Ethical Issues in Archaeology

By Bontty, Monica M. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Ethical Issues in Archaeology


Bontty, Monica M., Southeastern Archaeology


Ethical Issues in Archaeology. LARRY J. ZIMMERMAN, KAREN D. VITELLI, and JULIE HOLLOWELL-ZEMMER (eds.). Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2003. 320 pp., appendix, biblio., index. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7591-0270-8; $35.95 (paper), ISBN 0-7591-0271-6.

Reviewed by Monica M. Bontty

Archaeology began as a white European male dominated study of the conquered by the conqueror. Publish or perish was the major concern of an archaeologist. However, over time and due to social changes, an archaeologist's obligations are far more complicated. One major change is the business of archaeology, a.k.a. cultural resource management. Additionally, thanks to the women's movement, there are now more women in the field than ever before. However, the biggest impact on archaeology has been native peoples staking claims to their cultural heritage. This work is about how archaeologists relate to these diverse groups as well archaeologists' obligations to the field and to one another.

The format allows the reader to proceed through the sections without having to read in sequence. Moreover, it is difficult not to praise this well-planned and -executed work. It is the result of a collaborative effort involving contributions from a diverse group of scholars that began in 1996, when AltaMira Press published a collection of essays on ethical choices. After much planning and difficult decisions, the outstanding achievements can be read in this extremely user-friendly volume.

After a brief introduction, the book is divided into four sections. The first part is devoted to a discussion of ethics and the development of ethics in archaeology (chapters 1-2). The second (chapters 3-8) concerns responsibilities to the archaeological record, the third (chapters 9-14) concerns responsibilities to the diverse audiences, and the fourth (chapters 15-19), consisting of five chapters, focuses on obligations to colleagues, employees, and students.

A detailed analysis of ethics and how it differs from other sources of social control is the topic of the first chapter. Here the author reveals that archaeology must not harm others who have a stake in the field. Chapter 2 relates how ethical concerns of archaeology led to early protective legislation such as the Antiquities Act of 1906. The increased demand for high-end objects has led to increased sales for antiquities dealers, who exploit locals by paying only a fraction of the actual value of an artifact. The real damage, however, is the loss of information and opening of new sources, such as in Afghanistan, where 70 percent of the holdings disappeared only to reappear on the auction block. Educating locals about the need to preserve, as well as the refusal of scholars to publish objects of questionable origin, may help lessen looting. Education and the implementation of professional codes could have an impact on low-end looting, which is the topic of chapter 4.

Shipwreck archaeology requires its own special ethics since it differs drastically from land-based excavations. Although many treasure hunters have established museums, their lack of attention to conservation and focus on profit has left much to be desired. Furthermore, treasure hunters resort to falsehoods to justify their work. No doubt the establishment of a set of standards regarding the excavation, conservation, and publication of shipwrecks might help avoid the problems associated with what really should be considered a form of looting.

Chapter 6 looks at the challenges concerning stewardship such as acquisition and disposition of objects. A major problem is that many museums cannot accommodate objects at the rate the materials are generated. Another matter affecting storage involves object conservation within the traditional care required by descendant groups. The business of archaeology is the topic of chapter 7. Contract archaeologists are problem solvers balancing the interests of competing concerns. Above all, cultural resource management needs to be recognized as a profession with no differences between it and other types of archaeology. …

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