From BERYTUS Vol. XXXIX, 1991, Ethics in Archaeology: an American Perspective


* American University of Beirut M.A. 1972, Trustee 1987; at present President, Archaeological Institute of America, and Associate Professor, Center for Old World Archaeology and Art, Brown University, Providence RI, 02912 USA. This paper was based on a lecture presented at the "Workshop on Archaeology", Explorers Club in New York City, 1991. Back

1 The most obvious problem with illicit trafficking is the loss of cultural patrimony that results from 'thieves of time' (vandals and museum thieves). The monetary price of antiquities is high a Euphronios vase will bring more than a million dollars and a Native American Mimbres bowl can bring upwards of $25,000 (Winter 1984:103). With this kind of market no one can protect sites from looting. Unfortunately, the cultural price is higher than dollars can represent. The damage from vandalism is almost incalculable. For example, a Turkish tomb cleared by American archaeologists in the mid-50s after thieves ransacked it, was left with only fragments of a ceramic sarcophagus; and by 1985 more than half of the stones of the tomb had been stolen by neighboring villagers.
On April 12, 1990 a gang of thieves plundered the Archaeological Museum of ancient Corinth. The robbery is said to be the largest single antiquities theft in Greece. After attacking the watchman, the thieves removed 271 objects of untold value. This was a devastating blow to archaeology because the museum contained everything excavated in the almost 100-year-old project. In 1985 the United States Park Service documented 1000 cases of site vandalism, and this is likely a low figure. In spite of recent antiquities trials and legal measures to try and halt the looting problem, legal action is only a bandaid, not a cure.

2 This is the subject of a novel called Thieves of time, by Tony Hillerman. This novel details the treacherous lives of both archaeologists and pot hunters and how they lead to each others demise. Hillerman's message is clear, pot hunters and site vandalizers are cultural devils, but his opinion of archaeologists is not much higher! This type of behavior was at one point viewed as a mutually supportive exchange. Fortunately it is no longer encouraged or accepted. Even today the popular archaeology magazine Minerva, which claims to deal with archaeological news, often runs pieces about recent discoveries and acquisitions of ancient art. Suffice it to say, that many of these acquisitions are not legal. The magazine was characterized in a recent Journal of Field Archaeology review by Ricardo J. Elia, as an ideal place to read the archaeology news while shopping for smuggled classical pottery, sculptures and ancient coins. Most archaeologists have more encounters with the illicit antiquities circuit than they would like to believe. What about that call from a stranger or friend who found something funny in the basement or while digging in the garden? Exactly how individual archaeologists react is clearly a personal choice, but we must remember that every speech we make, and every artifact we publish contributes to the public perception of archaeology. In spite of legal resolutions, the antiquities market does not appear to suffer. The demand is too great and well-funded to be locally controlled. And much of the site looting occurs in foreign countries and the actual profit and money exchange function elsewhere. Thus antiquities trafficking, like drug trafficking, seems unconquerable. Back

3 The Public Awareness Working Group (PAWG) is an example of one interdepartmental and interdisciplinary group that is active in public education about archaeology. PAWG is involved with governmental policy-making, keeping a list of education projects, public interest publications, and other activities. Back

4 The Alexandria Virginia Archaeology project is a good example; here students and citizens actively participate in excavation and museum presentation. Archaeology is of prime importance to that community, because it keeps them in touch with their past. Back

5 One interesting result of contract archaeology is that archaeology which is a traditionally underfunded discipline employing educated people to work for incredibly low sums is now accessing some big money. Academics who once struggled to survive on graduate student stipends are finding themselves able to command more than acceptable salaries. Unfortunately in spite of salary benefits, contract archaeologists do not have the ultimate authority over their sites. It is ultimately legislative and policy-making bodies who must decide if a site is worth saving or not. Back

6 Another major ethical quandary grows out of the variance of interpretations of conservation legislation. Contractors may demand archaeological work that does not live up to scientific or academic standards supported by a personal work ethic. Smaller questions arise for instance, when one agency's definition of a representative survey differs greatly from another's. Archaeologists are now under a contract to do a certain task in a certain amount of time and this time may not be enough to do what the archaeologist feels is an acceptable job. Usually however, firms hiring archaeologists allow for a time span that is reasonable for high quality cultural resource management archaeology. Back

7 Archaeologists have become increasingly sensitive to the so-called rights of the defenseless dead. In many ways these rights are actually the rights of living people for the preservation of their past in terms that fit their own cultural constructs. In the United States this has developed into an issue primarily with Native Americans and the excavation of human burial sites. Native American religious beliefs advocate respect for the dead, as well as for the actual body of the dead. Their religious codes foster allowing the dead to rest in peace free of disturbance by anyone including the archaeologist.
Recently Native Americans have tried calling for the reburial of excavated remains and excavated burial furniture. There are extremists on both sides of this complicated issue. The Society of American Archaeology purports scientific importance over all else and claims a right to anything and anyone that cannot be claimed by a proven direct descendant. Radical Native American groups demand the reburial of all skeletal remains ever excavated. The spectrum of beliefs on both sides is really quite diverse. Many archaeologists and anthropologists are correctly sensitive to the reburial issues, which unfortunately many still view as a mere research obstruction. And quite a few Native American tribes support the validity of some archaeology, if it is directed by Native Americans. They may view archaeology as valuable in recovering the Native American past. Certain archaeologists think that all collections should be preserved and all decisions made by archaeologists, while others believe that excavation should be avoided whenever possible.
The reburial debate has become heated and emotional. In many ways we can look at it as a representation of the age-worn conflict between religion and science. The scientific value is clear. Yet, equally valid is the claim of Native Americans that their religion is violated by excavating burial remains. Some tribes now consider all human remains to be sacred. Although scientists are not talking about displaying the skeletons without tribal permission, they are violating the religious traditions by excavating burial remains.
Native Americans have a strong and moving case for reburial. The image of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dismembered skeletons lying in museum vaults is certainly distressing, and many states have accordingly passed bills curtailing the excavation of burial sites or demanding the return of skeletal remains to Native American tribes. Meanwhile, in the interest of science, developments in physical anthropology have made it possible for scientists to decipher new information from skeletal remains - diet, disease, kinship patterns - and more is now readily available due to increased technology and 8 developments in the field.

8 The Hopi Indians and the Walpi projects, as described by Charles Adams (1984:237), exhibit some possible mechanisms for compromise. The Walpi project involved the restoration of the ceremonial center for the first Mesa Hopi. Early in the planning process it was decided that an historic architect and an archaeologist must be readily available to record the village architecture before it was transformed and to recover any artifacts the villagers declared removable. The Walpi religious leaders agreed, and the Hopi Tribe contracted the Museum of Northern Arizona. The archaeologist made a conscious effort to interact with the Hopi village; he was intent upon working with and learning about the present people. He treated them both as equals and as a valuable part of the archaeological process. The project took 18 months and it tookmonths to gain the trust of the people including the religious leaders. This trust allowed the archaeologist to access the present tribe as sources. Members of the tribe were asked about the meaning of artifacts. Meanwhile they were encouraged to visit the site and a rotating museum of excavated artifacts was established and maintained. This open policy minimized distrust. Indeed, successful Native American excavations can happen! Back

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