‘Diggers’ are to archaeology as pro-wrestling is to sports: fake

Looter pits in Georgia

“Professional” wrestler (former) Ric Savage now has a television show on Spike TV called “American Diggers.” They’re Americans and they dig. Anyone with a garden shovel can make this claim.

The problem is, they fancy themselves as “diggers” of artifacts and relics. And this is a problem because they really don’t know what they’re doing.

I’m not being “snobbish” or trying to appear aloof. I sympathize with why someone would want to dig up a yard or field for historical relics and artifacts. They’re valuable. They’re cool. They’re history. There’s a story behind every single bullet, belt buckle, button, and even thrown out pig bone that can be recovered.

But that story cannot be told if the contexts of the finds aren’t carefully and meticulously cataloged, diagramed, and documented. In addition, some artifacts need to be conserved with great care. A common misconception that those not trained in archaeology have is that removing it from the dirt starts the act of preservation. In fact, the opposite is probably true. A given artifact is now being exposed to variables it wasn’t previously: oxygen, water, wind, oily human hands, etc.

Ric Savage, the trained “professional” wrestler, was quoted as saying:

“Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,” Savage said. “The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.”

I think Ric got it half right. Diggers are looked on as trailer trash. They’re not looked on as being a part of the archaeological community at all. That’s because they are not. To be a member of the archaeological community, you would first need to be trained as an archaeologist. Savage takes the low-road of ignorance when he attempts to berate those with educations as snobs, but such criticism only works with those that refuse to obtain an education.

Archaeologists are the brains of archaeology. That is an undeniable truth. It isn’t that their educations increase their “snobbishness” -rather it’s that their educations increase their knowledge. Like I said, I understand the motivations behind wanting to dig up relics and artifacts. But, my education has shown me why this is ethically wrong. “Digging” in this manner utterly destroys context. And context has far more value than the few dollars Savage gets from selling the metal bits he rapes from the ground since this is what we can use to understand the past. Where an artifact is in relation to other artifacts and features can tell us how it was used, by whom, when, how it was disposed or left in situ, etc. Context can tell us about trade, conflict, social hierarchy and stratification, and much more.

I realize there are probably many who consider themselves to be”amateur archaeologists” and take their roles seriously and care deeply about history and getting it right. But “diggers” aren’t amateur archaeologists. They negotiate with land owners to rape their lands for cultural artifacts with the promise that the land owner gets a cut (either in artifacts or money). They plunder the landscape with holes in roughshod manner and, in a few hours, can remove all the “valuable” artifacts from a site, leaving a scarred and raped patch of land that can more closely resemble the pockmarked surface of the moon than an archaeological site. Artifacts are quickly pulled from the ground without regard for their positions or placements and chunked in a bucket, sometimes a bag.

Contrast this with a true archaeological excavation that is meticulous and planned and can take days, even years to properly excavate as every layer is documented with diagrams and coordinates of artifacts and features as they are uncovered one centimeter at a time.  Artifacts are carefully extracted, sometimes preservation begins in situ as the artifact is carefully handled to prevent destruction or damage.

Diggers treat artifacts as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder on Ebay and Craig’s List.

Archaeologists treat artifacts as evidence of past cultures and civilizations that need to be carefully managed for further analysis or to be shared with the public through museums.

We cannot ever get back the contexts lost to looters (a.k.a. diggers). It would be better not to recover the artifacts at all if the choice is to remove them in the roughshod fashion of looters. Better to leave the remains of a long-lost culture buried until proper excavation by trained archaeologists is possible or feasible.

I say diggers are looters. Not because what they do is illegal (many times it is -but they will never admit to digging public or government lands), rather because what they’re doing is stealing from future generations. They’re stealing the possibility of understanding a culture or civilization. They’re going for the loot, and leaving the data behind in the piles of dirt they discard in heaps, forever lost as contexts to the past. There’s no question that private land owners have the right to do with their land what they please. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Join me in making a change. Click the link below and sign a petition at Change.org to have “American Diggers” removed from Spike.TV. The Petition is titled Stop Spike.TV from Looting Our Collective Past and it has, at the time of this writing, over 13,000 signatures. It could use yours.