A Guide to Archaeological Ethics

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"A Guide to Archaeological Ethics"
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The job of an archaeologist is to study the past, so that we can learn more about those that lived before us. That means that it is their responsibility to deal with delicate artifacts and important, historical sites.

Because of their great responsibility, the field of archaeology calls for some ethical guidelines.

The SAA, the Society for American Archaeology has their own guideline of archaeological ethics, which can be found on their website. Keep in mind that archaeology is an international field of study, meaning that other countries aren’t bound to the ethics stated by the SAA. However, there are some “unspoken” general rules of ethics that apply to archaeologists around the globe:


An archaeologist must work to the best of their ability to make sure that they properly preserve their findings. If an archaeologist is careless in their preservation of artifacts and sites, then they can become damaged.


The issue of reconstruction is an issue that often comes up when dealing with large, significant sites. Archaeologists debate whether reconstruction of historical sites is a legitimate act, or if it is something inappropriate that ruins historical sites. The term “reconstruction” usually refers to actually re-building and restoring parts of an ancient site so that it looks similar to how it originally looked back in ancient times. The controversy with this, however, lies in the fact that the restoration might not be completely accurate. Also, doing this tampers with the actual find in the first place. So, instead of rebuilding on the actual site itself, many opt for an off-site reconstruction on another property entirely, such as in a museum.


For an archaeologist to be trusted, they must be a person of integrity, somebody who can be held accountable for their work done in the field or in the laboratory. They must be somebody that keeps accurate records and is studying archaeology so that everyone can gain knowledge, not just so that they can selfishly pursue “treasure hunting”. Archaeologists also need to be able to cooperate and work together in the field and in the lab, so that the team can be most effective as a whole. An archaeologist needs to be transparent, not trying to hide anything that they’ve discovered or done.

Sharing With The Public

Another important aspect of archaeological ethics is allowing the public to learn about the archaeological finds. Since archaeology is the study of the human past, it is important that archaeologists share their discoveries with the general public. Keeping collections private or secretive can be frowned upon, which is why displaying artifacts and discoveries in publicly accessible museums is best. Also, now with online capabilities, the public can access archaeological journals and records of recent finds.

Adequate Training

If an archaeologist is working on a site, then they should have adequate training so that they do not damage anything. Proper academic learning is one thing, but practical experience is also incredibly important, perhaps even more crucial. Knowing how to properly handle, excavate, and examine ancient artifacts is part of an archaeologist’s duty. And over time, with experience, archaeologists will become better at doing these tasks. Archaeologists need to make sure that they are well-prepared to work on sites that may require a certain level of experience to work on.

Archaeologists carry quite the burden of responsibility; after all, their job is to work with ancient artifacts that can’t be replaced.

More about this author: Stephen Cook

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