Reality Bites

The dilemma of reality television and what it means for the future of archaeology

By Jerry D. Spangler

In years gone by, when I used to teach archaeology methods, I used to give the students an assignment to watch their choice of the Indiana Jones movies and develop a research design for his “investigations” that would pass muster in the modern world. It was a critical thinking exercise intended to be fun, and we did have a lot of laughs.

But it seems it is no laughing matter in today’s world of reality television where vast audiences of millions tune in every week for the thrill of watching a protagonist discover exciting artifacts.

The unbridled quest for artifacts is unquestionably anathema to modern archaeologists, who by and large hold themselves to rigorous research standards. But the Indiana Jones mentality is thriving in the real world thanks to reality shows like Diggers, American Diggers, Dig Wars, Time Team America, and probably a few more I haven’t heard about.

I admit I was flummoxed and even afflicted with vapors of righteous indignation when I learned some time ago that National Geographic Society had sponsored the television reality series Diggers – which in my mind was little more than glorified looting. Surely something so ethically reprehensible would not survive the public brouhaha.

Not only has it survived but it is bigger than ever. According to Society for American Archaeology President Jeffrey H. Altschul, 30.9 million viewers tuned in to watch Diggers over a five month period in 2014 –ratings gold for any cable channel. And that does not count the millions more who watched the other reality shows.

“Why such huge audiences?” Altschul writes in the March message to SAA members. “Because the public really likes and is interested in archaeology and history.”

Furthermore, he adds, “Don’t we have an obligation to the people who watch reality TV, as well as to the viewers of NOVA? I think we do. But we also have an obligation to ensure that these shows portray archaeology in a way that meets our standards of ethical conduct and scientific practice.”

I couldn’t agree more. But as a profession, we are late to this party and we forgot to bring wine.

The public demands to know about archaeology, but what do we give them? The same thing over and over. Most places have a “Prehistory Week” or a “Prehistory Month” with maybe some site tours or museum exhibits, there might be lectures here and there, and once in a while our issues get good coverage in the local media.  PBS and other educational documentary outlets have done a great job on archaeological topics.

But the reality is these traditional means of communication reach an infinitesimally small portion of the public who actually cares about history and archaeology. And we certainly aren’t reaching the millions who tune in to reality television.

The appetite for archaeological knowledge is massive, but our profession – yes, I am directing this at my archaeologist friends and government officials whose job it is to “protect” archaeology – have done painfully little to satisfy that public hunger to know what it is we do, why we do it, and why it is important.

And others have now stepped into the void to serve up a dish we find so unpalatable to our ethical sensibilities. It’s not just reality television, but digital and social media. You can now Google just about any moderately well-known archaeological site in the United States and come up with blogs about it, directions to it, even entire web pages devoted to it. To say the messages are “imaginative” is to put it mildly.

We recently took our photographer friend Jonathan Bailey to a site we assumed was off the radar because to get to it you had to cross private lands posted no trespassing (yes, we had permission). I thought I was sharing something that few ever get to see. The following week, he sends me links to a recent blog site he had found that has detailed photographs of the site and directions on how to find it – all without a single mention that visitation involves trespassing and not a single word about the proper behavior expected when visiting such a site.

Any proactive message we might have hoped for this site had been hijacked by the “wow” crowd.

The consequences of our failure to communicate could have dire consequences for the resources we are all passionate about, Altschul warns.

“As archaeologists, we have an ethical obligation to tell the public what we have learned (SAA Ethical Principle No. 4),” he writes. “If that is not enough, we have our own self-interest. Most of us, whether in academia or CRM, are supported either directly by public funding or by laws and regulations. Unless we communicate why what we do is in the public interest, we run the real risk of having these funds shut off and the regulations protecting archaeological resources lifted or eviscerated.”

And that reality would really bite.

Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. He can be reached directly at

The entire March edition of the SAA Record is a must-read examination of the ethical dilemmas inherent in reality television. It can be found at or by going to the Society for American Archaeology website.

Ten Archaeology Wishes for 2015

By Jerry D. Spangler

Alas, 2014 was a rough year for archaeological (and paleontological) resources across the planet.

To our south we had the pillaging of Mayan ruins by narco-traffickers and the desecration of Nazca. Closer to home, we had dinosaur footprints stolen and then dumped in the Colorado River, we had an artist with no respect leaving her calling card across our national parks, and we seemed to have one vandalism case after another.

I could go on and on and on, but I resolve to be a positive person, focus on the good in people, the glass being half full, and all those other euphemisms we banter about at the start of a new year. And that got me thinking: What would my Top 10 wishes be for the year ahead?

This could be you! Join. Donate. Volunteer.

This could be you! Join. Donate. Volunteer.

In reverse order, of course, since Letterman Style requires it.

No. 10 – I wish that state educators will implement a requirement that no one can graduate high school without knowing the difference between an archaeologist and a paleontologist. Can I have at least a year without someone asking, “So, you study dinosaurs?”

No. 9 – I wish that Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones will actually publish his findings in a peer-reviewed journal. It has been over 30 years since you recovered that Ark of the Covenant, and still nothing? As Jesse Jennings was fond of saying, “Unreported field work is field work never done.”

No. 8 – I wish that we can have an entire year without a pseudo-history channel “documentary” where the host breathlessly reveals the certainty of lost Aztec gold in southern Utah. Enough already. Everyone knows it is actually lost Spanish gold and it is in the Uinta Mountains, not Kanab.

No. 7 – I wish that our state and federal judges will look at vandalism, looting and theft of cultural resources in the same light they would the theft of a Picasso or the destruction of a Rembrandt. It is not funny at all that shoplifters in our society often do more jail time than looters of irreplaceable cultural treasures.

No. 6 – I wish that the Obama Administration will have the courage to offer up some real protections for the archaeology of Cedar Mesa and Greater Canyonlands. Exactly how it is done is not the issue in my book. It might be the Bishop Plan, it might be an executive order, it might be re-prioritizing federal budgets. Just grow a set, Obama, and get it done.

No. 5 – I wish that the federal government would put as much of its admittedly limited resources into managing and protecting archaeology as they do into pandering to oil and gas development. Okay, I would be happy with less. Some estimates place the value of federal tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry at around $4 billion a year. How about 10 percent of that ($400 million) to protect our cultural heritage for future generations? Maybe 5 percent?

No. 4 – I wish that San Juan Commissioner Phil Lyman will recognize the audacity of his demand to use taxpayer money to cover the legal expenses resulting from his shenanigans when he illegally rode his OHV into an area closed because of its archaeological resources. Sir, it was your “political statement” and you should own up to that.

No. 3 – I wish that all OHV users will stay on designated trails and that we can find common ground on the simple concept that the right to ride your OHV is NOT protected by the Second Amendment (but your right to carry an AK-47 while riding it certainly is).

No. 2 – I wish that Utah Gov. Gary Herbert would call a press conference to announce that he is pulling the plug on the state’s effort to wrest control of federal lands, and his statement reads, at least in part, “Public lands belong to all Americans and all Americans are welcome on public lands in Utah.” (Hey, this is my wish, not my expectation.)

No. 1 – I wish that all of you will join CPAA and become part of our community and our commitment to protect treasured resources. Go to and pledge your support. Join. Donate. Volunteer.

Please Note: Many (but not all) of the statements offered above are offered with my tongue planted firmly in cheek and there is no intent to offend, irritate, defame or otherwise rile any person, belief or political conviction. My intent is to make you smile, laugh, shake your head, smirk and offer your own sarcasm.

Happy New Year All

Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. He can be reached at

Say It in English, Please (or maybe Spanish)


6 Steps our federal agencies might want to consider to improve public participation

By Jerry D. Spangler

For nigh a decade now, I have spent an inordinate amount of my time immersed in land management planning documents, looking for weaknesses and flaws in how federal agencies manage cultural resources for their long-term protection. It is an important part of what we do at the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.

And there is almost always something to criticize, something that could be made better, something that is inherently flawed.

But there is one fundamental truth to all of these documents: They are dry as dirt.

Maybe a handful of bureaucratic geeks see them as their own twisted version of “50 Shades of Grey,” but truth be told these documents are without a doubt a tasteless gumbo of legal-speak, an alphabet soup of acronyms, and a listless catalog of authorizations and objectives and planning lingo that are incomprehensible to Joe and Jane Citizen.

It is little wonder the public rarely comments on these documents. Most people have never learned this arcane language (maybe Rosetta Stone should come out with a version for government-speak).

Not surprisingly, the planning process – and the far-reaching decisions that result from them – defaults to those who do speak the language: the bureaucrats, conservation groups, industry insiders, and special interest lobbyists – all of who claim to speak for the masses but rarely (if ever) do.

The great Irish statesman Edmund Burke once offered a timeless quote on the triumph of evil. I have been known to bastardize that quote to read “the only thing necessary for stupidity to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Sure, the government agencies do what is legally required of them: They post notifications on government bulletin boards, they might host an open house here and there with charts and graphs, and they level entire forests printing even more dry documents that few people ever read.

But we shouldn’t be surprised if stupidity prevails under the current system. Given the importance of these decisions to all of us, I am offering an admittedly naive “outsider perspective” that I believe could better engage the masses:

1)  The federal government’s old way of doing public outreach simply does not work in a digital age. Embrace the new technology to get your message out. Use forums like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, et al. In today’s world, people rarely go to a web site unless they are buying something. So take your message to the forums where people are at and engage them directly (in 45 characters or less if need be).

2)  Identify your target audience and reach out to them rather than wait for them to engage you. For example, if the issue is the management of archaeological sites along vehicle routes then create a public forum for the exchange of ideas about your planning document. You just might find that dialogue (even in the world of instant messaging) can bring together competing groups to achieve a common good within the framework of your planning document.

3)  Define your message plainly and simply. Most recently, we have been reviewing the Bureau of Land Management’s “Scoping Document” for the Nine Mile Canyon Special Recreation Management Area. Yet nowhere in the document (or on the Price Field Office website) does it clearly define what a Scoping Document is or exactly what information is sought from the public. (Or if such information is there, it is buried so deep as to never be found). Never assume anyone else knows what you are talking about.

4)  I understand that various laws and implementing regulations require planning documents be formatted in certain (boring) ways. But does this process disallow you from having a short “introduction” or “executive summary” written specifically for Joe and Jane that speaks to why this particular document was created, the specific information sought from the public, and how they should present their comments to the agency? And can you do it without a single reference to a legal authorization or using a single acronym?

5)  Ask yourself if your document will be understood by a soccer mom in Salt Lake City or a plumber in Moab or a retiree in St. George. Once you think you have a final document, consider having it massaged by an outsider who can take your insider government speak and translate it into English. You might think you speak plain English, but trust me here you don’t.

6) The Department of Interior has made a big show of its desires to get more people out and about enjoying their public lands, especially reaching out to young people and minorities. But where is this reflected in the bureaucratic planning? Are these documents also available in Spanish or any other language? Where are the primers that will teach young people how to participate? And how does your time-worn approach reflect how young people and minorities enjoy public lands in ways much different than generations past?

As I read through the six different planning documents on my desk at the moment, this nagging suspicion keeps creeping through the keyholes of my mind: These documents were certainly written to comply with the law, but were they ever really intended to be understood by anyone other than a select few?

Public participation is at the heart of sound government policy. Yet the current approach seems only to encourage good people to do nothing.

And that’s just plain stupid.


Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of cultural resources on public lands. He can be reached at

An Ageless State of Mind


USU Rock Art Study Evokes Questions …
And that’s great news for archaeology

By Jerry D. Spangler

Our recent posting on findings by Utah State University researchers into the potential age of Barrier Canyon rock art – that at least some of the images might be much more recent than traditionally assumed – provoked some rather pointed criticisms questioning my own intelligence (or lack thereof) for giving any credence whatsoever to the research.

There were also many doubts expressed towards lead researcher, geologist Joel Pederson, and archaeologist and co-author Steven Simms, who was quoted widely in the news media.

To clarify, our re-posting of the research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was never intended to suggest that Pederson and Simms had resolved once and for all the question of the antiquity of Barrier Canyon rock art.

And I am fairly confident that Pederson, Simms, et al. would never argue that the question has been answered conclusively and definitively.

Why? Because they are serious scientists with impressive bona fides, and the fundamental nature of scientific inquiry is such that there is never really any certainty, only more questions for further inquiry. As the economist Thorstein Veblen astutely observed generations ago, “The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.”

And in that regard, Pederson, Simms and the others who contributed to the research should be applauded. Not only did they challenge a long-held truism using sound scientific methods, but their research fosters the growth of many more questions worthy of future inquiry.

In summary, the Barrier Canyon rock art style has traditionally been assigned to Archaic hunters and gatherers who occupied the remote canyons of southern and eastern Utah. Some students of the style believe it is among the earliest artistic expressions in the American West, dating to at least 7,000 years ago. Many others assign a more conservative age range of 1700 B.C. to A.D. 300, based on the association of the images with datable materials in alcoves and rock shelters where the images are located.

Most archaeologists would probably agree that it could be Archaic, but they are reticent to embrace any age range for the Barrier Canyon images because there is no certainty that any of the datable materials were in fact left behind at the same time the images were painted on the canyon walls.

And the rock art itself has resisted (so far) attempts at direct radiocarbon dating.

Pederson addressed the problem using optically stimulated luminescence, a non-destructive technique which does not measure the age of the images themselves but rather measures, in a very simplified nutshell, when certain types of stone were last exposed to sunlight (see

His samples, from the famed Horseshoe Canyon district of Canyonlands National Park, were found to date between 900 and 2000 years ago – much more recent than most had assumed.

Will the research stand up to future inquiry? No one knows. And that’s not the point.

Pederson and his colleagues identified a relevant question, they collected and analyzed data using scientifically sound methods, and they subjected their research to rigorous peer review. Future researchers can examine their techniques and conclusions (as with any good science, the methods used in the Pederson study can be replicated). Future researchers can and probably will use new, even-better techniques that could challenge the earlier findings. And that research will, in turn, lead to new questions for yet other researchers.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

And that is the most exciting outcome of Pederson’s research. It raises more and more questions while challenging the rigid orthodoxy of assumption.

Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, an organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of cultural resources on public lands. He can be reached at