It has been an interesting past few weeks in North American archaeology, particularly for those focused on the public portrayal of the discipline. New television programs featuring televised looting have generated substantial reactions from the archaeological community; interest in the Titanic is reaching fever pitch; a popular magazine released an editorial suggesting the return of skeletal remains to a Native American group is wrong; and the interest in crystal skulls never seems to go away.
Televised Looting. Two new television programs, called “American Digger” and “Diggers” began running on the Spike TV and the National Geographic Channel respectively in recent weeks, both of which glamorize looting historic period archaeological sites. Reaction of the archaeological community was immediate, including substantial discussion in social media and letters of protest to the producers of the programs, Spike TV, the National Geographic Society and the National Geographic Channel. Letters from the AAA pretty much mirrored those of other associations. General themes of criticisms were that the programs misrepresent archaeology, promote activities that may be illegal and are certainly unethical, and undermine heritage preservation. A story on the criticism appeared in the New York Times, which generated some further criticism based on the way the article appeared to favor the program over archaeology.
While I agree with much of the criticism, I think what was lost in most of the discussion has to do with what appears to me as the eroding the standards of the National Geographic Society. Although the society does sponsor and present some good archaeology, I fear that scholarship and education is being increasingly sacrificed for entertainment. By showing “American Diggers” on the National Geographic Channel, the society and the channel may have jumped the shark, meaning that they have gone so far over the boundary of sacrificing scholarship and education over entertainment, there may be no return to credibility.
Titanic-Mania. I imagine most are aware that April, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Media and museums have been all over it, the 1997 movie has been re-released in 3-D, and people are profiting in other ways such as taking the opportunity to auction Titanic-related artifacts. I’ve never been comfortable with the disturbing of what is essentially an underwater cemetery for profit and entertainment. I have seen little in the way of scientific value of removing artifacts from the ship. When I visited the large touring exhibit, I wasn’t impressed much with being able to see a 100 year old fork. I’m quite certain that there are hundreds of archaeology projects going on in North America right now that are unearthing more scientifically significant artifacts than anything recovered from the Titanic. I know that individuals and private companies probably had the right to retrieve, exhibit, and sell artifacts from the Titanic, but it still makes me uncomfortable. It just seems wrong that it appears to be all driven by profit. The large traveling exhibit of Titanic artifacts is apparently going to auction in April, with an expected sale price of close to $200 million.
The Titanic also brings to light another concern I have with the National Geographic Society. The National Geographic Society Museum is currently running a Titanic exhibit. What concerns me most is that it apparently features reconstructed items and props from the 1997 film Titanic; making for another uncomfortable mix of entertainment with education.
Repatriation. Repatriation has been in the news recently. The editors of Scientific American released an editorial for the April issue that suggests 10,000 year old bones from California should not be returned to the Kumeyaay Nation, which has requested them. For those in need of some background, NAGPRA came into effect in 1990. Among other things, it dictated that human skeletal remains and associated artifacts collected prior to 1990 must be returned to affiliated Native groups upon request. Since 1990, the remains of about 38,000 individuals and one million artifacts have been returned. However, more than 120,000 individuals and about another million artifacts have been determined to be “unaffiliated” and therefore not subject to repatriation. A new rule was added to NAGPRA in 2010 to make it easier for unaffiliated remains to be returned to Native groups that claimed them. I understand it is under this new rule that the Kumeyaay are claiming the bones.
I am concerned by both the general notion put forth in the editorial that the bones should not be repatriated and the wording used. I understand that scientists can learn from the bones, but I do not believe it should be at the expense of the wishes of the Native Peoples. In my view, when it comes to prehistoric human remains in North America, the wishes of Native communities trump the wishes of academics. Every time.
The wording of the editorial is strong, which I think most anthropologists will find disconcerting. It includes statements such as “But what makes this case disturbing is that the Kumeyaay claim is based on folklore” and that the regulations “…privilege faith over fact.”
Crystal Skulls. The interest by the general public in crystal skulls never seems to go away. I was reminded of this recently when I received an invitation to a public lecture by some so-called crystal skull expert. If I attended the lecture, I was informed, I would gain an understanding of their extraterrestrial origin, their sacredness, their magical powers, their association with the end of the world, and how I may be able to unlock their secrets which I could then use to save humanity. I chose not to go. I was afraid I might die laughing. It did re-new my interest in the role of crystal skulls in popular culture though, and with a bit of research I found a few things more enticing: vodka bottled in what appears to be crystal skulls, and solid chocolate skulls that look pretty real.
Robert Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology and Reading Archaeology, both published by the University of Toronto Press. He has archaeological field experience in both the United States and Canada, continues to direct field projects in the summer months, and is based at Capilano University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
New television programs featuring televised looting have generated substantial reactions from the archaeological community; interest in the Titanic is reaching fever pitch; a popular magazine released an editorial suggesting the return of skeletal remains to a Native American group is wrong; and the interest in crystal skulls never seems to go away.