IAD Blog

October 20, 2012

Brainstorming Session: Responses to Digging in America

by Council for Northeast HIstorical Archaeology

Summary of Brainstorming Session: Responses to Digging in America

Chairs: Christina J. Hodge and Patricia Samford

Subcommittee on Collaborative Preservation

Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology 2012 Annual Meeting

St. John’s, Newfoundland

6 October 2012

Controversial television programs like American Digger on Spike TV and Diggers on the National Geographic Channel sensationalize metal detecting and the for-profit exploitation of historic material culture. This session was conceived as a way to open dialogue and spark conversation among archaeologists about how to respond to what we believe is an irresponsible destruction of cultural resources. How do archaeologists honor their commitment to education when public interest is monetized? Grounded in the mission of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology (CNEHA), the session aimed to identify themes, legal and ethical issues, and practical grass-roots responses to the shows and to the broader metal detecting/recreational digging phenomenon.

Our session began with a group viewing of the Jamestown, Virginia, episode of Ric Savage’s American Digger show, “New World Treasure” (Season One, Episode 8). Digging on private property, Savage and his crew discover a complete late 17th-century wine bottle mere inches under the ground surface (adjacent lead shot fortuitously gave a metal detector signal) and a late 

18th-century 12 pound British carronade in a small pond (!). An antique dealer offered $10,000 for the artifacts removed from this property. A statement at the end of the episode revealed that Savage and his crew also dug other properties in town and took home a total of $18,000 from the sale of the artifacts they acquired.

Many attendees had not seen these shows before, and the response was lively. We discussed the show’s rhetoric, including its use of the terms “recovery” and “artifacts,” the show’s position that underground materials are “going away” and effectively lost unless excavated, and the troubling notion that the show’s methods are non-destructive. Archaeologists at the session believed the featured artifacts were planted and that a great deal of manipulation and sensationalism was used. There was a positive feeling when several landowners turned down requests to dig on their property, with one individual objecting to Savage destroying history. Overall, however, attendees concluded that American Digger was an extreme example among a cohort of reality television programs that celebrate the commodification of historic material cultural.

Samford reported on a meeting held in St. Mary’s County Maryland in June of 2012 between a representative of Half Yard Productions (which produces Diggers) and the St. Mary’s County Historic Planning Commission about televising a Diggers project in the area. As a result of a meeting at National Geographic in the spring of 2012, which included professional archaeologists, television representatives, and metal detectorists, NatGeo producers have made changes to accommodate archaeologists’ ethical concerns. These include involving professional archaeologists and recording collections; the monetary value of artifacts still would be shown in a pop-up at the base of the screen, ostensibly to shown how little financial worth these artifacts have. The representative stated that they will work only on private property and sites that are threatened by development and would not get any archaeological attention. Despite these concessions, the Half Yard representative met with no support from professional archaeologists in St. Mary’s County. During CNEHA session discussion, the potential ethical contradictions of any collaborative plan were discussed, similar to working with underwater “treasure hunters.”

We brainstormed strategies for countering the negative effects of these shows and broader practices of avocational/recreational digging:

  • Posting “no trespassing” signs on site that describe relevant laws and 
  • penalties.
  • Hiring overnight security guards.
  • Preparing a tool kit/information sheet and offering training for local law enforcement officials.
  • At public talks and events, regularly emphasize the importance of context, the finite nature of the archaeological record, and archaeology’s powerful contributions to human understanding.
  • Launching a public relations/media “counter-attack” that celebrates an enthusiasm for history but stresses the vital contributions of archaeology and historic preservation and the overall logic of archaeological excavation. Ideas included developing proposals for television shows and creating YouTube videos.
  • Creating a database of illegal looting on sites. It is suspected that looting and trespass on sites are underreported by the archaeological community.

CNEHA session participants raised questions that are, as yet, unanswerable, including: Does working with diggers who sell and/or trade artifacts fatally conflict with our avowed professional ethics? Do these shows fairly represent the general recreational/avocation digging community or professional metal detecting companies (some of whom work with archaeologists)? Should we work with or compete with these and similar shows? Are we only interested in discouraging illegal looting or any sort of recreational digging? Should we prioritize top-down reactions or bottom-up strategies?

A questionnaire was handed out to the session participants, which we expect will be posted soon on the CNEHA website (www.cneha.org) and Facebook page for additional participation. The Subcommittee on Collaborative Preservation will summarize these responses and continue working with the CNEHA board, membership, and other interested parties on these issues.


February 2012: CNEHA responds in advance of programming debuts on Spike TV (American Digger) and National Geographic (Diggers) that encourage looting, profiteering, and the destruction of archaeological heritage.

February 2012: SAA also responds to Nat Geo and to Spike TV decrying their shows’ premises and expressing concern regarding the acquisition of appropriate permits and permissions.

February 2012: Diggers premiered on the National Geographic Channel on 28 Feb, 2012. The episode is “Digging Dixie,” in which “KG and Ringy hit the beaches along Charleston, S.C. Hurricanes may be a nightmare for homeowners, but they are heaven-sent for treasure hunters. Storms far out at sea often churn up the shoreline, revealing all kinds of treasure, or juice, as they 

call it. With potential riches and shifting sands, the South Carolina beaches could be a treasure trove. In no time, it looks like they are onto something. Could it be gold?”

March 2012: American Digger premiered on Spike TV on 21 March 2012. The episode is “Ice Cold Gold,” in which Ric Savage and his team “hunts for valuable Alaskan Gold Rush artifacts left behind by prospectors in the late 1800s, but blizzards, freezing temperatures and reclusive homeowners could dash their dreams of striking artifact gold.”

March 2012: American Anthropological Association also responds to NatGeo and to Spike TV decrying their shows’ premises.

March 2012: Matt Reeves submits a blog post at SHA about the Montpelier/Minelab Experiment: An Archaeological Metal Detector Training Course

March 2012: In a New York Times article, “TV Digs Will Harm Patrimony, Scholars Say,” Ric Savage states, “‘I understand where the archaeologists are coming from,’ he said. ‘You’ve got two groups of people who want to be part of history, to dig it up and hold it in their hand. The only difference is I’m doing it to make a living. They’re doing it to write papers and make it to associate professor and get tenure.’”

March 2012: NatGeo’s Diggers airs episode 2, “Montana Juice,” in which “Ringy and KG are headed to an old prison in Montana to help the local museum curator uncover buried treasure . . . Who knows what the boys will find that once belonged to the prisons infamous residents Contraband? Bullets? A shank?” They dig this state prison site without first contacting state authorities, including the Department of Correction. The state SHPO sent a letter to state authorities and the show describing the violation of state statutes and their concern.

May 2012: NatGeo organized a Conference that brought together professional archaeologists, metal detecting enthusiasts, and network executives to discuss the outcry over the television show Diggers. In a blog post, SHA President-Elect Charles Ewen’s response was “I think the biggest takeaway that I had from the meeting was how badly we as archaeologists have failed in getting our message out to the general public,” and “it’s become apparent that these shows are not going away.”

July 2012: SAA President Fred Limp sent a memo to membership describing the outcome of the May conference and planned “revamp” of the show to address ethical concerns. Key planned changes include: hiring an advising archaeologist for the show; involving a local supervising archaeologist for planning, permitting, and cataloguing; targeting only threatened sites; and 

maximizing historical value over monetary.

August 2012: Spike TV announces that American Digger has been picked up for a second season of 13 episodes.

August 2012: 22 August 2012, “Metal-Detector Ethics and Tips From the Diggers” posted on the NatGeo blog.

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