Archaeological ethics

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Archaeological ethics refers to the moral issues raised through the study of the material past. It is a branch of the Philosophy of archaeology.

In common with other academic disciplines, archaeologists are bound to conduct their investigations to a high standard and observe intellectual property laws, Health and Safety regulations and other legal obligations. Professional bodies in the field require that their members work towards the preservation and management of archaeological resources, treat human remains with dignity and also usually encourage outreach activities. Where these bodies exist, sanctions are in place for those professionals who do not observe these ethical codes. By no means all jurisdictions have such professional bodies however and even where they do exist, membership may not be necessary in order to carry out archaeological investigations. While such considerations are fundamental to a pursuit, they are unfortunately coming rather late to the field. Questions regarding ethics have only arisen since the UNESCO accords in the 1970s began to protect world culture.

A common ethical issue in modern archaeology has been the treatment of human remains found during excavations, especially those that represent the ancestors of aboriginal groups in the New World or the remains of other minority races elsewhere. Where previously sites of great significance to native peoples could be excavated and any burials and artefacts taken to be stored in museums or sold, there is increasing awareness in the West of taking a more respectful approach. The NAGPRA legislation in the United States of America is an example of this. The issue is not limited to ancient remains; nineteenth- and twentieth-century burial sites investigated by archaeologists such as First World War graves and cemeteries disturbed by developments have seen the remains of people with closely connected living relatives being exhumed and taken away.

The international trade in antiquities, although not formally connected with the modern discipline of archaeology has also raised ethical questions regarding the ownership of archaeological artefacts. The market for imported antiquities has encouraged damage to archaeological sites and often led to appeals for the recall.

Examples of archaeological material removed from its place of origin and controversy over its return include the Elgin Marbles.

A wider question of control and ownership over the past has also been raised through the political manipulation of the archaeological record to promote nationalism and justify military invasion. A famous example is the corps of archaeologists employed by Adolf Hitler to excavate in central Europe in the hope of finding evidence for a region-wide Aryan culture. Many archaeologists in the West today are employees of national governments or are privately employed instruments of government-derived archaeology legislation. In all cases this legislation is a compromise to some degree or another between the interests of the archaeological remains and the interests of economic development. Questions regarding the ethical validity of government heritage policies and whether they sufficiently protect important remains are raised during cases such as High Speed 1 in London where burials at a cemetery at St Pancras railway station were hurriedly dug using a JCB and mistreated in order to keep an important infrastructure project on schedule.

Another issue is the question of whether unthreatened archaeological remains should be excavated (and therefore destroyed) or preserved intact for future generations to investigate, perhaps using more advanced techniques that could provide more detailed information. Some archaeological guidance such as PPG 16 has established a strong ethical argument for only excavating sites threatened with destruction.

Problem Areas in Archaeological Ethics

  • Human Remains
  • Responsibility of the Archaeologist vis-a-vis local traditions and cultures
  • Responsibility of the Archaeologist vis-a-vis the architectural remains that have been uncovered during an excavation
  • Responsibility of the Archaeologist vis-a-vis dissemination of the material uncovered, not only in academic circles but also to a broader public, both in the area of the excavation and from where the Sponsors come
  • Balancing World, National and regional claims to various parts of the archaeological record
  • protecting Archaeological sites and objects from illegal trade

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