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Ethical Considerations with Archaeology and Community Conflict



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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  • Chip  Colwell-Chanthaphonh

    Posted 2 years and 10 months ago

    The question of whether archaeologists can and should seek informed consent is provocative and worth asking. Many cultural anthropologists have been reluctant to accept the need for formal informed consent procedures, arguing that the practice should apply only to biological, psychological, and medical research. Anthropology, the argument goes, is its own creature whereby informed consent is tacit in its very being. If cultural anthropologists have been reluctant to come to the idea of informed consent, then archaeologists have been downright hostile. Archaeologists, after all, deal with dead things. Yet, as this stimulating case study illustrates, questions about informed consent relate to the many practical and ethical choices archaeologists must make. The question often boils down to this: who has the moral authority to grant archaeological research? Is it the professional archaeologist, trained in heritage management and the self-appointed steward of the past? Is it the local community whose members often are inevitably impacted by research? Or, is it the lineal or group descendents who often lack legal control over their ancestors’ remains but still have strong emotional ties to their ancestral past?

    Informed consent is defined variably, but a good, broad definition is used by the Human Genome Project: it is when an individual willingly agrees to participate in an activity after first being advised of the risks and benefits. The “informed” part of the equation is thus fairly straightforward, as it requires researchers to provide a full disclosure of all the facts necessary to make an intelligent decision. It is the ethical obligation of archaeologists to provide this information, not only because they are the ones conducting the research, but also, because of their unique anthropological training, they are in the best position to understand the risks and benefits of a given archaeological research project.

    But who can give consent? The argument that archaeologists cannot get consent because they deal with inert objects or deceased individuals is spurious. Every day in the United States, we recognize the legal and moral authority of deceased individuals. Through wills, most notably, people actively carry out the demands of the dead. Property is divided as requested. Ashes are scattered at the deceased’s favorite spot. Organs are donated or not donated. A husband is buried next to his wife. A cynic and disbeliever in the afterlife might say that the dead would not know any of the things, so there should be no obligation for such acts. But the obligations we feel to carry out such wishes is incredibly powerful in the Western world—indeed, in just about every society on earth.

    The kings and queens of Egypt spent their lifetimes building monuments to ensure their remains were housed in a sacred place, guaranteeing their well-being beyond this world. The desecration of their remains, these ancient Egyptians believed, would obliterate their soul. We know this not only from the survival of ancient texts, but also the material evidence, which illustrates the lengths at which the Egyptians went to hide themselves from vandals and thieves. These ancient Egyptians, however, did not anticipate the tenacity of archaeologists. Egyptian archaeologists, then, by virtue of their work that disturbs the tombs of kings and queens contravene the will of the dead. The Egyptians did not want their remains disturbed—and yet they are.

    An argument could be made, perhaps, that time has a moral dimension here. The great antiquity of the Egyptian leaders does seem to lessen their immediacy. Think of your own family. Imagine having to move (for some reason) the grave of your mother buried just two years ago who you know wanted to be buried where she currently rests. This would be more traumatic than having to move the grave of your grandmother buried 60 years ago, or your great-grandmother buried more than a century before today. The wishes of those long dead intuitively seem less potent. (However, I would also hazard to say that the ancient Egyptians, who seemed to have a firm grasp on infinity, would disagree with this claim.) Another possible argument relates to that of necessity. Suppose that your mother did not want her grave to be moved, but that a new highway going through her cemetery would utterly destroy her headstone and casket. The lesser of two evils in this case would be to move her remains, as it would be easy to imagine her wanting if she had been faced with this choice.

    There is little doubt, then, that the dead do or do not tell us what they want done with their bodies and their possessions. They tell us in both specific and general ways. But what about cases where it is not as clear, where the individuals left no will or sign of their desires? Who then can give consent? While archaeologists may be tempted to raise their hands and offer consent, they cannot and should not. Although archaeological researchers are experts in studying the past and managing heritage in the present they also have conflicting interests. The very fact that they are the researchers with their own agendas, their own reasons always to study, does not give their consent any substance. Imagine the Tuskegee doctors—clearly the medical experts and fully informed—giving their consent for research on their African-American patients.

    The public, local communities, often feel the immediate impacts of research or the lack thereof. In a real sense, if the mall is built in this case study, it is the local community that will have easy access to Wal-Mart and The Gap. Conversely, if the mall is built elsewhere, they will have a heritage resource to learn about their region’s history and a possible source of tourism dollars. However, the general public often feels less direct personal connection to other people’s past. If an heirloom in your family is accidentally destroyed, I may be upset on your behalf, but you are likely to be utterly devastated; I can empathize with the object’s importance to you, but you are the one who will no longer have the artifact to connect yourself to the past. Thus, while the public does have some stake in archaeological resources, they are often focused more immediately on present social and economic forces. We recognize the public’s distance from such decisions already, for example, in the case of organ donation. The individual and family choice is predominant, while considerations about the broader public good are secondary. In such ways, the public’s moral authority is somewhat limited on such questions.

    Of all the stakeholders lineal descendants almost always feel most acutely about their ancestors. In medical terms, a family member is most often the “responsible proxy” for an individual who cannot make her or his own choices. This makes sense because the family is most likely to understand the incapacitated person’s wishes, their dreams and desires. The family is most likely to be distraught by the death of a loved one. When a lineal descendant cannot be tracked, the individual’s ethnic or religious identity becomes relevant because of the shared worldview among members of a given community. A Mennonite community would surely know better what to do with a deceased person of Mennonite heritage than I, as I am not familiar with Mennonite beliefs. Clearly some individuals and histories go beyond any single family or community. All Americans are the progeny of George Washington; all Americans are connected to Gettysburg; all Americans are vested in the remains of the World Trade Center. In these cases, full consent for research or memorial making may be impossible—at least in practical terms.


    Because many people have many stakes in questions of heritage, the best way to approach decisions about informed consent should be through a metaphor of nested relationships. Once the stakeholders are fully informed, decisions about consent should proceed from those most connected to the material past in question to those who are only tangentially connected. As distraught as I was about 9/11 living in Arizona, I was probably less distressed than someone who lived in downtown Manhattan. All stakeholders, by definition, have some stake—but some stakes are bigger than others.

  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 2 years and 10 months ago

    This case, like “The Case of the Over Eager Collaborator,” deals particularly with those populations who are affected by, or affect, archaeological research (stakeholders).  In the past, archaeology has focused primarily on the study of ancient cultures.  Famous finds such as Schliemann at Troy and Carter’s Tutankhamen made archaeology a world-famous discipline by the early 20th century, and archaeology has continued to be popular and important in the modern world.  As archaeology progressed, so did the depth and variety of archaeological research and discussions of archaeological ethics.  Presently, archaeologists work around the world at sites millions of years to tens of years old.  There are also archaeologists today who are interested in studying the discipline and practice of archaeology in modern social, economic, political and other contexts.

    As archaeologists began questioning the place of archaeology in modern contexts, archaeological ethics came to the forefront of research and writing.  Books and articles written on ethics have included discussions of such issues as stakeholders, protection of the archaeological record from looting, public education and intellectual property (Lynott and Wylie 1995; Vitelli 1996; Zimmerman, Vitelli and Hollowell-Zimmer 2003).  In 2004, the Society for American Archaeology initiated the archaeological “Ethics Bowl,” for graduate students to debate case studies in front of an audience at the SAA annual meeting (SAA Web 2005).  These articles, books, and events have placed archaeological ethics at the forefront of important issues in the discipline.

    This case raises an archaeological ethics nightmare: a community split with heated debate over the value of an archaeological site. Though archaeologists, as stewards of the past and participants in creating it, see the value of archaeology and its broader discipline anthropology, it is often difficult to communicate that value to others.  In the booming modern context of American suburbia, how do archaeologists fight for preservation in the face of “progress”?

    There are three important discussion topics related to ethics in this case: 1) The struggle to define “stakeholders” and their roles in the profession of archaeology, 2) the conflicting and ambiguous ethical standards in the profession of archaeology, and 3) ethical issues arising from team research in the social sciences.  Although this case is fictional, discussions of these issues are important to the discipline, as such dialogue could influence the decisions made by future researchers and students, especially those in or near American communities.

    One commentator on “The Case of the Over Eager Collaborator” (see section 6 in this volume) notes that archaeologists necessarily deal with a myriad of stakeholders on any given project.  In this case, there are at least eight primary stakeholders who have interests related to the management of archaeological resources in Arrowhead.  These stakeholders include the following: Avery, his research team, and other archaeologists in the discipline, community members who support mall construction, community members who are against mall construction, a corporate organization (Global Malls Inc.), members of a local Native American tribe, and people with various other opinions.  On a broader scale, stakeholders might also include archaeologists employed by the state, funding agencies supporting Avery’s research, other Native American groups, political officers, and many others.  If ethical archaeologists should consider the contexts of their research, and respect the concerns of stakeholders, how are they to reconcile so many differing opinions?  Is this even possible without forfeiting some professional interest in stewardship?

    Recently, archaeologists have been praising community-based archaeological research and, especially, archaeological practice that involves local indigenous populations.  In the SAA “Ethics Bowl,” the three C’s (Communicate, Cooperate, and Collaborate) have been an appropriate and well-received solution for most of the fictional case studies involving community dilemmas.  However, few archaeologists have discussed the potential difficulties and conflicts in community-based research utilizing such methods as Participatory Action Research (PAR).  For instance, no two communities or group of stakeholders are the same and, thus, no two community-based projects will present the same challenges. This case elucidates the complexities of working with or in different communities. It is wonderful when the public learns from archaeologists or participates in archaeological research.  It is not enough, however, to say archaeologists should simply work with local communities—social scientists should be aware of the consequences of such research.   People (individually or in groups) are not predictable and no two community-based projects will be the same.  Therefore, we must be flexible and open-minded and should prepare to deal with multiple stakeholders in our research in the most efficient, effective, and respectful ways possible.

    The second major topic of the case reflects the seemingly opposing ethical codes in the profession of archaeology.  Today, archaeologists work all over the world and in each nation they encounter unique situations involving stakeholders and the archaeological record.  A plethora of international and national conventions, agreements, and laws help guide archaeologists in their research, though these are not usually binding, especially in regard to stakeholder responsibilities.  For additional guidance and discussion, many archaeologists turn to the ethical codes of archaeological or anthropological organizations.

    In this case, there are three such focal organizations: the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), and the American Anthropological Association (AAA).  As indicated by the case, some of the ethical recommendations made by these organizations seem to be contradictory (for the full text, see SAA 2005; WAC 2005; AAA 2005). One can question the utility of such codes, by-laws, or principles in a discipline if they are incongruous.  Principally, if one of the goals of ethical codes is to teach future archaeologists responsible research practices, what are students to think of or learn from codes that provide contradictory advice?

    Again, the goal is not to argue for the end of ethical codes in archaeology. The main point in this section is that in any real-life (or even fictional) research situation, the circumstances and stakeholders will differ.  Because of this, no one or even three ethical codes will present definitive ethical research standards.  In every case, archaeologists should debate stewardship, accountability to local populations, commercialization, etc. and come up with compromised solutions (or at least steps toward a common goal).  There are no simple and straightforward answers to issues of ethics—instead, there are principles, responsibilities, debates, and compromises.

    The final section of the case study calls into question the ethical responsibilities of lead researchers and team members in group research situations.  During the GREE workshop, we discussed various ethical situations which could arise when multiple researchers work together on the same project.  These include questions about: ownership of data, right to publication, authority, mentor/mentee relationships, etc.  This case asks how differing opinions within a research group should be handled, specifically within the context of community/research group disagreement.

    The majority of archaeology done in the United States today is Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeology.  These projects are run by public or private companies and, in short, CRM archaeologists attempt to identify archaeological resources which may be destroyed by new construction projects and mitigate the loss of information by performing different scales of excavation.  CRM work is often quick work, but it still involves stakeholders.  An additional group of stakeholders in CRM projects are the team-members, since CRM is almost never an individually accomplished project.  Team-members, who may number between two and twenty, often work under the leadership of the Principal Investigator (PI).  This arrangement may lead to some of the same research ethics questions listed above (i.e. right to publication, authoritative voice).  Furthermore, the transient nature of CRM archaeology often results in workers who are disconnected to their research site, resulting in group research that is dominated by the research goals and analysis of a principal investigator.  Ideally, all social science research should be poly-vocal and researchers should exchange ideas before, during, and after projects.  Especially within the social sciences, the opinions of the public should also be considered.  Again, ethical research in archaeology should include preparatory work and consideration of multiple viewpoints. 

    An increased awareness and popularity of public archaeology and archaeological ethics have brought archaeologists face-to-face with situations such as the one presented in this case study.  Few archaeologists still believe that archaeological research exists in a political, economic, or social vacuum.   After all, social science is research that deals, primarily, with living people.  It is time all social scientists consider the contexts in which they work and the consequences of their research.  The work of groups such as the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics and the discussion of ethical research situations will help inform future social scientists of these issues. 



    AAA 2005 “Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association” 

    Lynott, Mark J., and Alison Wylie, eds. 1995. Ethics in American Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s, 2nd ed. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C.

    SAA 2005 “Principles of Archaeological Ethics”

    Vitelli, Karen D., ed. 1996. Archaeological Ethics. AltaMira Press, California.

    WAC 2005 “World Archaeological Congress Codes of Ethics”

    Zimmerman, Larry, Karen D. Vitelli and Julie Hollowell-Zimmer, eds. 2003. Ethical Issues in Archaeology, AltaMira Press, California.

Cite this page: "Ethical Considerations with Archaeology and Community Conflict" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 3/8/2016 OEC Accessed: Saturday, January 19, 2019 <>