A Guide to Archaeological Ethics

Alan Parker's image for:
"A Guide to Archaeological Ethics"
Image by: 

Like the disciplines of Psychology, Biology, Zoology, and numerous other fields, ethics plays a key role in the field of Archeology. Archeology is defined as the branch of anthropology that studies prehistoric people and their cultures. Ethics can be defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior. Unfortunately for Archaeologists, they often confront situations in which closely specified requirements of honesty and publicity come into conflict with an equally strong commitment to conservation principles.

The United States government has even passed legislation with regards to archeological ethics. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (also known as NAGPRA) was passed in 1990 and required federal agencies to return Native American cultural items to their peoples. These included human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.

One of the most common ethical problems with archeology confronts on the issue of the treatment of human remains found during excavations. In modern archaeology, this has been especially troublesome with remains that represent the ancestors of aboriginal groups in the New World or other minority races.

Archeologists have a set of responsibilities that they must carry out in order to be considered a good archeologists. The Archaeological Institute of American has three main requirements:

1.  All archaeologists must seek to ensure that the exploration of the archeology sites that they are working on be conducted according to the highest standards. They must also make sure that the excavation is under the supervision of qualified personnel. The results of the research must also be made public, and become published. The requirement of publishing information is often an ethical problem, because it may result in an increased likelihood for plundering of the site. For example, if an archeologist found that there were gold coins and jewelry from the Aztec civilization scattered over a certain area in Mexico, then the site may be searched and looted by thieves. Should the archeologist maintain his responsibility to keep the information public, or too protect the site?

2. Archeologists must refuse to participate in the trade of undocumented antiquities, and refrain from trying to enhance the commercial value of objects. This one is obvious, and has very few notable exceptions that may be made. An Archeologist must never trade objects of his search for his own personal gain.

3. It is important for all archeologists to inform appropriate authorities of threats to, or plunder of archaeological sites, and illegal import or export of archaeological material. This is basically say that archeologists must do their best to prevent others from unethically profiting from the archeological discoveries of a certain site.

One other problem is the responsibility of the Archaeologists in regards to local traditions and cultures. Should the Archaeologist respect the sites that once were or are sacred to specific minorities, or should they continue with their excavation in the search for knowledge and better understanding of this minorities past culture?

These are problems that archaeologists are forced to face every day of their work. The most upstanding are those who are able to gain knowledge of these ancient cultures while respecting them, and protecting them from those who wish to unethically profit from the remains of these cultures.

More about this author: Alan Parker

From Around the Web