Archaeology Southwest’s Statement on Televised Treasure Hunting

March 1, 2012

Here at Archaeology Southwest, we were deeply dismayed to learn that the National Geographic Channel and Spike TV are airing two new reality series that promote the willful destruction of our shared heritage. We brought this disappointing news to Southwest Archaeology Today readers earlier this week.

Even if the artifact removal featured in these two shows is technically legal because the heritage sites are on private land, it is still unethical, for many reasons.

The story of our shared past is best told not by individual objects, but through the understanding that comes from examining these objects in the context of their specific find locations, their relationship to surrounding objects and built environments, and their meaning within a much larger physical and cultural landscape.

We believe that removing any ancient or historical object from its resting place must be a carefully considered act—even among archaeologists—and not one done for personal gain or private ownership. The past is not owned; it is shared.

At the same time, the very fact that these programs are being produced shows that countless people want to find and feel those same connections to the past that archaeologists and historians spend their lives pursuing.

Archaeologists have many demands on their time and resources, but this debacle shows, once again, that sharing our passion with others can and should be a priority among our duties and our funding sources. Those who have a gift for public interpretation should be encouraged to do so, and their contributions should be given weight within the profession.

At Archaeology Southwest, we strive to creatively meet this considerable challenge, as do so many of our colleagues here and around the world.

We all want to know; we all yearn to touch; we all crave that tingle of discovery; we all wonder. If archaeologists dedicated to this good work don’t try even harder to help make those connections between all interested people and the past, others with a very different agenda will.

Nevertheless, Archaeology Southwest and other practitioners of ethical archaeology are not wrong to call out the media and entertainment industries for acting so irresponsibly.

To television and film producers, we say: archaeologists are here to answer your questions and share the stories of the past. There won’t always be lurid discoveries and easy answers, but there will be a richer, more meaningful understanding of the lives of those who came before. Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence—or its humanity.

Find out more about these programs at Southwest Archaeology Today. (March 4 update is here.)
Read a statement by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Read the Society for American Archaeology’s letter to the National Geographic Society.
Read a statement by ICOMOS’s International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management.
Sign petitions protesting the airing of American Digger and Diggers.

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