Nazi War Diggers: Looting war graves on TV
Iron cross ground

There is a huge uproar in archaeological circles about a program slotted to air on the National Geographic channel.

UPDATE: Betty Hudson (Executive Vice President, Communications National Geographic Society) has sent me an official statement from National Geographic. I certainly don’t think this solves anything at all and I disagree with some assertions in there, but here it is for you all to see. Please investigate the claims made.

UPDATE2: Tom Mashberg at the New York Times and Guy Walters at the Daily Mail have both written great articles about this issue.

The show, Nazi War Diggers, follows a group of amateur detectorists as they hastily dig up bodies of men who died terribly and tragically on the Eastern Front. Videos posted show that the diggers do not know how to excavate a body: they literally pull a long bone out of the ground and then confuse a femur for a humerus. As an archaeologists, I was mortified by this. I was not alone. I don’t think this is entirely legal. I know it is not right.

Please take a look at Dr Sam Hardy’s blog Conflict Antiquities for the best collected coverage of this.

Anyhow, below is a letter that I sent to the show’s producers, to various folks at National Geographic, and to the press. I have received a response from the show’s producer assuring me that what they did was legal and I (and everyone else) have just misunderstood everything. I have also received a response from an executive VP at National Geographic indicating that the show was not made for US audiences so the folks are DC HQ were catching up on what was going on…that they would have more info soon. My impression was that they did not even know this show existed let alone was NatGeo branded but that is speculation at this point.

I am not an expert in war grave looting, however it has been a problem we on my project have been following for some time. There is a huge illicit market for war items looted off bodies and the stories I have heard about this practice are truly terrible. This is, honestly, one of the worst bastardisations of archaeology for television that I have seen.

If you are looking for an expert on battlefields and war graves, I suggest contacting Dr Tony Pollard.

To Whom it May Concern,

My name is Dr Donna Yates and I am a research fellow on the University of Glasgow’s Trafficking Culture project. I am extremely concerned about your advertised show “Nazi War Diggers”. From what I can tell based on my expertise on the topic of the looting of cultural property, the people in the show have no archaeological expertise whatsoever. They appear, at least from what you have presented, to be a group of non-specialist metal detectorists engaging in illegal or unethical acts concerning the despoliation of war dead. Essentially it appears as if they are looting sensitive war graves for valuables…the war graves of the fathers, brothers, and even husbands of living people. War graves of people who died terribly in a terrible war. Beyond being ethically sickening, this is honestly really big trouble. I am flabbergasted that such a respected organization at National Geographic would front something like this.

If this assessment is incorrect, I look forward to clarifying information.

Thus I am writing to request information about the archaeological and governmental credentials of those engaging in the digging on your show. I am also seeking the Latvian excavation permits for all digging conducted on the show and the written permission you obtained from Germany to disturb German war dead. I would also like documentation showing that all artefacts recovered from these excavations were turned over to the proper authorities immediately and were not sold for profit by anyone. I would also like any documents obtained from legal counsel proving that the actions of individuals in this show do not violate national and international law.

I have always respected National Geographic and have even worked on a National Geographic-funded archaeological project in Guatemala. This, however, has shaken my belief in you as a ethical and scientific organization. I shouldn’t have to tell you how important the preservation of the past is to humanity and that the looting of war graves, even Nazi war graves,* for private profit is just wrong.

I will also be notifying media contacts about this.

Dr Donna Yates

Dr Donna Yates
Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research,
School of Social and Political Sciences,
University of Glasgow,
Ivy Lodge, 63 Gibson Street, Glasgow G128LR

Direct Line: +44 (0)141 330 3335

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* Rob Schäfer has noted that these are GERMAN war graves, not “Nazi” war graves. I agree with him completely. The word choice in the letter was meant to allude to the title of the show and, perhaps, make the recipient realize that German bodies were being treated as less than human, likely because they were German. This is an extremely important point. These are our fathers and grandfathers, people who died tragically for a tragic reason and in recent memory. To get a bit personal, I am American but am roughly half Polish (clever name change). My DNA is sprinkled throughout all kinds of war graves of the region. Yours might be too.

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