Doug’s Archaeology has set a new blog carnival for the month of January: The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival. 

What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?

My second response to this question is: do I use this blog to challenge uses and abuses of human remains and mortuary archaeology in the contemporary world?

Well, I have created a precedent already. I have commented on museum displays and heritage sites I visit, sometimes in a critical fashion. Last year, I did comment on the ISIS killing of Dr Khaled al-Asaad in Palmyra and in 2014 I commented on the excavation and reburial of Richard III. Most recently, I wrote a blog entry reflecting on the prominent portrayal of a ‘crematifact’ in Star Wars Episode VII.

In each case, I felt motivated to do so, not in search of cheap publicity but because I felt compelled to comment given the scope and importance of the topic in question to contemporary society and ethical issues.

Battlefield Recovery

In January 2016, I face a new challenge. The show once called ‘Nazi War Diggers’ has now been edited and re-packaged and has found a home on Channel 5 for UK audiences as ‘Battlefield Recovery’.

Now here’s the dilemma: I refuse to watch it and refuse to directly or indirectly promote it by providing comment. And yet there might be people watching who see it as appropriate to excavate human remains from battlefields in search of loot for sale. Hence, I feel compelled to comment.

I am disgusted by the programme but also by the fact that a UK channel has decided to air it on a prominent Saturday-night slot.

The problems are manifold based on the information circulated by archaeology colleagues and available in the discussions listed below:

  • the Battlefield Recovery team excavated without training or methods,
  • they have been recorded excavating ordnance without adequate precautions,
  • they are excavating without a clear set of research questions and without sufficient recording,
  • the programme misrepresented the work of Polish organisation POMOST,
  • broader concerns have been raised about ethics and the lack of clear historical context explaining what the ‘excavations’ are about,
  • also the excavation of human remains in multiple episodes, and while those remains are being subject to reburial, the manner of their excavation and treatment is unprofessional and unethical.

In summary, Battlefield Recovery demonstrates gaudy and ghoulish bad TV and ethically suspect as well as methodologically flawed battlefield investigation. What is worse is the precedent this programme sets and the condoning of pillaging battlefields the programme articulates.

There are articles a-plenty available on the web criticising it, and a healthy stream of archaeologists and members of the public tweeting their intellectual objections but also their emotional disgust at watching the programme.

In summary, my second response to Doug’s challenge is when should this blog be responsive to popular abuses of mortuary archaeology even when I refuse to watch shows that peddle such abuses? In this case I have to respond even though I refuse to watch the programme.

Indeed, every mortuary archaeologist should be appalled that we find ourselves in this situation where Saturday-night TV in the UK is showing the ridiculous excavation of human remains which is tantamount to, and promotes, the looting of cemeteries and other sites containing human remains. What is most disappointing is what a wasted opportunity this programme represents: so much good work has been done combating the pillaging of sites for the trade in Nazi and other militaria and this programme could have illustrated the potential of good practice.

Thankfully, I have high hopes that the complaints submitted to Channel 5 by professional bodies and individuals, and the collective bad press this has received, will be sufficient to render this a completely unwelcome one off disaster for Channel 5 and the programme’s makers. It is shameful and if that makes me an ‘archaeo-snob’ as one contrived Twitter-user claims, then so be it.