My first appearance in the Daily Mail… My grandparents would have been so proud. I’d always hoped that it would be in the Sidebar of Shame. Another dream dashed. At least it’s about a scandal. Who knows what will happen now that the engine of our democracy has reported on the Nazi War Diggers’ ‘gruesome’ video clip?
[Clarification: the Latvian War Museum has clarified its statement – it was ‘aware’ of Nazi War Diggers’ plans to excavate.]
Promoting the Nazi relic market
As Tony Pollard (the Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology) commented,
This shows no evidence of even the most basic archaeological principles – this is treasure hunting not archaeology. I have seen human remains brandished like trophies before but in dodgy youtube videos. The fact that this comes from a commissioned TV series is quite beyond belief. The trailer on the internet was absolutely shocking, and very damaging for National Geographic….
The net result of this is that more and more of these human remains will be unnecessarily disturbed… by those looking for items to sell [to the Nazi relic market].
Military historian Rob Schäfer‘s pointed out that, for example, hundreds of German soldiers’ dog tags are for sale on eBay.
Recovering bodies ethically
Based on the preview video [from Latvia], the Nazi War Diggers didn’t record their finds properly. They didn’t take out the material carefully. To me, it looks untrained and unsupervised. If I tried to excavate a skeleton like that on a dig I would have been stopped and thrown off the site. It’s slapdash and it destroys evidence. If this is representative of their work, then they’ve probably violated European conventions concerning the protection of archaeological heritage.(1)
Schäfer (@GERArmyResearch) checked with one of the Nazi War Diggers’ partners in Poland. Thankfully, there, the professionals excavated and the Nazi War Diggers presented.
Conducting public discussions ethically
National Geographic told the Daily Mail:
Unfortunately, a video excerpt from our show posted on our website did not provide important context about our team’s methodology. This series operates in direct conjunction with organizations officially licensed to excavate battlefield sites and adhered to their procedures.
Evidently, that is one of the problems.
Archaeosoup, who’ve produced hundreds of YouTube reports and discussions on archaeology/cultural heritage, have done another on Nazi War Diggers. I’m not sure if this is the first time, but this time they’ve included National Geographic’s pulled advert clip, so they’ve had to state:
This video complies with copyright law, insomuch as that was a publicly-available video and this is a journalistic comment on that video. That it’s been taken down [for copyright infringement] really highlights the validity of this journalistic comment and if this video gets flagged and taken down, well, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Was the officially-licensed organisation’s work ethical?
Recovering war dead in Latvia, Bosnia and Cyprus
In Latvia, the Nazi War Diggers were supervised by Latvian Brotherhood Cemetery Committee-licensed Legenda. They appear to be happy with the programme – they’ve given that official statement and they’ve advertised the programme since it hit the news – and they don’t appear to appreciate the (social) media coverage: ‘This is what we do without all the bullshit.’
On one occasion, Legenda is informed, organised and well-equipped (with cameras surrounding the trench and recording the excavation). Apparently, it can identify the bones that it excavates; and it secures enough archaeological evidence to know that the Russian bodies that were found in the mass grave had been ‘partially reburied‘ by the Soviet army.
On another occasion, it records its recording, ‘[t]aking all the information from all the soldiers we found for identification purposes’. The commingled remains on a plastic sheet or in a bin bag look bad; but the remains may have been “disarticulated” (blown up) and “reburied” (bulldozed into a mass grave); and they need specialists in a laboratory to distinguish the remains.
I would prefer Legenda’s volunteers to have the training and resources of the forensic excavations under the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina or the humanitarian exhumations under the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) in Cyprus, where all of the work is conducted by professionals (or, indeed, the training and resources of their professional equivalents in Poland); and I’m sure they would too; but they don’t.
However, on yet another occasion, Legenda does not reach its own standards. Look at how it removes a soldier’s still-helmet-wearing skull (or, rather, look at how it tries to do so – from three minutes, twelve seconds into the video). Does the Brotherhood Cemetery Committee and the Latvian War Museum approve of this work?
The German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK)) – Press Officer Fritz Kirchmeier, paraphrased by military historian Rob Schäfer – is ‘not amused’ about the presentation, the (non-archaeologist) presenters, and the exclusion of the Volksbund’s partner Legenda from the video. ‘Other than that, they had nothing to do with it and do not want to be associated with it.’
1: The Valletta Convention (the 1992 European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (Revised)), which is law in Latvia, requires that ‘archaeological excavations and prospecting are undertaken in a scientific manner’.