Beyond Preservation: Expanding the Ethical Responsibilities of Archaeologists

Beyond Preservation: Expanding the Ethical Responsibilities of Archaeologists

M. Jay Stottman
University of Kentucky
Kentucky Archaeological Survey

In this blog post I will examine how the use of archaeology within the education of primary and secondary students challenges our notion of preservation-focused ethics and compels us to expand our ethical responsibilities. In particular, I will discuss the example of allowing school children to participate in real archaeological excavations. Traditionally, ethics in archaeology and anthropology have been focused on preservation in one form or another, and more recently, interactions with stakeholders. Ethics policies and statements have, rightly I believe, placed an emphasis on the preservation and protection of cultural resources and research with the prime directive of causing “no harm”. Our colonial past necessitated preservation-minded ethics to prevent misguided research and to differentiate scholarly pursuits from treasure hunting. Although we have modified our ethics policies over the years, as applications of anthropology and archaeology have increased interactions with communities and stakeholders, they still privilege our control over and responsibility for the preservation of cultural resources and research. A consequence of such policies has been the limiting of public access to and interaction with cultural resources, which has presented an ethical dilemma for those interested in advocacy and activism, as noted by several other blog postings. This consequence is perhaps less an issue for applied anthropologists than it is for archaeologists, as the former have a more established tradition of activism and advocacy. Recent iterations of the AAA ethics statement reflect ethical responsibilities to communities and stakeholders. However, most AAA ethics principles do not seem to be aimed at archaeologists, as cultural resource protection and stewardship is foremost in archaeology. Since interactions with or research on present-day living communities within archaeology is seen as limited, such principles tend to be absent or understated in archaeology ethics policies. Thus, activist archaeologists wrestle with the dilemma of negotiating between our preservation ethics and the desire to use archaeological processes and information to benefit and advocate for present-day communities.

Many activist projects engage with and educate the public by using archaeology to develop educational curricula and to provide hands on learning experiences for primary and secondary students. When we typically think of archaeology and education, we tend to think of training our students in academia to become archaeologists or educating the public about our preservation ethics. However, many public and activist archaeologists have found that teaching archaeological skills and perspectives to primary and secondary students is an engaging and effective way to benefit communities. Students not only learn about history and culture, they also learn math, science, language arts, technology, and art by participating in real research. By doing real research, students not only can learn skills and concepts, they also can understand larger cultural contexts and examine issues of social justice. Thus, some projects have educational goals which are just as important as our traditional research and preservation goals. Such projects force us outside of our comfort zone and invariably challenge our notion of preservation ethics.

My experiences in archaeology-based education programs have at times been at odds with preservation ethics and certainly have drawn criticism from some who feel that such programs are unethical. For example, I have allowed children to participate in all aspects of real archaeological research from research design to dissemination, including excavation. No sandbox or fake digs here. Some might feel that I am sending the wrong message to kids which can encourage them to loot. Others may feel that having untrained children digging could cause irreparable harm to the archaeological record. I would argue that with proper supervision students can participate in excavations with little to no risk to the quality of the archaeological research. Through the experience of doing archaeology, students gain a better understanding of and respect for archaeology and thus are more likely to accept our preservation message. Additionally, through archaeology we have helped students learn important curricula concepts, such as the scientific method, historical inquiry, grids and coordinates, measurements, and yes, ethics.

However, when we do such projects, we are confronted not only by our ethical values, but also many additional ethical concerns and responsibilities not unlike those faced by applied anthropologists. We have additional responsibilities with our foray into education, such as to the safety of students, to the curricula of teachers, to assessing the effectiveness of programs, and toward collaborating with and respecting the field of education. These considerations should be a part of our ethical values, as much as our preservation rhetoric. How do we balance our traditional ethical values with our desires to make our field more relevant to the public and advocate for communities? How do we incorporate new ethical responsibilities into our policies? How do we reconcile the inherent tensions between our traditional ethics and our responsibilities to the people for whom we advocate? Our ethics should not only be derived from the fear of our colonial past or a looter’s shovel, they also should be derived from archaeology’s articulation with present-day communities. We are now beginning to address our ethical responsibilities related to educational projects. The work of the recent AIA outreach and educator’s conference on heritage education ethics stands as an example. The development of additional ethics principles has drawn and should draw from our applied and cultural colleagues, because what has traditionally been seen as diverging interests among the subfields of anthropology, public, activist, and educational archaeology demonstrates that when it comes to ethics, archaeologists have much more in common with our anthropological brethren than we may think.