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'American Digger' digs Alaska in debut episode

Ben Anderson
Spike TV photo

"American Digger," a new reality show airing on Spike TV that follows a group of artifact seekers in search of antique or ancient buried treasure, premieres Wednesday, but it's already the subject of much scrutiny.

The first episode of the show takes place in Alaska, as Ric Savage and his group of diggers from "American Savage" -- an "artifact recovery company" owned by Savage's family -- travel to the Turnagain Arm area between Girdwood and Anchorage in search of gold rush goodies.

Savage, a former professional wrestler, is leader of the crew, and their job consists of knocking on the doors of private citizens, asking if they can dig on their land, with a promise to split the profits of any valuable finds. They then go around with metal detectors and hand tools, digging up any big hits.

It's pretty obnoxious, and stretches the limits of "unscripted," with numerous scenes playing out in painfully contrived ways, like when the team finds a decades-old bear trap that prompts Savage to shout at his crew to get back as one of them reaches to pick it up. Savage himself is abrasive and doesn't seem particularly knowledgeable about Alaska or the Gold Rush era, though the other crew members inexplicably look up to him.

After being rejected by a particularly confrontational homeowner -- "Folks here are reclusive and don't take kindly to strangers," Savage theorizes --  Savage and the boys purportedly wind up in the vicinity of Crow Creek Mine, where he strikes a deal with the landowner to split the profits of the find 70-30.

There, they find that bear trap, a pick head, a gold pan, a rock auger and a two-man saw pulled from the frozen ground they've thawed using burn barrels.

In the end, Savage goes to Duane's Antique Market, where he works out a $6,000 deal for the whole lot. Doing some quick math, that's $1,800 to the homeowner, leaving $4,200 for the crew of four men for two days work, without accounting equipment, the crew-cab truck they're getting around in, or the cost of travel to Alaska.

Conveniently, Savage tells us that an additional seven days of digging netted almost another $20,000 for the crew. Of course, we don't see any of that.

Bad Archaeology?

Already, controversy surrounds "American Digger" and another, similar show that started airing on the National Geographic Channel in February, "Diggers."

Numerous scientists have already tackled the issue of amateur "archaeology" for profit rather than preservation, saying that such treasure-hunting approaches to paleontology damage the discipline. William Limp, president of the Society for American Archaeology, wrote a letter to the producer of "American Digger" calling the show "…contrary to the ethics of American archaeological practice, highly destructive, and possibly illegal." Other organizations have followed suit with similar letters to both shows.

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At least in the Alaska episode, what Savage and his crew do isn't illegal, according to archaeologists with the Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

"The legal situation for Alaska is that if a person or, for that matter, a corporation owns land free and clear without any federal or state connection to it, they own the land," said Bob King, an archaeologist with BLM. "They would then also own the archaeological resources on that land."

Anyone looking to do work with proper permitting on state or federal land would first be subject to an evaluation of the land to be affected, to determine what, if any, paleontological importance might be present there, King said.

King added that elsewhere in the U.S., local laws give states ownership of cultural artifacts, regardless of whether they're on private property or not. But that's not the case in Alaska.

Taking artifacts or fossils from state or federal lands, on the other hand, is a dangerous proposition, as Alaska rafting guide and author Karen Jettmar recently found out when she was indicted on charges of conspiracy and removing a paleontological resource from federal land. Jettmar is accused of helping a client smuggle a mammoth tusk out of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in 2011.

King said that the only exception to the private property free-for-all is if human remains are discovered, in which case professionals must be called in. But if it's simply animal or plant fossils or man-made artifacts, it's fair game.

David McMahan, an archaeologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, agreed. State lands are only a little different than federal lands, but Alaska state laws also allow private property owners to keep -- or sell -- any artifacts discovered on their land.

Anyone interested in digging for artifacts on state land, however, would have to go through more rigorous measures.

"The person applying for the permit has to meet certain minimum qualification standards, entailing a degree in anthropology or archaeology, and some level of experience," McMahan said of anyone applying for a state archaeological dig permit. Such permits are given out only for scientific purposes.

Another thing that both McMahan and King agree on, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that shows like "American Digger" and "Diggers" dilute the value of archaeology in the public eye. McMahan said he'd heard rumors that "Diggers" had violated a state's historic preservation act in the very first episode. A Billings Gazette article backs the assertion up, reporting the crew dug without a permit on a Montana site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

McMahan and King said that the shows undermine positive perceptions of archaeology.

"What's caused so much alarm with the shows isn't so much the legality, but the message that it sends to the public," McMahan said. "We spend our careers protecting heritage for the public good."

"What's so unfortunate about (shows like "American Digger") is it takes archaeology from a science and turns it into making a commodity of the past for fun and profit," King said. "But the past is there as a history lesson to us."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com