Archaeological ethics
Archaeological ethics refers to a number of moral
A moral is a message conveyed or a lesson to be learned from a story or event. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader or viewer to determine for themselves, or may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim...

 issues raised through the study of the material past.

In common with other academic disciplines, archaeologists are bound to conduct their investigations to a high standard and observe intellectual property laws, Health and Safety regulations and other legal obligations. Professional bodies in the field require that their members work towards the preservation and management of archaeological resources, treat human remains with dignity and also usually encourage outreach activities. Where these bodies exist, sanctions are in place for those professionals who do not observe these ethical codes. By no means all jurisdictions have such professional bodies however and even where they do exist, membership may not be necessary in order to carry out archaeological investigations. While such considerations are fundamental to a pursuit, they are unfortunately coming rather late to the field. Questions regarding ethics have only arisen since the UNESCO accords in the 1970s began to protect world culture.

A common ethical issue in modern archaeology has been the treatment of human remains found during excavations, especially those that represent the ancestors of aboriginal
Indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples are ethnic groups that are defined as indigenous according to one of the various definitions of the term, there is no universally accepted definition but most of which carry connotations of being the "original inhabitants" of a territory....

 groups in the New World
New World
The New World is one of the names used for the Western Hemisphere, specifically America and sometimes Oceania . The term originated in the late 15th century, when America had been recently discovered by European explorers, expanding the geographical horizon of the people of the European middle...

 or the remains of other minority races elsewhere. Where previously sites of great significance to native peoples could be excavated and any burials and artefacts
Artifact (archaeology)
An artifact or artefact is "something made or given shape by man, such as a tool or a work of art, esp an object of archaeological interest"...

 taken to be stored in museums or sold, there is increasing awareness in the West of taking a more respectful approach. The NAGPRA legislation in the United States of America is an example of this. The issue is not limited to ancient remains; nineteenth- and twentieth-century burial sites investigated by archaeologists such as First World War graves and cemeteries disturbed by developments have seen the remains of people with closely connected living relatives being exhumed and taken away.

The international trade in antiquities
Antiquities, nearly always used in the plural in this sense, is a term for objects from Antiquity, especially the civilizations of the Mediterranean: the Classical antiquity of Greece and Rome, Ancient Egypt and the other Ancient Near Eastern cultures...

, although not formally connected with the modern discipline of archaeology has also raised ethical questions regarding the ownership of archaeological artefacts. The market for imported antiquities has encouraged damage to archaeological site
Archaeological site
An archaeological site is a place in which evidence of past activity is preserved , and which has been, or may be, investigated using the discipline of archaeology and represents a part of the archaeological record.Beyond this, the definition and geographical extent of a 'site' can vary widely,...

s and often led to appeals for the recall.

Examples of archaeological material removed from its place of origin and controversy over its return include the Elgin Marbles
Elgin Marbles
The Parthenon Marbles, forming a part of the collection known as the Elgin Marbles , are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures , inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens...


A wider question of control and ownership over the past has also been raised through the political manipulation of the archaeological record
Archaeological record
The archaeological record is the body of physical evidence about the past. It is one of the most basic concepts in archaeology, the academic discipline concerned with documenting and interpreting the archaeological record....

 to promote nationalism
Nationalism is a political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a political entity defined in national terms, i.e. a nation. In the 'modernist' image of the nation, it is nationalism that creates national identity. There are various definitions for what...

 and justify military invasion. A famous example is the corps of archaeologists employed by Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 to excavate in central Europe in the hope of finding evidence for a region-wide Aryan
Aryan is an English language loanword derived from Sanskrit ārya and denoting variously*In scholarly usage:**Indo-Iranian languages *in dated usage:**the Indo-European languages more generally and their speakers...

 culture. Many archaeologists in the West today are employees of national governments or are privately employed instruments of government-derived archaeology legislation. In all cases this legislation is a compromise to some degree or another between the interests of the archaeological remains and the interests of economic development. Questions regarding the ethical validity of government heritage policies and whether they sufficiently protect important remains are raised during cases such as High Speed 1 in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 where burials at a cemetery at St Pancras railway station
St Pancras railway station
St Pancras railway station, also known as London St Pancras and since 2007 as St Pancras International, is a central London railway terminus celebrated for its Victorian architecture. The Grade I listed building stands on Euston Road in St Pancras, London Borough of Camden, between the...

 were hurriedly dug using a JCB
J. C. Bamford
JCB is a global construction, demolition and agricultural equipment company headquartered in Rocester, United Kingdom. It is the world's third-largest construction equipment manufacturer. It produces over 300 types of machines, including diggers , excavators, tractors and diesel engines...

 and mistreated in order to keep an important infrastructure project on schedule.

Another issue is the question of whether unthreatened archaeological remains should be excavated (and therefore destroyed) or preserved intact for future generations to investigate, perhaps using more advanced techniques that could provide more detailed information. Some archaeological guidance such as PPG 16
PPG 16
Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning commonly abbreviated as PPG 16, was a document produced by the British Government to advise local planning authorities on the treatment of archaeology within the planning process...

has established a strong ethical argument for only excavating sites threatened with destruction.

Problem Areas in Archaeological Ethics
  • Human Remains
  • Responsibility of the Archaeologist vis-a-vis local traditions and cultures
  • Responsibility of the Archaeologist vis-a-vis the architectural remains that have been uncovered during an excavation
  • Responsibility of the Archaeologist vis-a-vis dissemination of the material uncovered, not only in academic circles but also to a broader public, both in the area of the excavation and from where the Sponsors come
  • Balancing World, National and regional claims to various parts of the archaeological record
  • protecting Archaeological sites and objects from illegal trade

External links

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