In the latest edition of the Journal of Conflict Archaeology there is an editorial that briefly discusses the professional response of archaeologists (via social media) to the proposed (and now cancelled) National Geographic Channel show Nazi War Diggers (Pollard & Banks 2014). As readers of this blog, and other archaeological blogs, may be aware that a whole can of worms was opened when the National Geographic Channel started to advertise their Nazi War Diggers program online. The clips that the station put up online showed almost zero respect to the uncovering and exhuming of the dead of WWII on the Eastern Front (the clips shown seemed to focus primarily on a battleground site in Latvia), and little (if any) attention paid to the archaeological context of the remains themselves.
Field archaeology is a largely destructive method of uncovering and documenting a unique and non-replenishing resource, hence why great care is taken in the contextual recording and analysis of archaeological sites in various mediums (in the use and application of excavation methodology, on-site recording, recording of site formation, specialist reports, conservation of artefacts, film photography, digital media, etc.). So it was no surprise that, when the footage of Nazi War Diggers was promoted, archaeologists and other heritage specialists were horrified at the unprofessional and unethical treatment of both the human material recovered and of the associated artefacts, such as the Nazi memorabilia uncovered. Perhaps what was/is even more worrying is the long-term deposition and custody (i.e whereabouts) of the remains and artefacts that were excavated, alongside the actual legality surrounding the actions of venture itself. As osteoarchaeologist Alison Atkin succinctly highlighted at the time – ‘it is every kind of wrong’.
As Pollard & Banks (2014: 51) remark it was not just social media that picked up on the outrage of the show but also mainstream media, such as newspapers, that highlighted the professional and personal distaste with the Nazi War Diggers program. A very important point here is highlighted in the editorial, which bloggers such as Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities also noticed, was how the National Geographic Channel replied. The company removed the questioned video from their site, edited the text and removed damaging quotes from the lead presenter (‘by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with‘, as quoted in Pollard & Banks 2014: 51). As readers will no doubt be aware individuals who fell in the Second World War can still be identified, can still be returned to their families for burial, can still have living relatives who may have known them. With these points in mind, even barring the unethical exhumation and nonsense comments, it becomes clear that the treatment of the remains on Nazi War Diggers was, at the least, potentially offensive.
Still the debacle helped to unite a range of heritage professionals in condemnation and, to their good and commendable credit, the National Geographic Channel have pulled the show and have started an inquiry. This very fact highlights that the company have at least heard the views of the many professional individuals and members of the public that have contacted them (tough though that may have been). As Sam Hardy further highlights the narrative isn’t that clear-cut either as there were a number of different organisations involved during the making and producing of Nazi War Diggers, including Legenda, the company used in the Latvian sequence of the show. It is pertinent here to include a quote from hardy’s blog entry regarding the Legenda organisation, and those like it, who work in tough environments:
“Since there are still war survivors and missing persons as well as mass graves and battlefields in Latvia, Latvians are still living in the aftermath of the conflict. Dealing with survivors’ and relatives’ loved ones as past, as archaeology, is a delicate, painful process.
Being respectfully scientific with fallen soldiers can be experienced by soldiers’ relatives as being disrespectfully clinical. And that pressure is felt by the volunteers who do the work as well as by the archaeologists who cannot secure professional standards of work.” (Hardy 2014, but see here also).
Yet there are still serious questions that remain in the commission of Nazi War Diggers and of the relationship between the television and archaeology in general. Battles, and battlefields, have long been a staple for re-enactments on historical documentaries on television, yet not many have actively highlighted the excavation of human remains with such abandon as Nazi War Diggers. Furthermore, there is the very real danger that this show has undermined the credibility of conflict archaeology as an emerging, but important, field in itself. With the centenary of the First World War upon us, and important archaeological investigations into the sites where the horrors of the holocaust were carried out in the World War Two (see Sturdy Colls 2012 for non-invasive techniques used at the Treblinka camp), this can be seen as particularly insensitive and crass. Archaeology is not the handmaiden of history, but walks alongside it hand in hand, helping to provide vital physical evidence to the documentary evidence. A particular problem is further highlighted by Pollard & Banks, which is this:
“How did we get to a situation where something like Nazi War Diggers is regarded as a desirable product by a major broadcaster such as National Geographic Television? This is not the place to attempt an answer to this question but we have clearly reached a point where some self-reflection is called for, especially by those of us who have benefitted from our involvement in television.
We can only hope that National Geographic Television’s decision to pull the series means that a change of commissioning policy will be considered, with a return to more responsible programming, which does both television and the practice of archaeology credit.” (Pollard & Banks 2014: 52).
The editorial is an interesting piece and I’d recommend taking the time to read it. In the meantime myself and other archaeology bloggers will be keen to see what the National Geographic Channel get up to with the footage already shot for the Nazi War Diggers program and whether it comes back, or not, in any shape or form. The response of many of the bloggers to the show (including myself) has been a reactive reaction to it, decrying it for the lack of care and thought put into the show’s presentation and approach. However it has undoubtedly raised knowledge of what is a very tangible and emotional remainder of the actual human cost of conflict and war – the survival, exhumation and recovery of the remains of individuals killed in action, whether participating as active soldiers or as civilians.
As Pollard & Banks (2014: 52) highlight we, as active bloggers and specialists in this area, must also engage, educate and help inform both the general public and organisations (including National Geographic Channel) as to what is the appropriate approach when it comes to excavating, analysing, and presenting the remains of humans excavated from both archaeological and historic contexts. If we don’t more programs, such as Nazi War Diggers, will be produced, which will lead to the decay of contextual information and, ultimately, the loss of knowledge.
- You can read the various blog entries cited in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology’s editorial: John R. Roby’s We don’t need a tv show about looting Nazi battlefields, Alison Atkin’s On the importance of context, Sam Hardy’s National Geographic use metal detectors, find new low and also my entry – Excavating the dead of WWII: the Eastern Front. Both Alison’s and Sam’s blogging sites have further detailed entries highlighting other aspects of the Nazi War Diggers saga and I highly recommend you read them. Other archaeology blogs have highlighted the ethical problems with the show but there are too many to list here.
Hardy, S. 2014. A Note on the Volunteer Human Rights Exhumers Legenda. Conflict Antiquities. Accessed 30th September 2014.
Pollard, T. & Banks, I. 2014. Editorial. Journal of Conflict Archaeology. 9 (2): 49-52. (Open Access).
Sturdy Colls, C. 2012. Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution. Journal of Conflict Archaeology. 7 (2): 70-104.