Dig This—GPS Technology Co-stars on the Television Show Diggers

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Standing at one of the historical sites of the Battle of Saratoga in New York, a sudden ear-piercing scream rips through the air. To the uninitiated, that scream would likely make a person think someone is seriously hurt. To the production crew of the television show Diggers, however, that shriek is code for "I just found something awesome!"–a phrase that Tim "Ringy" Saylor and "King" George Wyant regularly shout out during the half-hour-long program.

A marriage of metal detecting and archeology on the National Geographic Channel, Diggers follows metal detecting buffs Saylor and Wyant as they "bag, tag and mark" unearthed gems of American history across the United States. As entertaining as Saylor and Wyant are–they are not above dancing and hurling themselves into the air upon discovering artifacts–education has been an equally important component of the show. Fulfilling that teaching role have been Marc Henshaw and Bryan Cunning, archeologists with Michael Baker International.

As Diggers on-air production archeologist, it has been Henshaw’s responsibility to not only ensure that all on-site excavations were performed to archeological standards, but also that advanced GPS technology was used to accurately record the location of all artifacts. Mapping the position of objects provides the historical context for the artifacts found–the true gold of treasure hunting.

"In archeology, it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out," says Henshaw. "Being able to study where artifacts are found in relation to each other can help us paint an overall historical picture of specific activities. For example, finding a dense pocket of bullets or cartridges can help identify where a skirmish line was. Those connections are key to accurately documenting the events of a particular site and preserving that history for generations."

An On-Camera Role
Throughout its 64 episodes, Henshaw and Cunning have worked closely with show producers at Half Yard Productions (HY) to identify exploration sites that have particular historical appeal, such as war battles, folklore, intriguing American figures or tragic events. The Diggers crew has explored across the US, exhuming artifacts that both enhance and further the collective understanding of historical events–often bringing unknown, or little known history to light.

"KG and Ringy dug up bits of a WW1 plane, a 1723 King George colonial coin, bomb fragments, shell cartridges, minié balls [civil-war era bullets] and personal items such as belt buckles, buttons and a pocket watch," says Cunning. "They uncover history that many people don’t know about. It’s one of the best parts of the show."

Although archeologists and GPS technology have been a part of Diggers since it first aired, they just had a cursory role–an archeologist only appeared at the end of the show to confirm findings, and the GPS equipment was a consumer-grade handheld unit. For Diggers fourth season, the HY producers upgraded those behindthe-scenes parts to starring roles.

Detecting and Discovering
After selecting a site and receiving permission to explore a property, Henshaw analyzed maps of the area to layout survey transect grids for Wyant and Saylor to walk to ensure the best coverage. Equipped with a Trimble® GeoExplorer® GeoXHTM GNSS handheld receiver, Henshaw established a control network to build an accurate map of all artifacts found. When a scream ripped through the air, indicating a piece of "historical nectar" was found, it was marked with a pin flag, and Henshaw immediately recorded the artifact’s position with the GeoXH, named it and logged important attribute information such as the depth at which it was found. In a paper notebook, Henshaw also recorded the artifact’s name, its GPS location, its description and depth. He then put the paper, along with the object, in a plastic bag, and waited for the next shriek.

"With the professional-grade handheld, I can locate artifacts with sub-centimeter accuracy and measure the distance between them in real time," says Henshaw. "So while KG and Ringy are searching for relics, I can unearth patterns among the finds to better assess the life story that these objects, together, illustrate."

Depending on the site, Henshaw could upload data such as spatial imagery or maps to the GNSS receiver for supporting information during the survey. Having those additional layers were not only helpful to ensure the crew stayed within the excavation boundaries, they allowed Henshaw to track the position of unearthed objects, enabling him to connect spatial dots and draw a picture of the site’s story while on site.

Those discoveries then come together at the end of each episode, when historians join Henshaw and the "Diggers" to confirm what the two found. On average, Saylor and Wyant have found 30 to 40 objects per episode–most of which are donated to local museums and historical sites–and sometimes those discoveries have led to further archeological digs.

After filming, Henshaw shipped each site’s objects to Cunning for further analysis and cataloging. Cunning downloaded the GNSS data, corrected it and converted it into a KMZ file to enable users to see in Google Earth the positions of the artifacts and their spatial relationships across the landscape. He then logged all of the artifact description data along with its GNSS coordinates in an Excel spreadsheet and sent it to HY for archiving. The same information as well as the Google Earth file and artifacts were returned to the respective landowners to enhance their historical collections.

Bite the Bullet
The ability to dig a little deeper into the varied life left under their feet has been a fascinating reward for the Diggers crew, but for Henshaw and Cunning, the personal artifacts unearthed at a German POW camp near Jackson Miss. and a General Grant-led battle near Vicksburg, Miss. have been some of the most exciting finds.

At Camp Clinton, where 3,400 German POWs were held, Saylor and Wyant dug up a French/German button from a soldier’s lightweight uniform worn in North Africa and a well-preserved tunic button from a German officer’s full dress uniform.

And from the 1863 Civil War battle at Port Gibson, the two found a federal coat button, part of a pocket knife, and chewed minié balls. The chewed bullets not only pinpointed where the term "bite the bullet" originated, the cluster of them indicated that Saylor and Wyant had discovered a former triage center.

"Every artifact has a personal connection, but when you see a bitten bullet, it has more of an impact," says Cunning. "You know someone was in pain. You can actually almost connect with that."

Perhaps it was only fitting that Wyant screamed when he dug up the chewed bullet.

The Scoop on Diggers
Diggers first aired on National Geographic in January 2013. The weekly show ran for four seasons; show information and video clips can still be found at: channel.nationalgeographic.com/diggers/

Mary Jo Wagner is a Vancouver-based freelance writer with 22 year’s experience in covering geospatial technology.

A 4.188Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE