Having grown up watching the UK archaeology show “Time Team” I can personally attest to the influence such shows have on viewers and particularly the younger set. It all seems rather glamourous; finding cool “stuff” and the excuse to get immensely dirty without consequences…
The new show on Spike “American Diggers” could perhaps have a similar interest on viewers. Unfortunately unlike ‘Time Team’ which represented a somewhat accurate (though rather idealised and suspiciously speedy) view of archaeology this show could more accurately be called ‘American Looters’. The basic premise of the show is a former boxer and amateur archaeologist travelling round the US and excavating people’s lawns in search of artefacts. Concerns that this glamourises and encourages looting have been expressed at length elsewhere and I won’t labour the issue here (though I do share the concern).
What interests me is the rather eloquent manner in which Mr. Savage, the central figure, acknowledges these concerns and defends his actions. In the New York Times he is quoted as saying:
“I understand where the archaeologists are coming from. 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.”
I’m not sure what part of that last sentence doesn’t constitute “making a living”, but I digress….
In a way he has a point – we cannot simply say that the only people allowed to dig (as in simply pick up a shovel and go to it) are archaeologists or other scholars. How are we to prevent people digging in their own backyards and should we even attempt to do so? Instinctively I want to say that this is looting and that I am therefore dead against it. Certainly I do not like the fact that it is glamourised in a TV show. I must admit, though, that it is unlikely that most of the areas being dug are areas that would attract the interest of professional archaeologists. In which case, does it actually matter if someone else tries their hand? Then again, I’m sure many valuable and unique items have been found in areas which have never attracted professional interest.
Which leaves me with the question: Is looting simply the act of digging up and removing items outside of a sanctioned archaeological excavation or is it only looting if it takes place at a site that is already considered “important”? Does it depend on what is found – is it only looting if something that is unique or has a high monetary value is uncovered?