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The Case of the Over Eager Collaborator



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Volume 7
Year 2006
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
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  • Frederika  Kaestle

    Posted 3 years and 4 months ago

    It has only been recently that those who study the past have formally acknowledged that living peoples (other than professionals, and a somewhat general responsibility to “the public,” see Green 1984) have a stake in this research, for example, with the passage in 1990 of NAGPRA.  However, uniform formal guidelines do not exist for negotiating with most of these stakeholders, nor for weighing conflicting interests of various stakeholders. Determining the most appropriate path is often difficult, as was discovered in this case.  Although professional societies, such as the Society of American Archaeology, have formalized codes of ethics, they provide little guidance in ranking the responsibilities of the archaeologist to particular stakeholders (in fact, the SAA code simply urges archaeologists to consult with “affected group(s),” Society of American Archaeology, 2005). However, the ethical code of the American Association of Anthropologists (whose membership includes archaeologists) does state that “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work. These obligations can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge” (American Anthropological Association, 2005).  Note that the code suggests these obligations ‘can’, not ‘must’ supersede the scientific goals.

    In the situation presented, responsibility to stakeholders appear to conflict. At first glance, responsibility to local Native American groups require that pot hunting be discouraged and reported, as does responsibility to the conservation of the scientific value of the artifacts, but responsibility to the land owner may include maintaining the friendship as well as providing information regarding the importance of the pots (e.g. to assess their commercial value or to educate himself). However, one could flip these responsibilities entirely, and look at the situation in reverse.  If the landowner doesn’t yet understand the legal consequences of pot hunting, is it not in his best interest to be made aware of them?  However, if the relationship with the landowners is compromised, it may reduce both future access (and thus scientific knowledge) as well as compliance with anti-looting laws (and thus impact Native Americans negatively).

    Ideally, preventing the illegal pot-hunting in the first place would have avoided this dilemma. But Millie is not alone in facing difficulties in educating the public. Archaeologists in general have had a difficult time explaining to the public why “context” of recovered artifacts is so important to their interpretation.  This endeavor is further complicated by the fact that, historically, archaeologists and museums themselves have worked with, and purchased, privately collected artifacts even when archaeological context was unclear, and some continue to do so despite multiple codes of ethics that “forbid” it (e.g. see Herscher 2001).  It has been argued that eliminating the market for illegally dug artifacts would eliminate the problem, but this is much easier said than done.  Perhaps more effective is enforcing the laws that punish those who pot hunt (e.g. see Davis 2001). In that light, reporting the pot-hunting in this case may be the more responsible course. It may, of course, reduce the willingness of local land-owners to cooperate with archaeologists for a time, but if the next generation can be educated to recognize the value of scientifically excavated materials then at least the artifacts will still be there for study.  In some cases, leaving material in the ground may be the best course of action, at least temporarily.

    There is an additional ethical responsibility that is briefly discussed in this case, regarding the local Native American interest in evidence to support land claims and cultural affiliation. It should be noted that there is evidence of significant movement of Native American populations in prehistory (e.g. Fagan 2005; Malhi et al 2001, 2004), and thus these studies may provide evidence not of continuity, but of change.  In that case, they would not support land claims or cultural affiliation.  In addition, they would presumably contradict the local tribes’ concept of their own history, potentially causing friction between tribal members and between the tribe and archaeologists. Although scientists are supposed to approach their hypothesis testing in an unbiased way, the hypothesis was created to account for existing data and thus must represent the researcher’s best explanation.  Therefore, the tendency to play down alternative conclusions will inevitably exist.  But for truly informed decision making all stakeholders must be made aware of alternative hypotheses.



    American Anthropological Association. 2005 Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association

    Davis, Hester A. 2001. “Facing the Crisis of Looting in the United States.” In Neil Asher Silberman and Ernest S. Frerichs (eds), Archaeology and Society in the 21st Century: The Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Case Studies. Israel Exploration Society, Jerusalem. Pg. 155-159.

    Fagan, Brian M. 2005. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, 4th edit. Thames and Hudson, London.

    Green, Ernestine L., ed. 1984. Ethics and Values in Archaeology. The Free Press, New York.

    Herscher, Ellen. 2001. “Destroying the Past in Order to ‘Save’ It: Collecting Antiquities from Cyprus.” In Silberman and Frerichs (eds), Archaeology and Society in the 21st Century. Pg. 138-154.

    Malhi, Ripan S., Beth A. Schultz Beth A., and David G. Smith. “2001.Distribution of Mitochondrial DNA Lineages among Native American Tribes of Northeastern North America,” Human Biology 73(1):17-55.

    Malhi, Ripan S., Katherine E. Breece, Beth AS Shook, Frederika A. Kaestle, James C. Chatters, Steven Hackenberger, David G. Smith. 2004. “Patterns of mtDNA Diversity in Northwestern North America.” Human Biology 76(1):33-54.

    Society for American Archaeology. 2005. Principles of Archaeological Ethics


  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 3 years and 4 months ago

    Archaeology differs from most social and behavioral sciences in that living peoples are often not the direct subjects of archaeological research, particularly when dealing with the past in North America before European contact.  However, as recent research in the field and this case both demonstrate, archaeologists often must negotiate between several groups of living peoples in order to complete their research in what is becoming an increasingly complex political landscape. Substantial research has gone into exploring the relationship between archaeologists and Native Americans who are the living descendants of the people archaeologists study (Dongoske et al., eds. 2000; Swidler et al., eds. 1997).  While this relationship plays a role in this case study, the main focus is the broader relationship between archaeologists and other groups that have an interest in the past, also called stakeholders in archaeological research.

    Every archaeological project has to deal with multiple stakeholders who have varying levels of power and authority over the research itself.  A typical project run by a professor at an American university may have several stakeholders, including the granting agency that provided the funding for the project, the land managing agency or landowner who owns the land upon which the research will be conducted, the university the professor works for, the facility in which the artifacts, notes, and reports from the project will be curated, the Native American groups who claim cultural affiliation with the area of study, the communities local to the area of study, and the archaeologist who is conducting the research.  Some of the relationships between these stakeholders and the archaeological research are codified in law; for example, land managing agencies will only allow research after legally required permits are obtained.  Other relationships are not quite as formalized, such as the relationship between archaeologists and the archaeological record.  While archaeologists do have some legal responsibilities to the archaeological record under state and federal permitting requirements, archaeologists are mostly guided by several codes of ethics developed by professional societies in the discipline (American Anthropological Association 2005; Register of Professional Archaeologists 2005; Society for American Archaeology 2005; World Archaeological Congress 2005).  For the most part, these codes of ethics do not explicitly prohibit specific actions, but instead attempt to encourage archaeologists to think and act responsibly towards the archaeological record.

    The Society for American Archaeology’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics is probably referred to the most often when dealing with ethical dilemmas in archaeological research.  However, one of the main pitfalls of the Principles of Archaeological Ethics is the assumption that the scientific value of archaeological research takes precedence over all other ways in which the archaeological record can be valued.  In the case presented here, this system that values archaeological research for its scientific value, under which the protagonist, Millie, operates is pitted directly against other value systems that emphasize the commercial value of artifacts and the less tangible connections that landowners and communities feel to the past through the archaeological record.  Most if not all archaeologists would argue that the scientific value of the archaeological record far outweighs the commercial value, but archaeologists often falter when trying to explain why this is the case to other stakeholders, especially in a way that resonates with the general public.

    The situation presented in this case is challenging, as all potential courses of action have negative consequences.  Clearly, Millie initiated her research alongside an effort to educate the local community and the owners of archaeological sites about why archaeologists value the scientific research potential of the archaeological record in order to prevent pothunting from occurring on the archaeological sites in her study area.  However, it is less clear whether Millie adequately took into account other ways that people, specifically landowners, value archaeology.  The landowner in this case had an obvious interest in learning more about the archaeological record, but may have felt that the best way for him to learn was to have a tangible link to the past through artifacts from a site.  Situations like this one are not uncommon in archaeological research, and archaeologists should carefully consider their actions and try to effectively take preventative measures to avoid such value conflicts in their own research.



    American Anthropological Association 2005 Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association. American Anthropological Association

    Dongoske, Kurt E., Mark Aldenderfer, and Karen Doehner, eds. 2000. Working Together: Native Americans and Archaeologists.  The Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C.

    Register of Professional Archaeologists 2005 Code of Conduct and Standards of Research Performance. Register of Professional Archaeologists

    Society for American Archaeology 2005 Principle of Archaeological Ethics. Society for American Archaeology

    Swidler, Nina, Kurt E. Dongoske, Roger Anyon, and Alan S. Downer, eds. 1997. Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground.  AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek.

    World Archaeological Congress 2005 World Archaeological Congress First Code of Ethics, World Archaeological Congress

Cite this page: "The Case of the Over Eager Collaborator" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 3/8/2016 OEC Accessed: Wednesday, July 24, 2019 <>