Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Muddy: Ethics for Archaeologists.

To conclude the educational odyssey that has been this class, we discussed the complex issue of ethics in archaeology. This semester we have learned how to identify, plan, map and execute a successful archaeological excavation, so it seems fitting that our field season comes to close with a discussion about ethics behaviour and professionalism. While ethics are important in any professional discipline, in archaeology ethics are essential because we frequently require access to sensitive cultural material, like human remains, around which issues like ownership and preservation revolve.

Bergman and Doershuk define ethics as “what is good and bad and what compromises moral duty and obligation” (2003, 86). We expanded this definition and decided that for an archaeologist, ethical behaviour is to identify the potential stakeholders involved, their mandates and cooperate with them while still achieving the research goal. We determined that at any one time there are at least three stakeholders involved, the archaeologist, the landowner (whether it be the federal government or a private owner) and the descendent group. In Cultural resource management the client also has a significant stake. As a result, to act ethically one must take into consideration the interests of all the stakeholders involved.

For an archaeologist, the primary objective of an excavation is to obtain as much information about a site as possible, while operating within the law and cooperating with other stakeholder interests. Archaeologists are often ascribed the identity of being “stewards of the archaeological record” (Groarcke and Warrick, 2006, 165) we preserve it, interpret it and can make accessible to the greater public. Does this make our interests more important than those of the other stakeholders? Here in lies the challenge. Whose interests matter more? Does research take precedence over site preservation? Should the wishes of descendent group be more important then those of the landowner? Should all stakeholders be equal? There is no easy answer; yet each excavation team will have to take some form of action.

Ethics are also significant when extracting value from archaeological data. Oral histories from a descent group could contextualize data in way that academic deductions could not. Alternatively, the academic record can identify inaccuracies in the oral history. The oral history of Parc Safari is a good example. Although the site is less than thirty years old, discrepancies have been discovered between the oral history and the material we have excavated. If there is a conflict in interpretation, whose story is chosen as correct?

We also discussed the importance of avoiding biases and considering alternative opinions when interpreting archaeological data. Even within the same stakeholder group differences of opinion can exist. We discussed the divisions between academic and Cultural resource management (CRM) (Bergman and Doershuk 2003,1). CRM archaeological consulting is a relatively new development in the field of archaeology that is concerned with extracting archaeological data as a business. The difference between CRM and academic archaeology is that CRM is conducted to assess cultural remains within sites designated for future development. The result can be a salvage excavation to extract data from a site before potentially damaging construction or development takes place. The data derived from archaeological consulting has, in the past, been deemed as “grey literature”(and has been regarded as less important than the data from academic archaeological research). We discussed the possibility of using grey literature as a source of information for future academic research. Grey literature is a valuable resource, encouraging its use in academia could assist in discouraging the endurance of negative professional stereotypes.

We concluded our discussion by determining that archaeologists of any profession have an obligation to engage neutrally, preferably in the political arena where all stakeholders’ voices can be heard. It is important to remember that the archaeological record is publicly owned; because archaeologists have the privilege of first contact with the archaeological record there is substantial pressure to ensure that our choices and actions comply with the accepted ethical standards of the time. And let’s be honest, complying with ethical standards is a small price to pay for the fun of getting dirty in an excavation pit.

Works Cited:

Bergman, C.A & J.F Doershuk, 2003. Cultural Resource Management and the Business of Archaeology. In Ethical Issues in Archaeology, edited by L.J Zimmerman, K.D Vitelli, and J. Holloway-Zimmer, 85-98. New York: Altamira Press.

Groarke L. and G. Warrick, 2006. Stewardship gone astray? Ethics and the SAA. In The Ethics of Archaeology: philosophical perspectives on the archaeological practice, edited by C. Scarre and G. Scarre, 163-177. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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