A Guide to Archaeological Ethics

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The nature of the discipline of archaeology often presents the archaeologist with challenges of a moral nature, such as how to treat human remains or the custody and ownership of various artifacts. To overcome this problem, and to clarify how to better understand and fully practice the discipline, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) has come up with eight key principles of archaeological ethics. This prevents leaving such matters open to individual discretion, and provides a standard code of conduct from which all archaeologists and those working in such a field of study can refer to. This article presents a guide to the ethics of archaeology.


It is the responsibility of the archaeologist to practice and promote the care of the archaeological record (consisting of archaeological sites, materials, collections, records and reports). The goal is to work for the long-term preservation and protection of such record. It is incumbent to be a steward of the archaeological record for the greater benefit of all people. When investigations and interpretations have resulted in specialized knowledge, this knowledge must be used to teach the public the importance of their support its long-term preservation.


All research must be carried out with professional responsibility and effort, including the consultation of all affected parties in order to form a healthy and positive working relationship, beneficial for all.


It is strongly disapproved of to allow the commercialization of archaeological objects for personal means of enjoyment or profit. Such an activity destructs the reputation of archaeologists and results in the demise of archaeological sites containing contextual data vital to understanding the archaeological record.

Public education and outreach

Archaeologists should make information on the archaeological record easily accessible to members of the public that may be interested in such data, and explain and promote the importance of preserving their past, as well as the archaeological methods used in gaining an understanding of a culture and human behavior, and discuss archaeological interpretations of the past. Methods such as gathering support from schools members of public including all ethnic, religious and cultural communities, law enforcement and government officials as well as the media should be undertaken to achieve this.

Intellectual property

Intellectual property must not be treated as a personal commodity, and so if no restrictive reasons are imposed for a limitation otherwise, researchers may have first-hand access to original materials and documents, so long as such is made easily available to others afterwards.

Public Reporting and Publication

Without delay, knowledge gained from the archaeological record must be readily presented to all members of the public with an interest in the subject.

Records and Preservation

Archaeologists must actively strive for the long-lasting access to and preservation of archaeological records and collections. This includes encouraging others to use the archaeological records in a responsible and careful manner.

Training and Resources

Due to the destructive nature of most archaeological investigations, archaeologists must execute professionalism by ensuring they have sufficient training, experience, means and support to successfully conduct any research they initiate, and that it be in a manner appropriate and according to the aforementioned principles and high standards of modern practice.

This guide presented the principles of archaeological ethics necessary to help clarify, better understand and fully and professionally practice the discipline. The aforementioned principles are essential to such a multi-natured and far-ranging field, and help to preserve the reputation, integrity, strength and development of the discipline.

More about this author: Matilda Willows

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