“Grave robbing” on TV?

A couple of days ago National Geographic announced a new series called “Nazi War Diggers” (http://natgeotv.com/za/nazi-war-diggers). This show, according to their own description, aims to bring to light “Untold numbers of soldiers and their weapons remain buried across the vast landscape of WorlAd War Two’s Eastern Front. Three war diggers are racing against time to save this history from being looted or lost. During the last year of World War Two, in Latvia’s Courland Peninsula, Hitler’s army was trapped between the Baltic Sea and Stalin’s rampaging Red rmy. Stephen Taylor, Kris Rodgers and Craig Gottlieb bring their specialist knowledge to one battlefield on that front line. Their quest – to hunt for relics and bodies, uncovering a forgotten story of World War Two’s bloody front. Craig, Kris and Stephen come face to face with the dangers and cost of war.”

As it was expected, the archaeological community received it with a prompt concern. First of all, the presentation video and photos displayed on the NatGeographic website (which were deleted as soon as reactions started pouring in) showed a total lack of archaeological procedures or osteological knowledge (e.g. one of the guys pulls a bone from a grave and identifies it as the humerus, and surprise: it is too long! which is quite expected given that it’s a… femur…you can watch the video as it was rescued by Archaeosoup here, min. 10:18, along with their comments). Also, the label itself might be problematic, as they are German graves and not Nazi graves, as stated here.

Secondly, one of the main actors seems to be a dealer in Nazi relics (talk about conflict of interests!).

And thirdly, and most importantly: there is a HUGE ethical problem with digging up graves of WWII victims. What we have hear is a painful history whose material remains (bodies and material culture) have been left to rest for 70 years. Therefore, to come now and turn this past in entertainment is just a major form of disrespect not only towards those dead people, but also towards the memory of what they represent- it’s a commodification of the horrors of the war (by turning the material culture into collectibles and TV show).

There have been a lot of negative reactions:

John Roby from Digs&Docs, We don’t need a TV show about looting Nazi battlefields:Time is not “running out” at all. There’s no pressing threat to the archaeological record of WWII battlefields besides unchecked development, climate change, and the looting of the sites themselves. By broadcasting this program, the network is (indirectly, to be as kind as possible) encouraging more looting.”


from Deathsplanation – she wrote a letter to NatGeographic and you can read her text, along with their reply

[update 29/03] a new post On the importance of context


Kristina Killgrove with Who needs an osteologist? (“Of course, the real problem is that none of the three men who are the on-air “talent” for this show is trained as an archaeologist or forensic anthropologist. After all the brouhaha from archaeologists about other problematic shows, like Spike TV’s American Digger (see this NYTimes article, for example) and the NatGeo Channel’s Diggers featuring amateur archaeologists — which the Society for American Archaeology protested in letters to Spike and NatGeo — it feels like the National Geographic Channel has now just resorted to trolling anthropologists.”)


#Análisis – Cuando echas de menos a los alienígenas.


-The video along with comments by Archaeosoup here


-about the cast of the show: Paul Berford ([update 30/03] about the excavations context: “Nazi War Diggers”, the Polish Background) and Sam Hardy (update 29/03, a new post on Gottlieb here, ‘No trouble with customs.’ Perhaps trouble with repeatedly written confessions?)


information posted on Bioanthropology News via Rob SchäferA German military historian (Rob Schaefer) has heard back from the Volksbund:” From Herr Fritz Kirchmeier. VDK Press Office: The producers of the show worked in conjunction with a Latvian recovery group (that also operates for the Volksbund) They found the mortal remains of one German and two Russian soldiers which have been reburied. The Volksbund is not amused about the presenation of the show and the choice of the presenters. They also wonder why the Latvian group was deliberately kept out of cameras way. Other than that, they had nothing to do with it and do not want to be associated with it.”

-watch the thread on BAJRarchaeology   or BioAnthropology news


– [update, thanks to Kristina Killgrove]- The Peep Show of Death: Televising Human Remains, by Paul Mullins: “In National Geographic’s telling, human remains excavations are simply the display of skulls conveniently wrested from the eastern European landscape.  What is perhaps most alarming about National Geographic’s new foray into shallow archaeological programming is the reduction of human remains to simply another thing ”


-[update, via Alison Atkin]: The New York TimesTV Series Is Criticized in Handling of Deceased“, with an intervention of Tony Pollard, director of the Center for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.


-[update, 29/03]: Daily MailFury over the National Geographic channel historians digging up Second World War graves

Dozens of archaeologists have left comments on the National Geographic website, lambasting the channel for what they see as a grotesquely insensitive intrusion into a gravesite. ‘You are sensationalizing and promoting the looting of archaeological sites and the disrespect of human remains,’ wrote Shannon Boomgarden of the Natural History Museum of Utah. ‘You should be ashamed to profit off these destructive activities disguised as “science”.”


-[update, 29/03] Sam Hardy, Does the Brotherhood Cemetery Committee and the Latvian War Museum approve of this work?  (on “recovering bodies ethically”, “conducting public discussions ethically” and “the recovery of war dead in Latvia, Bosnia and Cyprus”)

and [update 30/03] a good methodological approach urgent ethical and legal questions for National Geographic, ClearStory and their Nazi War Diggers  (1. Which archaeologists are involved and how?, 2. Which ‘licensed preservation organisations‘ are involved and how? What are they licensed to do?, 3. Why was the filming of the series kept ‘secret… for nearly a year’ and from whom? 4. Do you have survey permits and excavation licences for all of the sites in all of the countries in which you work? etc.)

and [update 31/03] the Latvian War Museum did not approve of the Nazi War Diggers: “The understandably outraged Latvian War Museum has stated that it did not approve of Nazi War Diggers, it does not approve of Nazi War Diggers and, in fact, it tried to stop Nazi War Diggers.” Who is lying to whom?


-[update 29/03] another summary of the links on the topic on Meanlouise.com, Nazi War Diggers, part II


-[update, 30/03]: an opinion from the USA, from archaeologist/for/hire “Because the world of TV networks is full of terrible people making terrible decisions solely to generate more money. Social media has some serious muscle these days, so my hope is that we can at least raise awareness about deplorable events like this so that perhaps, just maybe, some executive producer somewhere will remember that they are human and that they have a conscience and that “factual television” is not about looting.””


-[update 30/03] from Dr Donna Yates, Nazi War Diggers: Looting war graves on TV (with the text of her letter to National Geographic: “[..]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….”)


-[update 31/03, via David Connolly‎BAJR – UK Archaeology] some (horrifying) background on the supposedly archaeological team that National Geographic is endorsing, a video showing exhumations of “soldiers on the battlefield”


-[update 31/03] a Heritage Daily article: “Springtime for Hitler and “Nazi War [Death Porn] Diggers”” (by Andy Brockman)

“…What ClearStory facilitated and what National Geographic Channel appear to be about to broadcast, are the efforts, not of Poles or Latvians working to a common purpose, but of an imported team of three amateur metal detector users, UK based Stephen Taylor, Kris Rodgers and  Adrian Kostromski and militaria enthusiasts and an American dealer in Nazi militaria and memorabelia, Craig Gottleib....[..] Perhaps the principle lesson of the “Nazi War Diggers” affair and a lesson which places our politicians, and yes media production companies, on notice, is that when their opinions are properly, passionately and bravely articulated, archaeologists have more influence and more sheer people power than anyone thought possible.

[update 31/03, almost 01/04], Excavating the War Dead of WW2: The Eastern Front by These Bones of Mine (a good analysis of the situation, with some background on successful examples of such endeavours: “In a recent article Ash (2014) highlighted the work of the volunteers throughout the Russian Federation that have dedicated their time and efforts to locating and excavating the missing soldiers of the Red Army on the Eastern Front.  Documenting one such group, Exploration, which is one of a suspected 600 groups or so, the article details the work that they do in excavating, identifying and re-burying the Soviet war dead of WW2.  In contrast to the above show by the National Geographic Channel, the Exploration group have had some success in carefully excavating, recording and identifying the individuals that they have uncovered where they fell during Operation Barbarossa in the forests around St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad).”
[update 31/03] National Geographic vs. Science by Osteoadventures

I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Also, the “grave robbing”  syntagm is intended just as a historical reference to 19th century type of practices and approaches towards human graves.

[UPDATE 01/04] National Geographic Channel Pulls ‘Nazi War Diggers’ Series   (great job and congratulations to all those who made their voices heard!)


[UPDATE 01/04] via Kristina Killgrove on BioAnthropology News: “A letter from presidents of various Archaeo organizations was just publishedhttp://feedly.com/k/1gLlZ7A.”


The Featured Image: Nazi War Diggers screenshot image from Powered By Osteons

A photo from the show:

Source: CL Kieffer, https://scontent-b-fra.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/t31.0-8/q71/s720x720/1614307_10102126106257874_92654504_o.jpg

7 thoughts on ““Grave robbing” on TV?

  1. The digger holding the legbone in the photo used to show up on “reality” show Pawn Stars as a Las Vegas basebcall card shop owner.

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