Nazis, the Holocaust, and Archaeology as Reality TV

It’s ironic that while the new National Geographic reality TV show “Nazi War Diggers” has evoked howls of outrage from archaeologists all over the world for its happy-go-lucky desecration of human remains for tabloid documentary entertainment, the new Smithsonian show “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” has received interest, fairly positive reviews, and widespread (if ghoulish) curiosity.

Actually there is a lot more that links these two shows than distinguishes them.  They are both clear signs of how reality TV is transforming World War II and the Nazis into seductively entertaining documentary fare, rather than history that we really have to take seriously. Not only that.  Archaeology no longer plays the role of the handmaiden of history; it has become reality TV’s whore. Young people digging for the unexpected treasures can be quite photogenic and it’s fairly easy to turn into a narrative with breathless, cliffhanging teasers to keep us tuned in across the commercials.  Like so many “Secrets of the Bible” documentaries, archaeology has allowed itself to become a new medium of video trivialization.  Or in these cases, a medium for the banalization –or even outright denial– of the horrors of the Holocaust and the battles on the Eastern front.

"Nazi War Diggers" - National Geographic Channel

“Nazi War Diggers” – National Geographic Channel

What are the main objections to Nazi War Diggers?  Well, mostly disrespectful handling of human remains and poor archaeological technique.  The first objection is due to the positive influence of the passionate and effective ethical movement of indigenous peoples all over the world to stop the archaeological collection (or sometimes even discarding) of human skeletal remains as just things. There are many complex issues to be settled of course, especially in regard to ancient, unclaimed, or non-indigenous (if such a term can be used) human remains unearthed in excavations, but Nazi diggers, with its gleeful display of femurs and skulls as alongside the holsters, guns, and other military paraphernalia is just grotesque treasure hunting.  Its airing on the National Geographic Channel is a disgraceful blot on the NG brand, which anyway has sold away its reputation along with the management of the channel to the Rupert Murdoch empire.  What else do you expect when you sell your brand to the impresario of industrial-grade history porn?

The second objection to Nazi Diggers comes from the defenders of cultural property and the fighters against looting, another impact of the turn in archaeology and heritage practice to recognizing that artifacts and sites are not merely sandboxes for private treasure hunters or open pit mines for the private antiquities collectors’ market.  A valid point certainly, and cause for the condemnation of other cable reality shows like American Diggers on Spike TV, which valorize looting and make it into a sort of a video contest in which the digger who can rip the most valuable thing out of the earth is the winner.  But then, for that, the American Institute of Archaeology’s favorite mythic archaeologist, Indiana Jones, is the champion of the world.

So what is my beef with the “”Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,”?  It can’t be faulted in relatively greater respect shown to of human remains, or the sophistication of its archaeological technique.  The excavation is headed by Dr.Caroline Sturdy Colls, a forensic archaeologist who teaches at Stafforshire University and whose 2012 dissertation, “Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution” eminently qualifies to lead such a dig.

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, star of "Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine" - Smithsonian Channel

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, star of “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” – Smithsonian Channel

But what is the show trying to show through archaeology?  An admiring promo in livescience.com credits the dig with being “The first-ever archaeological excavations at the Nazi death camp Treblinka [which has] revealed new mass graves, as well as the first physical evidence that this camp held gas chambers, where thousands of Jews died.”  Is this news to anyone?  Should not the remains of the victims be left in peace?  The camp, its purpose, its layout, and its mass extermination machinery has been extensively documented, not least by the history-conscious Nazis themselves. The archaeological finding that the Nazi’s did not quite obliterate all evidence of their crimes would hardly raise an eyebrow for most normal people.

But for the viewers, this scientific exercise provides a ghastly, voyeuristic entertainment.  Worse yet it actually provides holocaust deniers a kind of intellectual legitimacy.  Like the pseudo-scientific assertions of the Scientific Creationists who surf decontextualized scientific data and debates between scholars that evolution (and likewise in a different context, Global Warming) is just a theory, the comments have begun to roll in about the Treblinka dig:

Here are a few samples, questioning the archaeological interpretation of the site:

–Did a word search for “cubic” and “square”. No hits. Where are the numbers? How much area did they excavate, how many bodies did they find and / or estimate based on the grave volume?  How big were the mass graves? Compare that to other mass graves which are less politicized and we know the death count, and compare the sizes of the two to get an estimate. If you want to say, “well, we can’t find them all because most of them were incinerated. We got some Nazi to say that after pulling his teeth and crushing his balls a few times at Nuremburg.” – that’s conspiracy theorist logic based on confession extracted from torture.

–Oy vey, look at this picture of us digging in the ground. Obviously this proves that the Nazis holocausted over 60 trillion people. Don’t ask for any specifics, like about how much of the area was actually excavated, or how many bodies were actually exactly found.”

–So they found a brick wall and some tiles. Let’s rush out an article saying its gas chambers. Cheap journalism.
When will an archaeologist do work on the millions of German civilians that were fire bombed to death by the Allies, or the 25 million Christian Ukrainians killed by the Bolsheviks in the 30’s? Or the Japanese that we held in concentration camps and nuked. They get no memorials, no museums, no reparations, no constant media articles, no Hollywood movies. It would be nice to have more balance in the world.

Yes, archaeology can raise as many questions as it asks.  But they are often the wrong ones when archaeologists allow themselves to be packaged for fast-food, channel-surfing cable TV.

When Will They Ever Learn?

Regarding the recent “early-books-of-Christianity-discovered-by-a-bedouin-scam” reported here and elsewhere over the past week or so, information provided by Jim Davila’s always sensible and reliable Paleojudaica.com should put the whole thing to bed once and for all.

Ah, the Daily Mail. UFOs, celebrity gossip, and the earliest texts of Christianity. Photo: David Elkington/Rex Features (whatever that is)

Philip Davies should know better.

Margaret Baker should get her head out of the clouds.

The Director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, Ziad Al-Saad, should investigate an unprovenanced  discovery on the antiquities market more thoroughly before he makes muscular official statements to the press about “treasures” and make claims for repatriation.

And David Elkington, whoever you are, should never try to pull a stunt like this again.

The Kiss of Death


Dr. Zahi Hawass, new Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities

Dr. Zahi Hawass, the bombastic, clownish pseudo-archaeologist who has tyrannized, bullied, and manipulated Egyptologists and Egyptian villagers alike for years now, today officially accepted President Hosni Mubarak’s appointment as Minister of State for Antiquities in the desperate, ghost government that has just been formed.

Hawass has thrown in his lot completely with the dying order.  Antiquities are the least of Egypt’s problems right now– but all those who are concerned with them have another major reason to wonder what the future will bring…

Alerted by Nigel Hetherington

From the AP   January 31, 2011

Egypt’s President Announces New Government

by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak swore in a new Cabinet on Monday, replacing one dissolved as a concession to unprecedented anti-government protests.

In the most significant change, the interior minister — who heads internal security forces — was replaced. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, was named to replace Habib el-Adly, who is widely despised by protesters for brutality shown by security forces.

Still, the new Cabinet is unlikely to satisfy the tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in cities across Egypt the past week demanding the ouster of Mubarak and his entire regime. When Mubarak announced the dissolving of the previous government late Friday and named his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his vice president, protesters on the streets rejected the move as an attempt by Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian ruler of nearly 30 years, to cling to power.

The new line-up of Cabinet ministers announced on state television included stalwarts of Mubarak’s regime but purged several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country’s economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.

In the new Cabinet, Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

The longest-serving Cabinet minister, Culture Minister Farouq Hosni, was replaced by Gaber Asfour, a widely respected literary figure.

Egypt’s most famous archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, was named state minister for antiquities, a new post.

Newly sworn-in Mubarak government listens to the President as demonstrators mass in Tahrir Square, 1 Feb. 2011. Egyptian TV


Click image to watch clip

National Geographic, Have You No Shame?

Yes, we know from Cornelius Holtorf that Archaeology is a Brand.  Yes, we know that Indiana Jones is all in good fun (maybe) and it has attracted enormous numbers of students from comfortable industrialized countries to study archaeology. 

But what is inside the container?  There has always been faith among the archaeological profession– and indeed among some of our esteemed cultural institutions– that beneath the seductive veneer of popular culture, is (or could be) the prospect of recruiting a new generation to serious, productive, and intellectually sound archaeology.

I have never bought that argument.  I have always thought that the images provided by the Indiana Jones pseudo-1930s (and now 1950s) Saturday afternoon serials contain the same racist vision of snatching ancient treasure from the hands of benighted natives and evil powers that the original Saturday afternoon serials did.  I gives all the wrong messages about why we should be interested in the past and how to relate to it as something more than mysterious, valuable treasure.  But I was royally flamed in the Washington Post for saying exactly that.

Of course as we all know, life imitates art with frightening frequency in our celebrity culture.  Zahi Hawass wears (and even authorizes the sale of branded) Indiana Jones-style fedoras.  Harrison Ford has been appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Archaeological Institute of America, and government antiquities services around the world tout their ancient monuments and exotic landscapes as the places where one of the Indiana Jones movies was filmed.

At what point does life not just imitate art but become its marketing mechanism?  At what point do the whip and the gun actually BECOME archaeology?

The latest cultural confection from the National Geographic Society shows that, in fact, that the symbol and substance have become inextricably (and profitably intertwined).  There has been much discussion about the marketing of blockbuster exhibitions with high admission prices outside usual museums.  But this proposed traveling exhibition so aggressively mixes hype and celebrity mystique that there is hardly any room left for its supposed reason. 

Watch the following commercial and tell me if the appeal is based on the chance for visitors to see Indiana Jones “props and costumes” and buy Indiana Jones memorabilia or to learn about something as vague and misunderstood as “Archaeology.”

Tell me if you disagree.

Selling Venice?

Is the situation described below:

a.)  A crime against World Heritage?

b.) A clever (if presently mismanaged) way of funding architectural restorations?

c.) A cultural mold spore infection from The Venetian in Las Vegas?

c.) The inevitable surface eruption of consumer desire that has animated mass cultural tourism over the years?

From The Art News issue 217, October 2010

Ads of Sighs

The huge ads proliferating in Venice, now also lit up by night, are not bringing in huge money and stretch the application of the law to the point of illegality

By Enrico Tantucci

Since 2008, more and more huge advertisements have appeared in Venice, on palaces up and down the Grand Canal and on the façades of St Mark’s Square, the Biblioteca Marciana, and the Doge’s Palace. Now they are also lit up at night to give the advertisers a bigger bang for their bucks. The price, however, is not high; it costs about €40,000 a month for three years to cover part of Doge’s Palace overlooking the lagoon and connecting with the Bridge of Sighs—less than two pages of advertising in a daily paper. And even with this money coming in, the restoration is still €600,000 short of the €2.8m needed to finish the job.

The Doges' Palace, Venice

The city council and the superintendency of architecture for Venice, which has given permission for these ads, are adamant that this is the only way to finance the restoration of historic public buildings in the city as public funds have been very short since the special financing Venice used to get has been diverted to build the barriers between the Adriatic and the lagoon (due to be completed in 2014), and the restoration budget of the ministry of culture has been cut. Despite protests by amenity groups such as Fondo Ambiente Italiano and the Association of Private Committees for Venice, mayor Giorgio Orsoni and superintendent Renata Codello announced last month that they intended to carry on with this method of raising money. The ad spaces on the Biblioteca Marciana and in St Mark’s Square have been granted in return for €3.5m to Plakativ Media, a German company that rents out spaces to agencies and here the ads are already up yet some of the restoration has not even begun…

For entire article, click here