Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ignorance is not Bliss

When most people think of archaeology, they think about the exciting stuff; digging in an exotic place, discovering amazing artifacts, and bringing them back as trophies of a job well done. But rarely do people stop to think about the correct way to treat artifacts. Should we, as archaeologists, take as much as we can find and leave nothing behind for those that come in the future? Who really owns the artifacts that are found? And who has the right to decide where they should be put for safe keeping? These are some of the issues of ethical archaeology.

First of all, upon making a startling discovery or even just an interesting find, it is tempting to excavate to the fullest extent and recover as many artifacts as possible. This is problematic however, since we must consider that even over a decade, technology has improved at an alarming rate. This means that technology will most likely continue to improve over the next decade and so on. Therefore, it seems only logical that archaeologists should leave some of the landscape unexcavated so that those who come later will be able to use their new found technologies to perhaps get more detailed and accurate information. As was suggested in the “Can You Dig it?” article by the Economist, a viable plan is to “move away from the complete excavation of sites towards a more selective, sampling approach”. This would be a responsible way for archaeologists to behave. We cannot be too arrogant as to ignore the fact that those who come after us might actually be more successful or efficient in their work.

It seems that pride is a recurring theme in many of the ethical issues of archaeology. For instance, it seems as if archaeologists have come to see themselves as seekers of the truth and unfortunately, the high importance they place on that “truth” tends to blur the boundaries on what is ethical and what is not, especially on the issue of ownership of artifacts. As was stated in the Economist article, “the ownership of artefacts and responsibility to future generations, all stem in part from archaeology's new-found scientific authority” (Can You Dig it?, The Economist). This sense of authority sometimes causes archaeologists to neglect certain cultural and moral values that might be held by the community or culture that is associated with the artifacts that are found. The most favourable solution would be for archaeologists to work along with community members in order to come to an agreement that suits the desires of both parties. Though this would undoubtedly be complicated, it is imperative that archaeologists establish good relationships with the people involved. Arguably, one of the ultimate goals of archaeology is to enhance knowledge of human culture, therefore we have to start thinking more about the “human” part of it. The Society for American Archaeology agrees with this, however its principles of stewardship have certain flaws that would be improved (Groarke and Warrick, 2006). In addition to archaeologists seeing themselves as having a greater authority than most, there seems to be a Western way of thinking and doing that presents itself in some situations. Bergman and Doershuk state that in 1994, ninety percent of practicing archaeologists in the United States were of European descent (2003), which is startling and sort of unsettling when you think of the fact that these are the people making choices on behalf of the descendants of multiple ethnicities and that bias is almost inevitable. Archaeologists have to take into consideration that their interpretations will undoubtedly differ greatly from those of others and they cannot always assume that they know better just because they have science behind them.

Moving into the future, archaeologists can no longer ignore the wishes of members of the cultures that stake claims to artifacts, nor can they ignore the fact that there could be more successful archaeologists in the future. Therefore, they must find ways to interact efficiently with the other parties involved in their work and they must recognize that preserving parts of sites will prove more effective in the long term scheme of things. In short, it is apparent that when it comes to ethical archaeology, ignorance is not bliss.


Bergman, C., Doershuk, J. (2003). Cultural Resource Management and the Business of Archaeology in Ethical Issues in Archaeology (85-97). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Ethics and Archaeology: Can You Dig it? In The Economist. (2002).

Groarke, L., Warrick, G. (2006). Stewardship gone astray? Ethics and the SAA in The Ethics of Archaeology (163-177). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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