Thursday, 1 March 2012

National Geographic and Bozo Archaeological Site Emptying

John Doershuk (State Archaeologist, University of Iowa) prepared a report on one of the two TV "metal detecting series" for the membership of the National Association of State Archaeologists. His text is quoted here with his permission.
I watched both of the 30-minute episodes of "Diggers" broadcast yesterday evening, although I barely made it through the second half-hour as I found it becoming repetitively boring (and chock full of ads -- more on these, below). The show is typical Natl Geo style -- beautiful locations, good camera work, well-edited. But the "stars" -- the self-styled "Ringmaster" and "King George," are buffoons - I shouldn't doubt that serious metal detecting folks will not appreciate the caricatures. These two spend a great deal of camera time relating their enthusiasm for finding "juice," "nectar," and "roundness," all their terms for the buried "treasure" they excitedly dig up. I didn't think their "discovery rush" translated all that well despite their over-the-top efforts to whip the audience into a pot-hunting frenzy. There's also plenty of reality TV side-show antics, such as silly bets between the two -e.g., who comes up with the oldest item-leading to the loser having to complete a dumb stunt like riding a bicycle off a dock into a freezing cold lake while in drag or licking a jellyfish washed up on the beach (I kid you not).
Dr Doershuk notes that, unlike the way artefact hunters are at pains to present their hobby to the outside world in the UK, here there was:
no effort at all trying to legitimate this activity as anything remotely educational or additive to general knowledge [...] "the past" and "history" were repeatedly invoked as cool, interesting, but ultimately, simply a source of cash. In the first two minutes, the tone was set and the rest of the dialogue was unwavering: "we're obsessed," "a thousand ways to cash in," "wild west loot -- we're going to get digging" [the first episode started in Montana -- "Old territorial prison grounds"], "so join the search," "let's plunder this pokey." On and on.
In the first episode that went looking for the graves of inmates to dig up at an old prison site in Montana. The second episode was set South Carolina, first on James Island ("scene of many Civil War battles") and then to Fenwick Plantation
where Revolutionary War and War of 1812 buttons, bullets, and coins were recovered. Having spent the past two years in an (on-going) struggle to preserve against planned development the only War of 1812 battlefield known in Iowa, it turned my stomach to see these two cavalierly pock-marking what was clearly a battlefield context with good integrity, selectively removing the metal items they happened to detect-there wasn't even a semblance of concern shown for the benefits of being systematic. In each episode, they pocket their take -- no mention of showing or sharing with landowners, and then they sell some and the rest is apparently kept, although again no mention is made of recording provenience or any such concerns.
Dr Doershuk summarises "the main message of the programming that comes through loud and clear: the past is there for the taking, help yourselves like we do, preservation isn't even worth talking about".
Cash, in the end, is what this show is about on two parallel levels. First (and foremost re why made and shown) it's about advertising revenue. Consider this list: Verizon, iPhone S, Nationwide, GEICO, Mazda, Acura, Volvo, Sam Adams, Heineken, and CSX Rail -- these are the majors. What strikes me as especially telling is that the personas Ringmaster and King George project is anything but a Heineken-drinking, Volvo-driving, iPhone-using demographic. I'm not sure what to make of the combination of bozo-behavior on a seemingly respectable, education-oriented channel like Natl Geo, but maybe we are witnessing the descent of Natl Geo into the realm of unabashedly "whatever" programming. For the moment, they are a preferred venue for Heineken and Volvo, but maybe in a year or two it will be Bud Light and Chevy.
Well, after all with Hawass gone, they've lost their Explorer in Residence to whom every tomb door in Egypt was open, and they'll have to come up with something to fill the vacant oooo-ah-archaeology slot in their programming.

He ends:
I'll never intentionally watch this program again as there is simply nothing of value to it, not even mindless entertainment. I hope this is the general response, and Natl Geo drops it.
And in contrast, I hope they show such a metal detecting Bozo-flick all over the world, including in Great Britain. That'd do public opinion the world of good to offset the touchy-feely fluffy bunny junk about artefact collecting they get foisted off with by the PAS and the UK media they have in their pockets. Bring on the Bozos.

Hat-tip to Will Anderson, and thanks to John Doershuk

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