Beyond Stuff-based Ownership: Do Archaeologists have an Obligation to People?

Sarah M. Rowe and Patricia A. McAnany, InHerit (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

The first principle of the AAA Ethics Statement is “Do No Harm.” An archaeological addendum to this principle advises archaeologists that “given the irreplaceable nature of the archaeological record, the conservation, protection and stewardship of that record is the principle ethical obligation….” A similar sentiment is stated in the ethical principles of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) and the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA).

The stewardship imperative has been critiqued on a number of fronts since it was introduced into archaeological ethics in the late 1990s, not the least because it utilizes the primacy of scientific authority to reinforce the archaeologist’s privileged position to speak about the past (Wylie 2005). These authoritative discourses about the past are not value-free; they can serve to either disrupt or perpetuate power imbalances present in today’s society. Particularly when working within a colonial or post-colonial context in which people’s history with land and archaeological objects often is one of dispossession, the assumption of professional stewardship should be approached with care.

As archaeologists working under the broad rubric of “community archaeology”, we propose that professional obligations to the materials that constitute the archaeological record exist in a dynamic tension with another set of professional obligations—those extending to the people with whom we relate as practicing archaeologists. In this regard, a “virtue ethics” framework applied to archaeology by Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson (2006) deserves another round of consideration. Such a framework encourages practitioners to identify and reflect upon the relationships of trust and respect that can be formed with various publics. Noting that imbalances in power often prevent the development of trust relationships, Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson (2006) hit upon a raw nerve in the practice of archaeology in Latin America, which demands that “foreign” archaeologists satisfy nationalist requirements that can position them sideways to local and particularly indigenous communities.

Given this complex tapestry of power and authority, thinking nationally and acting locally has the potential to create an ethical conundrum. Efforts to build relationships of trust and respect concomitantly need to occur at many levels. Through a University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill program called InHerit (www.in-herit.org), we have focused on the grass-roots level and interactions with members of local and often indigenous communities. In these activities we emphasize education as a key way of addressing power imbalances and building trust. Not, swoop-in-and-tell-people-what-you-want-them-to-know education, but a two-way street of exchanging ideas about the past and engendering a dialogue about how we (humanity writ large) can build an understanding of the past. InHerit has undertaken projects with local partners throughout the Maya region. For instance, we have worked with a local NGO called ProPetén in El Petén, Guatemala to re-formulate a comprehensive curriculum for grades 3-6 that incorporates indigenous knowledge, maternal language, site conservation, and archaeological interpretation. To encourage Maya archaeologists to take that extra step to create a reciprocal exchange of information with local communities, we sponsored a grant competition called the Bi-Directional Knowledge Exchange (BKE) grant. BKEs provide small funds to enable archaeologists and local people to engage in the back and forth exchange of ideas that is crucial to the establishment of a trust relationship.

An emphasis on virtue ethics disrupts the distinction between ethics and morals that is outlined in the preamble to the AAA Principles of Professional Responsibility. As archaeologists committed to working closely with communities this distinction does not feel either practical nor justified. We do feel a moral obligation to people who are impacted by archaeological research and an obligation to build relationships of trust and understanding that move well beyond the stuff-based stewardship principles that have been archaeologists’ primary concern. It’s time to acknowledge the triadic sociality of our profession. People are part of the picture. It’s not just us and the potsherds—if it ever was.

References
Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip and T.J. Ferguson
2006 Trust and archaeological practice: towards a framework of Virtue Ethics. In The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, edited by C. Scarre and G. Scarre, pp. 115-130. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Wylie, Alison
2005 The promise and perils of an ethic of stewardship. In Embedding Ethics, edited by L. Meskell and P. Pels, pp. 47–68. Berg Publishers, Oxford, UK.

Links
InHerit (www.in-herit.org)
SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics (http://saa.org/AbouttheSociety/PrinciplesofArchaeologicalEthics/tabid/203/Default.aspx)
SHA Ethics Statement (http://www.sha.org/index.php/view/page/ethics)

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