Landgrab

The academic community protests an alum’s controversial TV show

By KEITH BRENTON

Frank Huguelet ’96 isn’t generally known by his given name but by his professional name, Ric Savage – or even “Heavy Metal” Ric Savage. The name has persisted from his professional wrestling career – where the “spike piledriver” was one of his trademark finishing moves – to starring in a series on Spike TV, “Savage Family Diggers,” in which bulldozers and dynamite sometimes help clear ground for artifact-seeking digs. His trademark phrase “Boom baby!” is the indicator that his team has struck pay dirt. But the show also has resulted in an explosion of protest from anthropologists and archaeologists in academia – and even amateur diggers.

AN EARLY URGE TO DIG

The Sylva native’s fascination with digging and history started early in life, passed on by his father, Theodore L. Huguelet, who taught from 1959-89 in the Department of English at WCU. “I think he bought a cheap metal detector when I was about 5 years old,” Huguelet said. “The family owned a mica mine, above my mom’s house. She used to say digging was in my blood.” His mother, Marcella Huguelet MA ’75, worked in Hunter Library, and he remembers picking up a book on the Civil War there when he was about 9. “I got into the history of it and began to learn more about it, read more books about it,” he said. “On school break, my friends were going to the beach. I asked my parents to take me to Appomattox, where Lee surrendered to Grant. That’s where I got my first artifact – a $1 bullet in a bowl in the museum shop.”

Frank Huguelet

Teen years brought a different fascination, however. Huguelet began his professional wrestling career before graduating, training in Waynesville and appearing in a televised match against his childhood hero, Chief Wahoo McDaniel. His career advanced in six wrestling federations and alliances, as well as on the independent circuit, individually and in wrestling duos and teams. For a while, National Championship Wrestling recorded televised matches monthly in Sylva, some of which featured him. In 1996, Huguelet began helping create other wrestlers’ characters and storylines, as well as coaching them on interview skills.

After six years and several injuries in the physically demanding profession, Huguelet retired from wrestling in 1997, a year after earning his degree in criminal justice, and pursued his Civil War and history interests as a career. He performed a live storytelling presentation called “Haunted Gettysburg” while living there, met his wife, Rita, and began writing a column for American Digger Magazine called “The Savage Facts,” helping readers identify counterfeit military artifacts.

TV ENTERS THE PICTURE

In 2011, the Spike TV cable network began producing a reality series called “American Digger” featuring Huguelet and his team of artifact recovery experts. The series debuted in 2012, each episode describing the team’s efforts to research a potential site and persuade a landowner in the area to permit them to dig for artifacts in exchange for a percentage of the profits from their sale. The dig often yields a find of monetary value, and for members of the team and their audience, it’s the moment of discovery: “Boom baby!”

In spite of the phrase – now found on T-shirts and other show paraphernalia – the feeling is almost indescribable to Huguelet. “It’s hard to put it in words. It’s not the feeling you get when you see your child for the first time; it’s different. But it is a massive adrenaline rush to see an item that hasn’t been seen in decades, centuries – or in the case of a fossil shark’s tooth, 5 million years old and has never been seen before. There’s no bigger rush in the world than seeing history come out of the ground. I can’t go back in time. But if I can dig out history, that’s as close as I can get.”

ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE

Not everyone has been happy about the digging and the show’s success. A group of anthropologists and archaeologists, led by Susan Gillespie of the University of Florida, sent a letter to the network in the spring of 2012 expressing concern that the program “wrongly represents archaeology as a treasure-seeking adventure, in which our collective heritage is dug up and sold for monetary gain.” The protest drew the interest of The New York Times, which published an article on the controversy.

NC Archaeological

The North Carolina Archaeological Council, whose members include faculty in WCU’s Department of Anthropology and Sociology, also protested the series with a letter to the president of Spike TV. “We ask in the strongest possible terms that you reconsider the message of the show, which is contrary to the ethics of American archaeological practice, highly destructive, and possibly illegal,” read the letter. Equating the show to looting, the letter continued: “In presenting excavation as treasure hunting, the ‘American Digger’ program encourages the destruction of nonrenewable resources for personal gain.”

The show, scholars maintain, runs counter to the tenets of their discipline: the systematic examination and careful study of evidence of past human lives and lifestyles. Archaeological techniques and approaches unearth much more information than is gained by simply digging up artifacts, which squanders perfectly good information, the academics argue. “The archaeological record is precious and nonrenewable. Once a site is dug and artifacts removed, the integrity of its historical context is destroyed,” the NCAC letter said. “Excavating in the way ‘American Digger’ suggests is destructive and unethical, but moreover is unnecessary.”

Also distancing itself from the show is the magazine for which Huguelet once wrote. After initially signing a release for its use, American Digger Magazine’s publisher filed suit over the show’s name. Its website now features a prominent disclaimer on the homepage emphasizing that the magazine “has no direct affiliation with Spike TV’s ‘American Digger’ show, its producers, or stars.” Rejecting Huguelet’s commercial approach and aggressive methods, the site pledges its dedication “to the hobby of responsible recovery of artifacts for enjoyment and historical importance only.”

For its second season, the series was renamed “Savage Family Diggers,” and with the departure of some of the previous team members, the show’s new format focuses on the family business of digging, highlighting Huguelet’s wife and their two sons.

DIGGING FOR FUN AND PROFIT

“We’ve got critics,” acknowledges Huguelet. “I think archaeology is a valuable science. Archaeologists and anthropologists have the same passion for history we do: to find artifacts, tell the story of the past, to educate people. I grew up ensconced in academia; almost all my family became teachers or lawyers. I get the culture.” Huguelet contends that his digs do no harm. “It’s for profit with us. What are the odds Mr. and Mrs. Smith would invite an archaeologist to their lot to look for artifacts? Archaeologists find objects in digs that others have started in land development, and occasionally they’re called in to investigate. As a result, artifacts get bulldozed, lost, dumped in landfills. I’ve found a different way of finding and telling the story.”

The show has portrayed his often-difficult attempts to negotiate digging rights with landowners. “Both seasons, we’ve tried to promote being ethical as a digger. We avoid any government land, always dig on private property, always get specific permission with the primary landowner. Most people don’t care … but we take care of the property, clean it up afterwards. Most of them are interested in finding something on their property.”

A prospect of discovery, Huguelet said, is universal. He points to Mark Twain, who wrote, “There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” At least part of the population is happy for his work, Huguelet said. “We get letters from parents who are glad their kids are out digging in the yard rather than inside, watching TV all the time.”