Ethical Dilemma Faced by Archaeologists

Ethical Dilemma Faced by Archaeologists

Archaeology deals with the study of prehistoric as well as recent human past by examining the relics. Ethics is a division of philosophy that deals with ‘‘morality, moral problems, and moral judgments’’. It concerns the good and bad, right as well as wrong conduct. Professional ethics represent common ideals, and values, as well as recommendations for the appropriate behaviour of members belonging to a specific profession. Before the late 1970s, majority of the archaeologists had established notions of behavioural ethics purely on the basis of the role models set during their training as well as personal experiences in the office or at sites. However, post the 1970s, the period witnessed an increasing urge amongst professional archaeologists, especially those in the United States and the United Kingdom, to follow a structured methodology while dealing with ethical issues they face. Nevertheless, a vast majority of archaeologists continued to ignore the concerns regarding standards of practice and ethics until recently. (Majewski, & Gaimster, 2012)

Place your order

A prime area for ethical concern is in the field, especially the excavation sites of battlefields. The excavations at these sites bring to the fore human remains as well as personal belongings which need to be sensitively as well as ethically handled else it could backfire. Archaeologists involved in such activities are engulfed with such issues that have plagued archaeology for the past fifteen years. Perhaps the most common ethical issue prevalent at an archaeological site would be the handling of human remains found during excavations. Earlier, the remains of humans as well as their artefacts would either be displayed in foreign museums or sold to collectors without much thought for the native people. However, in the past few years, archaeologists have faced resistance from the native people regarding the custody as well as treatment of the human remains that have been discovered. A notorious example would be that of Kennewick Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton discovered in 1996 along a riverbank near Kennewick in Washington State. Interestingly, its skeletal characteristics are strikingly unlike those of Native Americans, which made Kennewick Man a subject of great interest for archaeologists doing research on the people of America. Five Native American tribes have claimed the Kennewick Man to be their ancestor as per the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This law approved in 1990 permitted Native Americans to take away ancestors’ bones as well as items related to burials and religious practices, from the museums. A legal conflict has ensued since then. Conceding the remains of Kennewick Man to the Native Americans would deprive archaeologists of access to a crucial source of evidence and information; while handing them over to the archaeologists would tantamount to a direct denial of the Native Americans’ oral history, estimated to be dated 10,000 years back. (p. 178, Zimmerman, Vitelli, & Zimmer, 2003).

The other issue is regarding the ownership of artifacts. For the first-world-war sites, the native people collected medals and other memorabilia with the help of metal detectors. These were then sold off and thus were a significant source of income for those who returned to the area post-war. Archaeologists, nevertheless, considered such acts as ‘looting’. Across the globe, this remains one controversial question as to who amongst these has the first right to the buried items – the native people, the descendants of the original owners, or the archaeologists. Making the artifacts a private property would deny the archaeologists access to them for their research purposes. In the future, it could prevent archaeologists from authenticating previous discoveries. Thus, an ethical dilemma on the part of archaeologists is whether to prevent these loots from happening and protect these sites from destruction. (Lynott, & Wylie, 2000).

A great ethical concern is related to the collaboration of archaeologists with the trade of the treasure hunt and loot of artefacts. There often exists honest ethical dilemmas for those archaeologists, who while following the law often land themselves outside the purview of the right professional behaviour. However, most of the time such scenarios engage professional archaeologists recruited to function with commercial treasure hunters (Elia, 1997). The looted artefacts from archaeological sites often make their way to museums or adorn the palaces of elites around the world. The antiquity trade is a thriving world of high transactional sales and exhibitions. Many times an archaeologists will be asked to identify or authenticate some of the antiquities or write catalogue entries for various exhibitions dealing in these looted items. Often these antiquities are of doubtful origins. Thus, the archaeologists are faced with the dilemma of whether to honour the request or to decline the antiquity which is crucial for research but of questionable background (p. 39, Zimmerman, Vitelli, & Zimmer, 2003). Many times, exorbitant money is being offered to execute these requests, which often allures the archaeologists to take the offer and sell their expertise in the market.

The next ethical issue is regarding the preservation of sites. The dilemma is whether the historical sites and battlefields should be left alone as memorials, re-developed for tourism purposes, or preserved for future archaeologists. Majority of the archaeologists prefer the third option and hence, of late, have become increasingly selective about their excavation activities so as to not hinder investigations by the following generations. The principal contradiction of archaeology is that discovery requires destruction and investigation involves infringement. The challenge lies in drawing the line; taking a call on the extent of excavation to be done so as to not hinder future investigations. (Wilkie, 2005) Archaeologists often misunderstand that their prime duties are towards their profession, with regards to the following of scientific principles, and also towards their clients, related to the clearing of the excavation site, to facilitate the progress of the archaeological goals. However, in this endeavour, they should not forget the sensitive emotions the stakeholders in the previous years had towards the site and remains engraved in them (p. 129-144, Patterson, 1995). Further, they should also display sensitivity towards every facet of the item found that relates to those groups of people whose inheritors are impacted by the consequences of the work that archaeologists conduct.

A major ethical issue in the archaeological sector is with regard to the sharing of the information gathered in the archaeological sites. There are a number of scholarly and popular mediums through which an archaeologist can publish the information collected from these sites for the widespread use of their colleagues as well as the public. The ethical dilemma faced by archaeologists in this regard is due to the fact that though there exists a gamut of information still unpublished or under-published, there is no medium to authorize the accuracy of the information presented. Further, there is an ethical dilemma about rewarding credit, where it is due, to the people working together. The credit could be given through the medium of co-authorship where work is done in collaboration or with the help of proper citations to another scholar’s work, or plainly recognizing the helping hand given by others. Another ethical issue in this field is with regard to the pressure of being fair while assessing the work of another (p. 20, Majewski, & Gaimster, 2012). This is particularly the case where an archaeologist is required to review the manuscripts and other materials of others.  Though being honest is always desirable in the archaeological profession, it is often difficult to remark positively about a work that might not be so.

To summarize, while investigating archaeologists generally pit their interests against those of the others, and the present concerns against possible future concerns. With ethical concerns gaining prominence, one can see a significant change in the way archaeologists are perceived by the public and also the way archaeologists see themselves. A prime ethical dilemma for archaeologists is concerning the treatment of human remains dug up from the excavation sites. These remains, though are very valuable for the archeology study and usually hold a sentimental value for the descendants. Further, the issue of ownership of artifacts is another ethical dilemma the archaeologist deals with. Often, they are asked to authenticate an artifact of dubious origin and also write catalogue entries for looted treasure from a historical site. They have to choose between the hefty amounts they are being offered or their professional principles. Next, archaeologists are often faced with the dilemma of whether to leave historical sites or battlefields as memorials, or re-developed for tourism purposes, or preserv for future archaeologists. The problem lies with the fact that discovery requires destruction and investigation involves infringement. A major ethical issue to deal with the archaeology sector is the treatment of the vast amount of information lying unpublished or under-published, as there lies no medium to authorize the accuracy of the information presented. Further, there is an ethical dilemma about rewarding credit, where it is due, to the people working together. To address these issues, the establishment of the Society of Professional Archaeologists (SOPA) in 1976 was to provide a framework of ethics and performance standards for professional archaeologists in the United States. It works as a guideline for the code of conduct expected from professional archaeologists and addresses the various dilemmas they face while working in the field.


Elia, R. (1997). Looting, collecting, and the destruction of archaeological resources. Nonrenewable Resources, 6(2), 85-98.

Lynott, M., & Wylie, A. (2000). Ethics in American archaeology (2nd ed.). Washington D.C: Society for American Archaeology.

Majewski, T., & Gaimster, D. (2012). International handbook of historical archaeology (1st ed.). New York: Springer.

Patterson, T. (1995). Toward a Social History of Archaeology in the United States (1st ed.). Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Wilkie, N. (2005). Review: Ethical Issues in Archaeology by Larry J. Zimmerman; Karen D. Vitelli; Julie Hollowell-Zimmer. Journal Of Field Archaeology, 30(1), 114-117.

Zimmerman, L., Vitelli, K., & Zimmer, J. (2003). Ethical issues in archaeology (1st ed.). Walnut Creek, Calif. [u.a.]: Altamira Press.

Write My Essay Now
$ 0 .00


Be Awesome - Share Awesome