Archaeology on the Set of Diggers
An Interview With Kate Culpepper, Production Archaeologist
Metal detector enthusiasts "King George" Wyant and his sidekick Tim "The Ringmaster" Saylor do their share of good-natured horsing around as they probe the ground for intriguing lost bits of history. But Kate Culpepper, the show’s resident archaeologist, is more likely to have a serious countenance. Culpepper's job is to ensure that the program adheres to strict standards of ethical metal detecting, and that the historical value of artifacts and local sites isn’t compromised in any way.
To that end, Culpepper, who has a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in archaeology and art history, keeps continuous watch over "the boys," as she calls them affectionately. During the shooting of each episode, she spends long days roaming back and forth between Wyant and Saylor to scrutinize whatever they’re doing, and is empowered to interrupt or re-route the search if she thinks it is necessary for whatever reason. She also meticulously documents and catalogs any items found at the site, and makes sure that everything is turned over to the site’s owner.
"I make sure we don’t cross any lines," she explains.
In that job, Culpepper tries to strike a balance between preserving history and entertaining the show’s viewers. Recently, for example, the cast was probing a site connected with an important saga in late 19th century history in Appalachia (we’ll leave out the details, to avoid the need for a spoiler alert). Culpepper, perusing nails and other fragments of building materials found at the site, determined that they were in the midst of the ruins of a historically important building. "I said, 'we need to stop digging here,'" she recalls. To preserve the site for archaeologists’ future investigations, she had Wyant and Saylor keep their probing away from the critical perimeter of the site. "That way, they still got to work at the site without disturbing it," she explains.
Culpepper’s own interest in historic artifacts dates back to her childhood in Alabama, when as a six-year-old, she and her playmates would dig into the soil of a forest clearing behind her home, in search of discarded items—"old door handles from cars, things like that. Basically junk, but I thought of them as treasures. When I got older and found out that there actually was a job where you could do that for a living.” As a young archaeologist she worked on digs at historic sites in Turkey—"the home of the legendary King Midas," she notes proudly—and in the Ukraine, before opting to work in television production. "Field work allowed me to do a lot of things that I love about archaeology, but I like being able to share that with a lot more people," she explains. "There’s a more immediate payoff. When I find something, I get to be excited about it, and then tell you about it right away, instead of waiting to publish a paper."
Culpepper's academic specialty is late Roman and early Byzantine culture, many centuries and thousands of miles removed from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century milieu that Wyant and Saylor explore. That’s compelled her to spend a lot of time studying more recent American culture and local history. Instead of Gibbon or Suetonius, she peruses a reference book on U.S. coins and Ivor Noel Hume's A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, and spends a lot of time talking to local historians and studying their document collections, and interviewing landowners. "They’re a great resource," she notes. "They’ll often point us right to the areas of interest on a site. And they’ll often have things that they’ve already found on the property, which can provide us with clues." She also carries an iPad equipped with a wireless Internet connection, so that she can search for needed information or comparison pictures of artifacts on the fly.
Instead of mapping out a grid and systematically investigating every inch of a site, as archaeologists often do, Culpepper follows Wyant and Saylor as they nose around a site, trying to spot buried objects with their equipment. But once they’ve identified a promising lead, Culpepper will keep a close watch over the excavation. When the metal detectorists unearth an artifact, Culpepper uses calipers, a scale, and a jeweler’s loop—a sort of magnifying glass—to measure the item and document the location and depth at which it was found. As soon as she has the opportunity, she gently cleans the items if necessary, using dentistry tools, to get a better look at them. “I take a cautious approach to cleaning, and stop before there’s any chance of damaging the object,” she explains. Her observations are recorded in a digital spreadsheet.
After the shoot, Culpepper spends more time examining and documenting the finds. "I’ll look for details like a head stamp on a bullet, or something like that," she says. Even so, she’s often able to figure out a narrative for items and the site itself. "You can determine a number of things from context," she explains. "For example, if you find an 1880 penny under a layer of charred wood, you can assume that the fire occurred after that date. Similarly, if you find an earring under the penny, you know that it probably is older. And of course, we always have access to a supervising historian or archaeologist who’s knowledgeable about the area. That is a huge help."
Though she comes from an academic background, Culpepper does feel a certain kinship with her DIY metal detecting colleagues on the program. "They have a very similar interest, digging things up and finding where they belong in history," she explains. "And actually, a lot of archaeologists use metal detectors too. Like anything else, there’s a good way to do it, and a bad way. We focus on the good way."