Archaeological Ethics

Archaeological ethics are the moral principles that guide an archaeologist in the pursuit of his or her profession. The issues covered range from respect for the dead to conservation of artefacts to the preservation and interpretation of heritage.

Before looking at details specific to the archaeological profession it is worth remembering that archaeologists are professionals. The best archaeologists belong to trade bodies that uphold standards and raise the profile of the profession. Some of the relevant bodies are the Institute for Archaeology in the United Kingdom, the European Association of Archaeologists in Europe and the Archaeological Institute of America. These bodies publish codes of conduct and ethical guidance notes to support the profession. Naturally, all archaeologists must comply with the laws of the land in which they operate. Excavations which can take place in difficult circumstances, such as underwater or in deep trenches or shafts must comply with health and safety standards.

Archaeologists are frequently interested in the dead, their tombs and funeral rites. These are particularly important at pre-historic sites. Some of the great archaeological sites of the world, such as the pyramids of Egypt are associated with the dead. The ethical codes dictate that archaeologists should treat the dead with respect. Archaeologists delving into the recent past should be particularly sensitive. IN England the 2006 Human Tissue Act prohibits the unauthorised removal, storage or display of human tissue that is less than 100 years in age.  Sometimes an archaeological excavation may involve digging through several cultural layers. The differences between the cultures should always be respected.

An ethical archaeologist should not participate, or encourage a trade in stolen artefacts. Unauthorised metal detecting should be discouraged. Newly discovered artefacts should be reported to a local finds officer, who is probably employed by the nearest local authority. Looting and unauthorised excavations should be discouraged.

The archaeologist has a duty to preserve and interpret archaeological records. Treasure hunting and looting can destroy the archaeological record. Ethically, there is also a growing belief that the archaeological record is part of man’s common culture and should be preserved and displayed as such rather than falling into the hands of a private collector.

One hundred and twenty years ago many archaeologists were wealthy adventurers in the true Indiana Jones style. The modern archaeologist is much more likely to be employed by a local authority with a brief to interpret and preserve the archaeological heritage. In the modern role the archaeologist has to weigh up numerous competing interests to determine the best policy for a site. A modern archaeologist could be called upon to decide whether a commercial development should be delayed to give time to explore the underlying archaeology at the site.

Apart from the challenging technical and historic aspects the archaeological profession is becoming increasingly aware of its ethical responsibilities. The professional bodies are currently including the ethical standards in their codes of conduct to which all archaeologists should adhere.