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Dig Wars – Reality TV Show Loots Historical Sites

President Leith Mullings wields her pen once again in request for preservation of historical sites against reality television shows. This year the Travel Channel has a new reality television show “Dig Wars”. President Mullings’ letter gives a detailed overview of the show and suggestions to rethink the show’s direction towards a productive and entertaining piece.

Below is the text of the letter. To read the letter itself, click here (PDF).

Dear Mr. Sharp:

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its 12,000 members worldwide join other professional organizations and concerned communities in urging you to withdraw or modify the new reality television show, “Dig Wars.”  This program actively encourages the needless destruction of the archaeological record. Its theme is a competition among teams with metal detectors to determine which team can locate and dig up antiquities from the ground. These are treated as “loot” (the show’s term) and assessed for their monetary value.

Reasonable viewers watching this program may be mistakenly led to believe that such behaviors are ethically acceptable.  On the contrary, the looting as portrayed on the show is deeply disturbing. The overall message is that this nation’s cultural and historical heritage is “loot” that is up for grabs for anyone with a metal detector and shovel.  This the wrong message to give the public, especially in an age when so many historical sites are disappearing.

The show focuses on taking teams of metal detector enthusiasts to known archaeological sites of historical interest (notable examples include Fort Saint Phillip, Louisiana, and Eastover Plantation, Virginia).  The historical interest of these places is important to the program and is an obvious reason for showing it on Travel Channel.  However, the program’s emphasis on digging at those archaeological sites to retrieve relics described as “treasure” is at odds with maintaining the historical integrity of these places.  Your viewers are encouraged to consider these historical sites as places to plunder, experienced through the activities of the metal-detecting teams.  It is at best a mixed message for your program to feature historical places as worthy of travel and tourism and at the same time promote their wanton irrevocable damage, robbing them of historical value.

The winning team is determined each week on the basis of the total monetary worth of their “finds,” as assessed by an appraiser at the end of the show. The value of historical relics is reduced to dollars and cents.  The Travel Channel’s message is that  any value of historical places and objects as reflecting our common heritage is negligible compared to  the money  to be made  trafficking in looted artifacts.  That disturbing message causes grave concern among the archaeologists and historians who seek to preserve and protect our historical legacy.

This is doubly unfortunate because the program has the potential to promote the historical value of these artifacts.  It could be retooled to enlighten Travel Channel audiences, explaining how the objects found by metal detecting enthusiasts can be used to interpret the historical past. For example, instead of being appraised, the objects could be assessed for how they tell a story about the past, as evaluated by local historical societies or local archaeologists.  Such stories could make for more compelling programs on these historical sites, drawing in larger and more diverse audiences.
As an example of how this could be done, last year the National Geographic Channel, working with professional archaeological associations and metal-detector enthusiasts, modified its “Diggers” program.  It now focuses on topics in American history from the point of view of two hobbyists working in coordination with local historians and archaeologists. That program became an opportunity for a multi-platform franchise that provides entertaining content for a broad TV audience and celebrates our shared history.

The AAA urges you to modify the contents of ”Dig Wars” so that it will enlighten the public, encouraging respect for cultural heritage and for the many surviving historical sites of interest that are worthy of travel and tourism. We would be happy to help you locate and work with trained archaeologists to communicate the excitement of discovery and of history in a more responsible, ethical, and engaging manner.


Leith Mullings

AAA Releases Statement on US Supreme Court Ruling on Voting Rights Act

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is deeply dismayed by the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday that, by a narrow 5-4 vote, struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. First enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was initially aimed at preventing reprehensible practices that stopped African Americans from voting, most common in the American South. The law eventually imposed federal oversight over nine states—Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — requiring them to seek preapproval for any changes in election laws (e.g., voter identification measures, redistricting maps, and rules related to the mechanics of elections like polling hours).

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that any remedies to injustice must rely on current data concerning practices in the aforementioned states, rather than historical conditions that the law originally sought to eliminate. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed that the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act is what led to its demise. She wrote:

Demand for a record of violations equivalent to the one earlier made would expose Congress to a catch-22. If the statute was working, there would be less evidence of discrimination, so opponents might argue that Congress should not be allowed to renew the statute. In contrast, if the statute was not working, there would be plenty of evidence of discrimination, but scant reason to renew a failed regulatory regime.

The Voting Rights Act was one of many legislative responses to the Civil Rights Movement, which encompassed an ongoing struggle to gain equality and justice in the US. Over several decades, lives were tragically lost and property destroyed in pursuit of equal opportunity. The Civil Rights Movement generated other social movements that have transformed U.S. society and culture. Over the past century, anthropologists have been deeply involved in the study of African-American and Latino communities and have made significant contributions to the scholarship on race, class, and inequality.

AAA President, Dr. Leith Mullings observed, “Despite significant progress, there is much work to be done, and it is important to remain vigilant about the regressive effects of voter identification measures and redistricting. For the Supreme Court to deny the important role that legal protections have played in recent history flies in the face of anthropologists’ scholarship on poverty, social justice, and racial inequality.”

Anthropologists Welcome Supreme Court Rulings In Historic Prop 8 and DOMA Cases

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) welcomed separate rulings by the US Supreme Court, which struck down the main provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and also allowed same-sex marriage to remain legal in California.

In a 5-4 decision in the DOMA case, the Court ruled that same-sex couples who are legally married are now entitled to equal treatment under the law. Previously, DOMA defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman for federal purposes.

In the AAA’s view, the US Supreme Court has properly found that same-sex couples that are legally married should have those marriages recognized under federal law. Before today’s rulings, DOMA relegated gay men and women (and their legal marriages) to an inferior legal status. This decision only applies in those 12 states (and the District of Columbia) where same-sex marriages are currently legal. The decision reached today allows those in same sex marriages to receive, for example, equal treatment in terms of filing income taxes and receiving social security benefits.

In a separate ruling, the Court also dismissed a case that challenged the constitutionality of Proposition 8, a California state law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. After two same-sex couples challenged Proposition 8 in federal court in California, the California government officials who would normally have defended the law in court declined to do so. The proponents of Proposition 8 stepped in to defend the law, and the California Supreme Court (in response to a request by the lower court) ruled that they could do so under state law. But today, the US Supreme Court held that the aforementioned proponents do not have the legal right to defend the law in court. As a result, it held that the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the intermediate appellate court, has no legal force, and it sent the case back to that court with instructions for it to dismiss the case. In effect, by dismissing the appeal challenging the final order from the trial court, the order will go into effect. The order prohibits the Attorney General and Governor from enforcing Prop. 8, preserving for now the legality of same-sex marriage in California.

Earlier this year, the AAA filed an amicus brief on behalf of the case for invalidating Proposition 8. The AAA is the world’s largest professional organization of anthropologists and others interested in anthropology. Its membership includes all specialties within anthropology, including cultural anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and biological anthropology. In 2004, the AAA adopted a Statement on Marriage and the Family, which observes, in part, that the results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either “civilization” or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies. Most recently, AAA’s newest digital publication Open Anthropology focuses on marriage and other arrangements.

In the AAA’s view, the US Supreme Court has properly found that DOMA institutionalizes discrimination against legally married same-sex couples at the national level. Further, in AAA’s view, the State of California, having amended its Constitution to strip the right of same-sex couples to marry, is in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

As stated in our amicus brief, throughout history, state interference with the ability to marry has been a means of oppression and stigmatization of disfavored groups, serving to degrade whole classes of people by depriving them of the full ability to exercise a fundamental right.

This discrimination has been shown to have severe social and psychological impacts. By singling out gay men and women as ineligible for the institution of marriage, it invites the public to discriminate against them. And by depriving same-sex couples of the ability to marry, adverse effects are imposed on their children.

A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage and a growing number of states have recognized this public support by changing outmoded and discriminatory laws. National governments on several continents have arrived at this same recognition. It is highly appropriate that the US, ever concerned about the protection of human rights, finally end this offensive form of discrimination and acknowledge the right to marriage equality.

The DOMA case is United States v. Windsor, and the Prop 8 case is Hollingsworth v. Perry.

AAA Applauds Report of Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) applauds report “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences.” Released this week by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, the report is a call to action for the US to make significant investments in the areas of social science research and education.

The report makes three recommendations: Invest in educating people with the humanities and social sciences to provide an intellectual framework for understanding a changing world; focus not just on instruction for specific jobs, but on the development of professional flexibility and inquisitiveness; and acknowledge how the humanities and social sciences enable us to understand diverse cultural perspectives, making it possible for people around the world to work together to address issues of mutual importance.

“The report highlights the contributions made by the social sciences to the United States,” AAA President, Leith Mullings noted in a statement released earlier today. “We look forward to working with the Commission on increasing training and public understanding of the humanities and social sciences.”

This report follows the 2007 publication of the National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which highlighted the need for investment in STEM-related education and research.  After a series of meetings with government, foundation, and academic leaders and around the US, members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences organized a complementary effort on behalf of the humanities and social sciences.

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Heritage Distancing

Have you read Douglas Reeser and Claire Novotny’s recent Anthropology News article on heritage distancing? The article, Destroying Nohmul, describes the destruction of an ancient Maya site in Belize. Read the entire article on the Anthropology News website, below is an excerpt:

A work crew excavating the Nohmul site to be hauled away as road-fill.Photo courtesy of  CTV3 Belize News.

A work crew excavating the Nohmul site to be hauled away as road-fill.Photo courtesy of CTV3 Belize News.

The bulldozing and destruction of the ancient Maya site at Nohmul, in the Orange Walk district of northern Belize, has recently received widespread international attention. The largest structure of the ancient ceremonial center was reduced to rubble for use as road-fill by a local contracting company, a widely condemned act that will likely result in minimal consequences for the perpetrators.  This incident, and others like it, are examples of the vulnerability of major historical sites, demonstrates the importance of the archaeological landscape for communities, and brings up issues of cultural heritage and engaged anthropology.

Nohmul was a medium-sized city founded in the Middle Preclassic period (650 BC – 350 BC). Interestingly, its fortunes waned during the Early Classic period (AD 100 – 250), when it was all but abandoned, only to be re-occupied during the Terminal Classic (AD 900 – 1000), when ties to the Yucatan peninsula are evident in its architecture and ceramic assemblage. Nohmul is one example of Maya longevity, memory, and re-use of important sites. When they re-occupied it in the Terminal Classic is was already an ancient place – at least 1000 years old. Nohmul has been a marker of place, history, and ancestral heritage for more than 2,000 years (see Hammond et al.).

Though a small nation, the Belizean landscape is blanketed with ancestral remains of the ancient Maya, from densely populated cities like Caracol to villages such as Chan in the Belize River Valley, as well as countless unnamed hamlets throughout the country. As the Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Jaime Awe, pointed out in a recent interview with Belize’s Channel 7 News, the size of the Institute of Archaeology is miniscule compared with the archaeological resources they are tasked to manage, and Awe’s frustration over the events at Nohmul is palpable in the interviews he has given to the press. This is not to minimize their significant efforts  – last year archaeologists from the IA successfully and efficiently excavated late Preclassic period archaeological remains encountered during road construction in downtown San Ignacio. They also actively oversee and grant permits to numerous archaeological research projects taking place throughout the country.

President Obama Supports Scientific Integrity of Anthropology

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA President Leith Mullings.

As an anthropologist and President of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), I was especially gratified to hear President Barack Obama acknowledge the discipline of anthropology and support its scientific integrity.  In a speech at the 150th Anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama said:

 (Pablo Martinez Monsivais – AP)

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais – AP)

And it’s not just resources. I mean, one of the things that I’ve tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; that not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science — all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review — but in all the sciences, we’ve got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they’re not subject to politics, that they’re not skewed by an agenda, that, as I said before, we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us. And that’s why we’ve got to keep investing in these sciences.

Nearly 100 anthropologists are members of the National Academy of Sciences, many of whom are among the 12,500 active members of the AAA. In an era in which some members of Congress are attempting to undermine the peer-review process and academic freedom in research, it is heartening to have the support of the President on these important issues.

I look forward to the President’s continued support for the critical contributions anthropologists make to the understanding of human kind in all of its aspects.

We Run For Boston

BostonHave you seen the latest article by Robert R. Sauders on Anthropology News? It’s a powerful piece about the rise of solidarity activism in the aftermath of tragedy, entitled “We Run for Boston“. Below is an excerpt:

On April 15, 2013, the 117th running of the Boston Marathon commenced with a starter’s pistol for mobility-impaired entrants at 9:00am; yet, unlike previous years, the 2013 marathon ended at 2:50pm when two explosive devices were detonated within a few hundred yards of the finish line. The bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon left three people dead – 8 year-old Martin Richard, 23 year-old Lu Lingzi and 29 year-old Krystle Campbell – and wounded more than 175 people. Due to the design of the bombs, many of the victims suffered severe shrapnel wounds to their lower extremities, with some so injured that amputation was necessary.

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Boston, people from across the United States and around the world expressed their shock over the brutality of the bombings, their anger with those who would perpetrate such actions and their sympathy with those who suffered injury and trauma. As medical professionals treated the wounded and law enforcement began the arduous process of collecting evidence to identify those responsible for the bombings, hundreds and thousands of ordinary people began organizing solidarity and fundraising efforts through social media tools. Within only a few short hours after the bombs ripped through Boylston Street, small groups dedicated to standing united with the Boston Marathon victims as well as with the city of Boston began appearing on Facebook, Twitter, blog and websites.

Read Sauder’s entire article on Anthropology-News.org.

Zero Tolerance for Sexual Harassment

In response to the recent survey about sexual harassment in anthropology, reported by Kathryn Clancy (U Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Katie Hinde (Harvard), Robin Nelson (U California, Riverside), and Julienne Rutherford (U Illinois, Chicago) the American Anthropological Association has issued the following statement on behalf of its more than 11,000 members.

 The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is shocked and dismayed to learn about the results of a recent survey reported at the April 2013 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Knoxville, TN. The AAA has zero tolerance for sexual harassment in academic, professional, fieldwork or any other settings where our members work.  While the AAA does not have adjudicatory authority over these matters, our Statement on Ethics: Code of Professional Responsibility sets out our clear expectation that anthropologists “…have a responsibility to maintain respectful relationships with others. In mentoring students, interacting with colleagues, working with clients, acting as a reviewer or evaluator, or supervising staff, anthropologists should comport themselves in ways that promote an equitable, supportive and sustainable workplace environment.”

 We deplore the reported incidents of sexual harassment, and  expect employers and institutions of higher education to enforce the law as well as their specific anti-harassment policies for implementing the law. While sexual harassment is an issue that affects men and women alike, women bear the greatest burden of these incidents by far. The AAA has a long-term commitment to monitoring the status of women in anthropology through the Committee on the Status of Women in Anthropology, renamed in 2011 the Committee on Gender Equity in Anthropology. We encourage harassment victims who do not feel that adequate protections are available through their employer or home institution to contact the Association’s Committee on Gender Equity in Anthropology confidentially for advice.

70 Native American Masks To Go To Auction Friday

AAA member, C. Timothy McKeown wrote an article yesterday for Indian Country Today. The article You Can’t Convey What You Don’t Have discusses yet another auction of significant artifacts to be held at the end of this week in Paris, France. Below is an excerpt:

On Friday, April 12, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou in Paris is scheduled to auction 70 Native American masks dating between 1880 and 1940. The auction catalogue describes each mask, provides a photograph, details the materials used in its construction, and identifies the tribe that used the mask in its religious ceremonies. There are one or more masks from Acoma, Jemez, Zuni and Navajo, but the majority are from Hopi. The proposed sale has unleashed a global discussion on the propriety of the trade in communally owned cultural items and the need for transparency in provenance documentation.

We know little about the collector for whose benefit the auction will be conducted, identified in the catalogue only by the initials “L.S.” and described as “a connoisseur with peerless taste” who lived and collected in the US for 30 years. The French press describes him as a Frenchman who worked in the American film industry and occasionally stayed with the tribe. Requests from the Hopi Tribe for information on the provenance of the collection have been ignored, and last Thursday the US Embassy in Paris reportedly weighed in with an email asking the auction house to respond to the Hopi request. In a statement to the press, an unnamed representative of the auction house claimed that the collector “legally bought the items in the United States at sales and auctions.” Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet has dismissed Hopi claims because “they rely on an article of the Hopi constitution which is not recognized in France because it is not a State.”

Monsieur Néret-Minet might be interested in knowing that a number of US Federal laws may also be implicated in the proposed sale. Taking the auction house representative’s statement that the items were “legally” bought in the US on its face, we can assume that none of the masks – many of which have been identified by the Hopi Tribe as objects of ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the tribe and which could not be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual – were obtained after 1990 from tribal lands or from a museum receiving Federal funds. Section 4 of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) made the sale, purchase, use for profit, or transport for sale or profit of any such cultural items a criminal offense. To date, 13 individuals have been convicted of trafficking items similar to those being offered at the Paris auction. Most were fined and the cultural items confiscated and repatriated. Several were also imprisoned. The list of convicted criminals includes mostly tribal members, intermediaries, and dealers in the American Southwest. Missing are the collectors who fuel the market, though several have stepped forward, including one reportedly connected to the Hollywood community, to aid the law enforcement and avoid prosecution themselves.

Click here to read McKeown’s entire article.

Readers may recall a letter sent by AAA President Leith Mullings last month about the Barbier-Mueller Collection of pre-Colombian art that was auctioned by Sotheby’s Paris. What do you think it is about Paris to be a hub for such auctions?


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