I: Apparently, expressing our righteous anger does have an effect. Per Lewis’s post below, Nat Geo pulled the plug on the show. 

Update II: This just hit my inbox…

Dear Colleagues:

 This morning the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), and the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA)  sent a joint letter to the National Geographic Society (NGS), the National Geographic Channels (NGC), and the National Geographic Channel International (NGCI) requesting that the TV show, Nazi War Diggers, be renamed and revised to meet the profession’s archaeological ethical principles and standards of research performance or that the show not be aired. Our letter can be found at:http://www.saa.org/Portals/0/SAA/GovernmentAffairs/Nazi%20War%20Diggers-V5.pdf

 When I was first alerted to the promotional video and material for the show by the AAA, I contacted NGS and asked for an explanation. Charles Ewen, president of SHA, did the same with NGC. As we continued the dialogue with NGS and NGC, we reached out to other professional organizations in the U.S. and Europe and proposed a joint letter as the best means of conveying our concerns over the TV show. Within hours of finishing our letter, NGS informed me that NGCI had decided to pull the show from its schedule indefinitely. Their press release speaks to NGS and NGC’s commitment to engage viewers and produce shows to the highest standards. SAA appreciates the decision not to air the show. We also stand ready to assist NGS and NGC in meeting their stated goals.

 Jeff Altschul, President

Advertisements

11 comments on “Dear National Geographic, what the f@#$?!?!

  1. David G. Anderson says:

    Thanks for writing this, Shane.

    In addition to not asking for funding, actions individuals might chose to take could include refusing to submit to or participate in articles written by National Geographic, as well as refusing to conduct peer reviews of proposals for NGS research funds or of articles NGS wants vetting on. The refusal should be accompanied by reasons if they are to have any weight. While I do not want to deter colleagues from getting much needed publicity or research funds, or preclude serious research and reporting from moving forward with NGS funding, I agree with Shane that enough is rapidly becoming enough. I’ll have to give a lot of thought to the next request for assistance I get from that organization. I’ve actually been ethically torn every time such a request has come in since ‘Diggers’ first aired. I’ve conducted my reviews and answered reporters questions because the good they do, I thought, outweighed the bad, but I also feel like I am losing a little bit of my soul each time I do so.

    NGS does fund a lot of good, solid research, and I appreciate that they do so. So how we deal with them is a choice each of us has to make. I am nearing the end of my career, so alienating influential archaeologists beholden or grateful to NGS for funding and publicity doesn’t affect me as much as it might younger colleagues. I suspect NGS knows they have a captive audience in much of our profession, and so don’t really care what we think, at least at some level… the heat we can bring about ethical concerns doesn’t impact their bottom line. That is why they run shows like these, when we would prefer to see shows documenting serious archaeological research and highlighting appropriate professional behavior. Fostering greed and ignorance among the general public, however, apparently sells far better than encouraging the growth of scientific knowledge and respect for our species past.

    But while they may be the goose laying the golden research dollars, they probably can’t afford to alienate completely the professional bases that give legitimacy to what they do. So by all means we should continue to let our opinions be known.

    SEAC and SAA members can contact their leadership and ask that these organizations weigh in on these matters formally if they wish (SAA has already done so, I believe). However, it is also up to us to decide how to proceed individually; our actions, not merely our thoughts, are what define us.

  2. dover1952 says:

    1) Does SEAC have a code of ethics? I’m assuming that a lot of members might not be members of the SAA or RPA. Is there anything that would prevent someone from joining SEAC and then appearing in one of these questionable “Diggers” shows in the event that Nat Geo decides to have a “Civil War Diggers” show? Do we have any way of saying, “Yo. This isn’t cool. Your membership is revoked” in the event that this happens?

    My Answer: As the third Tennessee Volunteer archaeologist here (Hi Shane and David), I share your outrage and pain. Ken Sassaman has indicated to me in some of our past e-mail discussions that the SEAC does not have its own code of ethics per se. Personally, I very much doubt that an SEAC member would appear on one of these “digger” shows in any sort of professional capacity or any other kind of capacity for that matter. I am neither an SAA or SEAC member, and I would never do it or let anyone I know do it without a sound scolding. SEAC members and other folks who have been through an undergraduate and/or graduate program in anthropology in the southeast know better than to think that this NGS entertainment crap is anywhere even approximately near real archaeology. I think it is the people outside of the SEAC circle we have to worry about—and the key problem is public ignorance about what real archaeology is and what real archaeology does.

    2) Is it time to tell National Geographic to f@#$ off? Letters don’t work. Petitions don’t work. Angry blogs, tweets, and facebook groups don’t appear to be working, either. What if we, the professional archaeologists of North America, told National Geographic that we no longer want to be involved with their company as long as they keep producing ethically questionable shows. This includes no longer soliciting them for funding for projects.

    My Answer: This might work if everyone pulled together and posed a united front to NGS. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where money talks and wields power more than just about anything else—and some number of archaeologists somewhere might just see everyone bailing out and say: “Wow!!! Look at that!!! There’s more research money leftover for me—and I’m going for it!!”

    My friend Doug over at the Doug’s Archaeology blog has been discussing a Tea Party initiative in Congress to reduce NSF funding for social science research, which includes archaeology. Some folks are of a mind to write their Congressman and make oral arguments as to why archaeology is important and how it benefits our modern society and culture—beyond just heritage tourism and entertainment. I have described this as writing to one’s Congressmen to “justify why professional archaeology should be allowed to continue living.” My contention is that no such letter-writing campaign will work just like the deluge of letters already written to NGS and The Learning Channel have not worked.

    My contention is that American archaeologists need to be truthful with themselves—even if it hurts to ponder it. The truth is that we, both individually and collectively, are a very small and essentially powerless people standing within a circle of 315,000,000 other American citizens. While the legacy of the late James B. Griffin or some similarly powerful figure in American archaeology might seem strong, powerful, and invincible to us within our small archaeology circle, most of his contemporaries and most people today have never heard of him and give far less than a flying fuck whether he had a wonderful ceramics type collection at the University of Michigan. As far as they are concerned, He might as well have been the guy that emptied their garbage cans every Thursday. And that is precisely THE KEY PROBLEM.

    Among the American people as a whole, we archaeologists have no significant POWER BASE. One reason is because we have never taken the significant time and energy necessary to develop and promote such a power base among ordinary people at the grassroots level—and please do not talk to me about Archaeology Awareness Week, your museum’s public involvement programs, and so forth. I support them, and they are all well and good—but only so far as they go. However, an archaeology tent set up in a public park one Saturday each year is not going to do the trick. Here at the SEAC Underground, I have heard people say that we do not need to be discussing public relations issues like this and other such matters because we should instead be concentrating nearly all of our energies on our research and teaching. How do I answer that? If we do not wake up and smell the roses, we are going to arise one morning with no remaining archaeological record, no teaching job left to go to, and no funding left to do our research.

    I think the place to start building a significant archaeology power base is in America’s public and private school systems—reaching out not just to the kids but also through them to their parents. Yes, I know the SAA has some archaeology curriculum material packages that can be used by K-12 teachers—but are they being used by more than just a handful of teachers here and there? My kids are in one of the best public school systems in the United States—certifiable. Where is the archaeology? Beats me!!! With regard to curriculum materials for archaeology, we need to be discussing more than just cultural trait lists, time periods, and the importance of stratigraphy. We need to be addressing archaeological ethics; we need to be showing the kids what looting looks like and why it is bad; we need to be explaining the value of archaeology, why it is important, and why all people should support it; and we need to be informing our kids above all else that real archaeology is NOT TREASURE HUNTING.

    • dover1952 says:

      Oops. Apologies to The Learning Channel. I was thinking of The Travel Channel.

      However, I do have to wonder something. If these “digger” shows succeed on just a couple of such cable channels, will they eventually make it to the others in rerun syndication and maybe even the late afternoon, just-after-school slots on local ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates all over the country—with K-12 kids as the target audience?

      When I was a kid growing up in the Nashville area, these slots were reserved for the Three Stooges, Little Rascals, and old B&W science fiction movies from the 1950s. Digging for treasure is something that fires childhood imaginations. If so, look for more looting and big time artifact collecting in future generations, as if it is not already growing by leaps and bounds as a direct result of the Internet.

  3. Jonathan says:

    It should be made clear that the National Geographic Channel is also owned by the 21st Century Fox Corporation, and thus Rupert Murdoch. It seems to me that their programming reflects not only the type of audiences that Fox typically aims for, but the kind of values that the corporation embodies.

  4. Bryan tucker says:

    Does SAA have a lobbyist? If not, why?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s