From BERYTUS Vol. XXXIX, 1991





Recent developments in both professional archaeology and public attitudes towards the world 's cultural heritage have placed new demands on the discipline, while it continues to face numerous new and old problems: the increasing illicit trafficking of antiquities; ethnocentrism in dealing with peoples of different cultures, and the always controversial treatment of human burial remains. Archaeological societies and institutions in the United States and elsewhere, as well as international organizations have adopted comprehensive ethical policies to help protect and manage the archaeological heritage. However, the gap between academic archaeology and society at large must be bridged . There is a growing recognition of the great need for better public education to open the minds of adults and children alike to the understanding of their past. While contract and conservation archaeology have raised yet other ethical issues, a new people-oriented archaeology may help archaeologists understand and communicate with people and societies other than their own, which is perhaps their most vital task and ethical imperative for the future of the past.

The French were recently preparing for a celebration of the bicentennial of the French revolution, and they wanted to include a tribute to Napoleon's conquest of Egypt. The French government wrote to the Egyptian government and asked that the Egyptians send them the mummy of the pharaoh Ramesees 11. The Egyptians, who are becoming increasingly sensitive to having the remains of their rulers publicly displayed, responded by asking the French for the remains of Napoleon, so he could be exhibited in honor of the Egyptian entry into the modern EuropeanMediterranean world. The French were, of course, outraged at the lack of respect to their leader. They didn't understand! And eventually, Ramesees went to France anyway (Winter 1990:18). An ethical dilemma emerges surrounding the issues of burials and post-mortem rights. Dealing with the remains of the dead who can not tell us their wishes is just one of a plethora of ethical issues challenging archaeologists today. While the Ramesees story may seem a bit esoteric, a brief discussion of the effects of the recent Persian Gulf war on cultural property exemplifies the international political relevance and thus another sphere of archaeology.

Just a few months ago Americans diligently faced television sets watching scud and patriot missiles explode in the sky above the Middle East. Through complex satellite networks the war was brought home to Americans in the form of a seeming computer game. Meanwhile, beneath the blazing fire and military jargon, the world's cultural patrimony was being destroyed. Now, the war is over but the wounds have yet to heal. The human suffering is clearly devastating, but, too, the destruction of our past is massive and unattended to. As archaeologists, it is our duty to pool our own resources as well as become involved in the political process to force the American government to participate in reclaiming a future for our past.

These are just two examples of situations that demand an ethical response from individual archaeologists and the profession as an entity. Ethics is defined by Webster's dictionary both as a system of moral values governing a profession and an individual's moral code. In the past two decades archaeology has changed so much that it seems like a new discipline. The result is a combination of ethical quandaries that is far from tractable. As president of the Archaeological Institute of America, a professional Archaeologist and an 11-year member of the Society of ProfessionalArchaeologists, and Associate Professor of Archaeology at Brown University, I write from an American view of the challenges we are facing. Thus this paper will pose some of the broad and specific questions challenging the modern American archaeologist and explore some possible solutions.

There are a few professional and international codes that archaeologists are urged to abide by, however a code merely offers guidelines for a healthy professional's existence. Archaeology is faced with some issues common to all social sciences, such as the influence of values on science, and questions of accountability. The illicit trafficking of antiquities is a problem faced all the time and one that is constantly struggled with. As Americans become more culturally sensitive so too must archaeologists; combatting ethnocentrism poses multiple challenges from dealing with excavating in foreign countries, to a necessary understanding of present peoples, to the always controversial dealing with human burial remains, such as the Ramesees case. These sorts of conflicts also come through in the historically loaded battle between religion and science. As the recent war in the Gulf exemplifies, the position of archaeologists as part of an active political special -interest group creates new questions and problems. In addition to the role of the archaeologist as a political entity, he/she is in possession of a professionally mandated educational agenda. Perhaps the most dramatic ethical vacillations are a result of the emergence of contract and conservation archaeology in the United States which have delivered archaeologists from their insular academic world to a broad spectrum of professional and political communities. The development and expansion of archaeology is a phenomenon that necessitates multiple discussions of ethics. However, the idea of ethics in archaeology is not new, in fact one reason for founding the Society for American Archaeology in 1934 was to disseminate standards of professionalism. What is new is the frequency and necessary passion of ethical discussions. For as archaeology changes and pervades new arenas, old politics and opinions no longer function effectively, and we must be able, as individuals and as a collective, to understand and act effectively in new situations. Archaeology and its morality have traveled far from the days when Heinrich Schliemann displayed his excavated artifacts as adornments on his wife. There is no doubt that such behavior would be heavily censured by any professional or personal code, not to mention anyone with an enlightened sense of gender roles. This change in the moral standards within the archaeological community is concurrent with major changes in the discipline as a whole.

Many past archaeological endeavors are not held in high academic esteem, in fact some present-day academics look at these early projects as little more than tomb-robbing debacles. The earliest development of archaeology then is the transformation from a hobby of those economically advantaged enough to pursue it, to a serious and highly regarded academic discipline. More current is the transformation of archaeology as a unit from the insular academic community to society at large. Archaeologists who used to be a part of a small community with homogeneous values are suddenly working with heterogeneous value systems. Here archaeologists are faced with people and institutions whose agenda is discordant with that of the academy. They are coerced into dealing with value systems inherent in business, government and the non-academic public. The space where these diverse value systems clash is where the modern archaeologist finds the most troublesome moral dilemmas, and unfortunately finds few answers. The influence of values on science lies deep within the ethical conundrums of archaeology. Inherent in a discourse of ethics is the fact that this science is not purely objective, it is not on a plane immune to moral influence. The archaeologist is heavily influenced by his/her own personal value system and that of society. Often we would like to believe that as archaeologists we are disclosing an inalienable truth. However what we are actually doing is interpreting a voiceless Past based on our own values: what we believe is important to excavate and what questions we feel must be addressed in regard to a specific civilization or group of people. The question then is not if we allow values to influence archaeology, but what sort of value system do we as individuals and as a unified professional community wish to practice? Winter (1984:18) writes of a humanistic ethical code which seems to address many of the upcoming discussions. A humanistic ethic melds with archaeolgy because archaeology is in fact an attempt at understanding basic human processes and individual human beings. This ethic includes separating value judgment from scientific observation whenever possible, but also realizing that this is unrealistic, and all of our methods, assumptions and research imperatives are based on a value system. We must recognize that our actions have an effect on the people we are studying and that the perceptions and beliefs of these people can further our own academic agenda. Winter's agenda speaks to archaeologists acknowledging their own biases by trying not to judge past or present societies based on their own cultural constructs.

American archaeologists are currently expending a lot of energy on discussions of both values and ethics in their profession. Many national and regional society meetings are utilized as informal mechanisms for trying to deal with ethical problems. However, several groups have adopted formal mechanisms in the form of ethical policies to which their members agree to adhere. The Society of Professional Archaeologists, SOPA, incorporated in 1976, drew up a comprehensive code that has been accepted by five US-based national and international archaeological societies, including the Archaeological Institute of America, the Association for Field Archaeology, the American Society for Conservation Archaeology, the Society for Historical American Archaeology, and the Society for Historical Archaeology.

The goals of SOPA's code are as follows:

  1. To strengthen the identification of archaeology as a profession and of qualified archaeologists as professionals.
  2. To encourage high standards in the training of archaeologists.
  3. To require high standards of performance from practicing archaeologists.
  4. To communicate to the public the importance of the proper practice of archaeology.
  5. To assist government and other organizations using archaeologists in the course of their activities to identify those properly qualified for the purpose.

In spite of the avid approval of this code, it is obviously not enough to guide archaeologists through their daily lives. It leaves too many stones unturned, something every undergraduate archaeology student knows is not acceptable. While it is definitely a valuable guideline, it only begins to answer the questions of exploring archaeologists.

In addition, the Archaeological Institute of America has its own code of ethics. It states that members should act in accordance with the following provisions:

  1. Seek to ensure that the exploration of archaeological sites be conducted according to the highest standards under the direct supervision of qualified personnel, and that the results of such research be made public.
  2. Refuse to participate in the illegal trade in antiquities derived from excavation in any country after December 30, 1970 when the AIA Council endorsed the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property and refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects.
  3. Inform appropriate authorities of threats to, or plunder of, archaeological sites, and illegal import or export of archaeological material.

On an international political level, the International Committee of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a non-governmental organization with an international committee plus 59 national committees, is responsible for a charter for the protection and management of archaeological heritage. This code deals with an effective collaboration of people involved with archaeological heritage. It includes the responsibilities of public policy makers, professionals involved with excavating, and accessibility to the public. In addition UNESCO adapted an ICOMOS convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. This included such provisions as marking archaeological sites and museums in a clear way and not using these areas as military strategic points.

Unfortunately armed conflicts are not the only wars that we have to worry about. There is an age-old battle going on to prevent the illicit antiquities market from destroying our cultural patrimony. The illicit antiquities market sounds and reads almost like a drug ring with its large sums of money, international trafficking, and attractiveness to great numbers of people in spite of negative stigma. The Journal of Field Archaeology devotes an entire section to the antiquities market in an effort to reclaim objects and educate the public on the evils of this business. There seems to be an almost unanimous condemnation of the illicit antiquities market, yet that does not make it vanish, and it is something archaeologists are forced to deal with much more often than they would like. In some ways it is not surprising that illicit antiquities trafficking is such a problem, as there were no laws forbidding antiquities exports until recently, and there was little enforcement regarding imports. Furthermore there was no professional ethic prohibiting the commodification of excavated artifacts.1 Clearly, there will be no archaeologists contributing to the vandalism of sites for the purpose of selling to the antiquities market. But that is not the end of the issue. There were accepted professional practices that indirectly contributed to the problem of antiquities trafficking. Until recently archaeologists provided information for 'pot hunters', who would in turn lead archaeologists to artifacts or sites. 2

Antiquities trafficking raises tougher issues. It is easy for anyone to say that antiquities should not be stolen and still moderately easy to say that artifacts should not be illegally exported. But what are we to do with artifacts in circulation that are stolen or exported? The American Journal of Archaeology, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, states in its policy that it will not serve as a place for initial scholarly presentation of objects obtained in manners inconsistent with anti-export policies that were acquired after December 30, 1973 when the ban on exporting artifacts was instituted and endorsed by the Institute. But as Fred S. Kleiner, the AJA's Editor-in-Chief (1990:525), recently wrote, the resolution does not ask archaeologists to pretend that those artifacts do not exist. And it does not prohibit scholarly discussion of illicitly acquired artifacts. Some archaeologists believe that no scholarly discussions of illegal antiquities should be conducted.

Clearly, the problems of antiquities trafficking are deep and archaeologists have the power to at least begin to attack the institutional termite. Legislation and institutional resolutions such as the AIA's mentioned above, do not solve the problem. What is really needed is a mammoth dose of public education. Unfortunately popular publicity and imagery often portray crimes of antiquities dealers as the actions of rascals, and it, like drug trafficking, holds a seemingly glamorous image. We have a responsibility to make our work interesting to the public in a way that shows the value of archaeology to be more than just the objects themselves. Museums often display artifacts in a way that conveys the message that they are beautiful treasures to be valued and coveted instead of placing them in simulations of their original contextual environment. Archaeologists must be careful when appraising antiquities and giving lectures about collections with no historical grounding. In public talks it is essential that we emphasize the results, not the objects, from our excavations. The illicit trafficking of antiquities is just one of many reasons why public education is so important. As educated academics and professionals we are in a unique position to contribute to public education, to open minds of children and adults to the understanding of their past. Human beings have an inherent interest in their past, and it is our job as archaeologists to help people access their curiosity and then satisfy it. Recognition of the need for better public education about archaeology is rising in America. It should be an important part of the archaeological ethic, not just based on the primacy of public education. But better education can some day lead to more effective site preservation, less vandalism and looting and better financial and public support for archaeological endeavors.3

But who is the public to whom we speak? American archaeologists have always had an audience, some who romanticize the whole profession, and others who find it trivial and irrelevant. Sometimes it is hard to blame the people who misjudge us, for our best efforts often remain outside of public reach. Most Americans absorb archaeology from such media spectacles as Indiana Jones. Archaeologists have usually aimed their efforts towards people who are archaeologically literate. It is our job to broaden our efforts to include the lay public. We must access the news media to present short succinct pieces that will both interest and enlighten the public at large. One area where mass dissemination is easy is in the classroom. Teachers are in a position to speak to their students on any of a number of issues. It is then crucial that archaeology be stressed starting at the elementary level. Children who grow up with an appreciation for their past are bound to respect it. Teacher training, curriculum development, and school presentations should be an important part of an archaeologist's professional agenda. In higher education interested college students should be stimulated, and avocational and volunteer archaeology should be encouraged, with proper supervision and technical accuracy. Perhaps the best opportunity for wide dissemination of ideas is on the local level.4

It is quite paradoxical that Native Americans, the people most connected to the past societies presently being excavated in the United States, have not been heavily targeted in archaeological public education. In light of the recent growth of the Native American reburial movement, those involved in conservation and research archaeology will pay a high price for this, as Native Americans are becoming less tolerant of allowing academics to destroy their burial sites for the cultural patrimony that they have been traditionally excluded from. There is no doubt about the importance of cultural history to Native Americans. However, academics claiming to study that history should participate in education to train Native Americans to excavate their own past while simultaneously rethinking their own involvement. Working with Native Americans is important for all branches of American archaeology.

Perhaps the most problematic of all types of modern archaeology in American ethical terms is in so-called 'contract archaeology'. It is in this sphere that the traditionally academic values of archaeology are brought to clash with the less supportive, more profit-oriented ethics of the business world. During the 1970s the passage of environmental protection laws led to the growth of a whole new kind of archaeology - contract or business archaeology- in which archaeology is ordered by private consulting firms working for profit under contract to developers or governmental agencies who are required to conduct archaeological research in compliance with environmental protection laws. This archaeology is commissioned in order to protect the data base from some impending doom such as construction. Archaeologists are now forced to deal with the business ethic as well as the value system traditionally perpetuated by the academy. Archaeologists are responsible to the public, their profession and now for the first time their own clients. One can not help but wonder what the reaction of early archaeologists would have been to all of this.5 These contract projects can become ethical mazes, logistical nightmares and business fiascoes. Problems arise in mere communication when the archaeology firm lacks business sense and the consulting firm knows nothing about archaeology. The case scenario of some American contract archaeology is comical; there are archaeologists working for people who do not care about the project and would stop the excavation the moment the conservation laws were repealed and the archaeologists owe their existence to pleasing the client. What is one to do?

Conservation archaeology is problematic merely in terms of the definition of research and selection of sites. A site excavated for conservation purposes is not excavated to answer a particular research question, it is rather excavated for the sake of its location and thus does meet an initial research qualification. It is important to remember that conservation archaeology like all archaeology destroys a site, and a site destroyed in an endeavor of less than the highest research standards is lost forever. In the past few decades, our perception of the number of sites on United States soil has increased dramatically, so that there are more than enough sites for archaeologists to choose from. For example, in the Appalachian forest of Arizona a few dozen sites had been identified in the 1970s as opposed to approaching 2000 in the late 1980s.6

Within the accepted archaeological ethic it is considered wrong to excavate and not disseminate information through publication. This is denying the public their right to know. Yet many business organizations who order the excavations consider the resulting work their own property, and thus archaeologists are barred from publishing their results. Yet all contract archaeology may not merit public presentation. For example, there are over 4000 cultural research reports in the University of Nevada library. The problem comes when other researchers are denied information to research that could aid their projects.

There are numerous other situations which create problems for archaeologists in terms of accountability to the profession or the client. A client can be unwilling to protect sites from collectors or can threaten to sue the archaeologists if excavation inhibits heavy machinery. Clients may fail to notify archaeologists of subsurface destruction in time for the archaeologist to react. As a result of such client actions, the archaeologists sometimes cannot even fulfill their own contracts. They are then forced to decide if responsibility is to the client, the actual resource, the public, or the regulatory agency that ordered the work in the first place.

While contract archaeology in America is a concrete professional development that brings us new ethical issues, an idealistic reform that involved a new peopleoriented archaeology brings new ethical discussions to the forefront of archaeological forums. Most important in any discussion of an archaeological ethic today, is a vital need to understand the people whose past we are excavating. It is time for archaeologists like other academics to be conscious of and try to step out of our own ethnocentrism. We must recognize Western values as constructs of our society and our own values as consequential to our educated status within that society. We have to work hard to judge other cultures based on their own terms, without imposing our values. We must respect the cultural histories and values of peoples whose past is under excavation, and we must remember that as we are discovering their past, so too are we committing an act of historical destruction. Cultural respect is essential when we are dealing with human burial remains. Essentially, dead people cannot tell us what they want although it is fairly clear that Egyptian pharaohs and ancient kings did not have themselves mummified in order to be placed on display for all the world to see for a small price. And tombs were likely not filled to help archaeologists better understand the past. Rather, in many societies dead bodies are and were kept in one place because people believed in an afterlife, spiritual presence, or any of a number of cultural readings of death.7

Archaeologists have largely reformed their policies and individual actions to include respect for Native American values. For the most part, burials of known tribal affiliation are no longer excavated unless there is a direct known danger such as imminent construction. This may seem to be in conflict with an old adage of archaeologists' inherent dedication to all humans. However, we must recognize that this so-called history has for the most part traditionally excluded Native Americans and conflicted with their heritage. Anthropologists and archaeologists have long considered human remains to be important indicators of culture, however Native Americans have concurrently considered themselves mistreated by archaeologists and anthropologists. They feel, rightly so, that burial remains have not been properly respected. Native Americans are increasingly conscious of the mistreatment of their past. Coming out of a nineteenth-century view of Indians as backward and naturally inferior, Native Americans have indeed been studied with little or no consideration of their rights and present-day existence. More recently than we would like to admit Native Americans were viewed by the academy as savages. Historically most archaeological endeavors in the United States have held little concern for Native American values - beginning with Thomas Jefferson's opening of an Indian mound in Virginia. Archaeologists have also failed to consider the input of living Native Americans because of the now debunked belief that living people had little to offer to studies of the past. In spite of a recent surge of training in cultural anthropology, it seems archaeologists and anthropologists often fail to carry over their learned classroom rhetoric of sensitivity to actual dealings with sacred Native American sites. In shifting from tribal organization to political organization, Native Americans have come into new power and have initiated political action to assert rights over territory, resources and traditional beliefs. They are essentially calling for control of their heritage based on the assumption that it is their history that is being studied. This movement is by no means brand new. In the 1960s Native Americans began voicing objections to having ritually relevant remains and artifacts displayed. This was the cause of museum sit-ins.8

Given the evident conflict based on human remains, archaeologists must build a rhetoric for both understanding and dealing with this conflict. Clearly, the archaeologists who become involved in the excavation of any site - at home or abroad - must become knowledgeable and proficient in that area's cultural past as well as present value system. It is imperative that we understand the groups we are researching in order to maintain a productive and sensitive working relationship and carry out a project that will result in minimal cultural destruction. In spite of a torrid and somewhat embarrassing history of Western ethnocentrism and disrespect as well as a recent history of halting conflict between local people and archaeologists, there is a future for archaeology. Effective communication is the key, and this communication must be viewed as a process of cross-cultural exchange where both sides will have to learn to make compromises and to understand each others' ideological language. Archaeologists must continually examine and explain their own values, while allowing and in fact demanding that living descendants be involved in and committed to the same process. Native American values have as much impact and are as important to excavations as archaeological ethics.

For archaeologists, learning to understand and communicate with local people may be their most important task and ethical imperative of the next decade. Dealing with ethnocentrism, however, is by no means the only discussion we must have. While archaeology is a wonderfully exciting and necessary discipline we must remember that an excavation destroys a site and thus every move we make is of the utmost importance. We must keep discussing the cornucopia of moral dilemmas inherent in our ever-growing conflicts based in America on contract archaeology and the ecological and environmental impact of excavation. It is only through prolific discussions, interpersonal contemplation and serious writings that we will continue to grow as a professional entity.


ADAMS, Charles E. 1984. Archaeology and the Native America: A Case at Hopi. Ethics and Values in Archaeology (Ernestene L. Green ed.). New York: The Free Press.
DAVIS, Hester A. 1986. Public Archaeology Forum. JFA 16, No. 1: 115-119.
GREEN, Ernestene L. 1984. Ethics and Values in Archaeology. New York: The Free Press.
HILLERMAN, Tony 1988. A Thief of Time. New York: Harper and Row.
KAISER, Timothy 1990. Dealing in Dollars. JFA 17, No. 2: 205-210.
- 1991. The Thieves of Time and Their Accomplices. JFA 18, No. 1: 87-89.
KLEINER, Fred S. 1990. On the Publication of Recent Acquisition of Antiquities. AJA 94, No. 4: 525-527.
MCMANAMON, Francis P. 1991. The Many Publics for Archaeology. American Antiquity 56/1: 122-129.
PENDERGAST, David M. 1991. And the Loot Goes on: Winning Some Battles but not the War. JFA 18, No. 1: 89-94.
UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted at the Hague, May 14, 1954.
WINTER, Frederick A. 1990. Who Owns the Past? Ethical Dilemmas in Contemporary Archaeology. Lecture sponsored by the NY Council for the Humanities at the DeWitt Historical Society, Ithaca, NY.
WINTER, Joseph C. 1984. The Way to Somewhere: Ethics in American Archaeology. Ethics and Values in Archaeology (Ernestene L. Green ed.). New York: The Free Press.

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