Wednesday, March 21, 2012

An Archaeologist in Every Backyard?

From the looks of it, the archaeological establishment wants an archaeologist in every backyard to make sure you are not excavating anything of historical value on your own land: See

The Spike TV show "American Digger" takes place on private land, but that is of little moment to Susan Gillespie, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Florida. She is quoted as stating:

“Our main issue is that these shows promote the destruction and selling of artifacts which are part of our cultural heritage and patrimony.”

But Spike TV's star, Ric Savage, counters that,

“I’ve been a digger my whole life,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday. “But I never had the funds to get the right kind of detector or the time to go out and do it.” After he retired from wrestling more than a decade ago, he devoted himself to digging.

“When you find something of value and hold it in your hands, that’s what it’s all about for me,” he said. “It’s about touching history. You can read or watch history, but the only way you can touch or feel it is to dig it out of the ground.”

That’s about what the anthropologists and archaeologists would say as well. They just argue that this sort of entrepreneurial artifact hunting is antithetical to the more straightforward goal of preserving the past. And also that shows like this could, as Dr. Gillespie put it, “encourage people to dig not on private property” but on federal land, battlefields and American Indian burial grounds.

Mr. Savage said he avoided such areas. He seeks out private property, makes a deal with an owner to, say, dig up his yard or pool, and split with him the proceeds from the finds.
Before any dig takes place, his team, led by his wife, Rita Savage, researches the historical record of an area, compares period maps with contemporary maps and makes a guess about sites where something of value might be found.

That value is mainly derived from what private collectors might pay. For example, Mr. Savage, a Civil War buff, said that buttons from Confederate uniforms are so plentiful that museums have boxes of them that they no longer bother to put on display. But a private collector might still pay him several thousand dollars.

Is the archaeological establishment's campaign really about preserving artifacts or is it instead motivated by snobbery, self-promotion and a desire for control?

Perhaps Spike TV should start its own campaign: Archaeologists: NIMBY! And, of course, use the controversy to increase buzz and ratings.

1 comment:

Voz Earl said...

“When you find something of value and hold it in your hands, that’s what it’s all about for me,” he said. “It’s about touching history."

So true. I took a course a few years back with an archaeologist who was the director of an important dig. He regularly brought items to class and passed them around for the students to handle--fragments of marble blocks, stamped tiles, coins, etc. The artifacts increased the impact of the lectures exponentially.

Another archaeologist on a panel recently was bemoaning the fact that a departmental collection had been transferred to a museum and could no longer be handled by the students. She commented at length on what a loss it was for the students to miss out on that experience.

Voz Earl