Ethics and Morals

Archaeology may be dealing with the lifeless, static, material past but it must still embrace certain cultural standards to ensure that, as an academic discipline, it maintains suitable ethics including a number of important moral issues.

Like other academic disciplines, archaeologists are bound by a code of conduct that spreads its implications both on-site and off-site, includes observing intellectual property rights, health and safety conditions, scientific credibility, and other territorial legal obligations.

Professional archaeological associations require that their field staff preserve and manage the archaeological record with all due diligence. This will include treating any discovered human remains with dignity, attempting to accurately identify those remains, and permit the local authorities to manage their preservation in an appropriate manner.

Human Remains

One of the most common ethical issues arising on an archaeological site is the treatment of human remains discovered as a result of excavations. Previously, in a less sympathetic time, the remains of native people and their artefacts were torn from their locations and displayed in foreign museums or sold to high-bidding collectors with little thought for the living descendents.

As a result of the hundreds of thousands of First World War graves and the millions of living people connected to them, a more respectful approach of dealing with human remains has entered into the academic stream. It is now not uncommon to have a Rabbi, at least on-call, if not on-site, on major archaeological excavations in Israel. Different cultures treat their dead in differing ways and archaeological sympathies must mould to these customs.

The Power of Governments

However, even the most ethical archaeologist cannot contend against the power of state governments. Sadly, archaeological morality often suffers at the hand of economic development or national ideologies.

To complete the London rail link for the Channel Tunnel, important human remains at St Pancras cemetery were hastily dug up and mistreated in order to maintain the schedule of the infrastructure project.

Adolf Hitler formed the German ‘Corp of Archaeologists’ and commissioned them to excavate Europe in search of evidence to support his Aryan race ideology.

Ownership of Artefacts

Another great ethical issue facing archaeologists is the ownership of artefacts recovered from archaeological sites. Keen amateurs often roam the countryside of battle sites, armed with metal detectors, and locate artefacts ranging from weapons to medals. The controversy of ownership is complex. Does the medal belong to the dead soldier, the living relatives, the national government, or the person who found it? The problem is further complicated when the object is on-sold. If rightful ownership is subsequently proved is it then possible to recover the item and if so, at what price for compensation?

Most national governments regard all artefacts discovered on public land as belonging to that state. This ownership rule is often extended to include significant finds on even private land. The indigenous people of many poorer countries still raid archaeological sites and frequently gain their livelihood from selling the relics at very low prices to tourists or collectors. Many professionally unexcavated sites in Turkey have attracted the attention of local entrepreneurs who, carefully avoiding the authorities, dig up and sell remarkable artefacts to visitors at these more remote sites.

Many countries are now requesting the repatriation of their looted artefacts. The great museums of Great Britain and Europe are secure detention centres for some of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures from countries that now want them returned.

There is a huge international trade in antiquities involving millions of pounds. The temptations for archaeologists to become involved in unethical and immoral dealings are financially appealing. Archaeologists must strive to avoid the inducement of entering into hoaxes, producing fakes, or wresting the archaeological record.

Preservation of Sites

As the interest, enthusiasm and diversity of archaeology increases so it demands more ground to dig up. The questions arise: should war battlefields be left alone and kept as memorials? Should all of the important sites be excavated now? Why not leave some of them for later archaeological studies. Geophysical survey methods have permitted many sites to be ‘viewed’ without disturbing them thus enabling them to be preserved for future generations.

Paradoxically, the ethical and moral arguments over the handling of human remains, the ownership of important artefacts, and the responsibility of preserving archaeological sites for future generations, all branch, in part, from the new scientific authority that archaeology has girded itself with over the last 50 years. Having successfully eschewed the dubious ‘loot and go’ expeditionaries of previous generations, archaeologists have effectively remodelled themselves as diligent, respectable, scientists in the pursuit of honestly gained facts.

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