Treasure Hunt

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Two reality shows are airing on cable television, "American Digger" on Spike TV and "Diggers" on the National Geographic Channel. Both of these shows follow treasure hunters looting archaeological sites.

Spike TV notes that these sites are on private property, rather than public lands, which would, of course, be illegal. Why illegal? Because we, as a nation, decided that our historical heritage is worth protecting, and we've encoded that decision into law. Does that legally obligate private property owners to protect sites on their land? No. But do we really want looters destroying our history for their personal profit? I don't, and it's not what we put into law as part of our national values.

Looters often argue that the artifacts they dig up will at least be seen, rather than sitting in some musty research warehouse. Seen? By whom? Only your friends and family are going to see those artifacts in your house. If you sell it, only the buyer's friends and family will seem them. If you donate the artifacts to a museum do you know where they're going to go? A research warehouse. No one can research artifacts if they are in private hands. No one gets to see them. The story of the person those artifacts belonged to is lost forever.

Right now, I'm researching 2,000-year-old bone tools. I'm using a comparative collection from a nearby site, and I'll use it again to study the bone tools of another site some 50 miles away. There are good notes for these sites, any researcher in the world could come study them. We can exchange ideas about these sites, these ideas can come to the public for discussion, debate and teaching.

Nat Geo in particular should be ashamed. They should be aggressively denouncing such a show, not broadcasting it.  After all, I can't imagine National Geographic airing a show called "Poachers," glorifying the slaughter of endangered species for the price of their various body parts.


With a Perspective, this is Michael Newland.

Michael Newland is an archaeologist with the Anthropological Study Center at Sonoma State University.