"Diggers" TV show strikes nerve

2012-03-15T00:05:00Z 2014-08-25T23:58:22Z "Diggers" TV show strikes nerveBRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Montana's state archaeologist said a Montana duo of metal detector artifact hunters featured in a new National Geographic television program appear to have violated state law.

He isn't the only one upset by the content of the show "Diggers," which featured Anaconda-area residents Tim Saylor and George Wyant. The show has also become the focus of Facebook petitions and write-in campaigns to the channel criticizing the show's content.

The first episode of the "Diggers," called "Montana Juice," was filmed at the Old Montana Prison, a state-owned property in Deer Lodge. The show aired on Feb. 28.

State archaeologist Stan Wilmoth said the show's production company, Half Yard Productions of Bethesda, Md., did not request or receive a permit to dig at the site, which is required because the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wilmoth said he heard about the show before it was broadcast and alerted Chris Albert, who told him the show did have permission. In a telephone interview, Albert reiterated that the crew followed "appropriate protocol" in gaining permission to work at the site.

What appears to have happened is that the producers obtained permission from the lessees of the property, the Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation, Wilmoth said. But the Department of Corrections is the owner of the property.

In a letter to the Department of Corrections chief legal counsel, Wilmoth pointed out the violation, adding that the show projected a "disparaging image" of Montana's concern for its heritage sites and may encourage similar unpermitted activities.

Diana Koch, chief legal counsel for the Department of Corrections, said the agency is considering drafting a letter to the Powell County Attorney to make him aware of the incident. It would be up to the County Attorney to press charges.

Koch also said the department is adding a provision to its lease agreement with the arts foundation to spell out that it is not allowed to grant permission for excavation on the leased property.

Online versions of the show could not be found by searching the National Geographic Channel's website. The company reportedly added a disclaimer to "Diggers" when it aired, noting that such activities aren't allowed on federal lands. But those steps may not go far enough for some folks.

"I have a sneaking suspicion that people often overlook that (warning) because the boundary between public and private land isn't always well marked," said Doug Melton, principal archaeologist for the Miles City office of the Bureau of Land Management.

As of Wednesday, National Geographic Channel had not ordered any more episodes of the half-hour show, according to Chris Albert, the channel's vice president of communications. He added that the channel is working to open a dialogue with those who complained about the show but said he had no details.

Half Yard Productions referred questions to its public relations firm, Big Noise PR. Big Noise's Bronagh Hanley said National Geographic had the final word on the show and declined to comment further. An email to Saylor was referred to the public relations company.

Before being signed to a national television show, Saylor and Wyant were featured in a series of videos about their "extreme metal detecting" adventures. They advertise the DVDs on their website as "strangely spastic, and often very painful and disturbing to the average geek."

Their hijinks connected with Half Yard Productions, which also produces "American Loggers" and "The Real Housewives of D.C."

Close on the heels of "Diggers" comes another program sure to stir up more controversy. "American Digger" will premier on the Spike TV channel on March 20, featuring former pro wrestler Ric Savage's team of artifact hunters.

Critics worry that the shows may portray artifact hunting inappropriately and may encourage people to break the law.

"We're not here to badmouth Spike TV or National Geographic," said Mark Jacobson, information officer for the BLM in Miles City. But he said the shows could confuse people about what's allowed.

"They could lead to serious damage at historical and archaeological sites," the BLM's Melton said. "We don't want historic sites, especially battlefields, looking like gophers have been in there."

The American Anthropological Association's president, Leith Mullings, drafted a letter to the National Geographic Society's chairman, urging him to withdraw support for or modify the content of "Diggers."

"This program wrongly represents archaeology as a treasure-seeking adventure, in which our collective heritage is dug up and sold for monetary gain," Mullings wrote in a letter dated March 7.

Mullings suggested that the program hire a registered professional archaeologist to consult with the show's producer to modify future content.

William F. Limp, president of the Society for American Archaeology, wrote in a message posted online that both shows "promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites."

Melton emphasized that there are opportunities available to people interested in finding artifacts while ensuring that proper procedures are followed. The Montana Archaeological Society recruits helpers for digs, as well as people to monitor sites to prevent vandalism. The Forest Service's Passport in Time project also recruits volunteer helpers for archaeological and historical projects.

"I like to convey the message that we are here for them," said C.J. Truesdale, a BLM archaeologist in Miles City.

He said he welcomes visitors seeking information on artifacts they've legally discovered.

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