The Ethics of Public Archaeology

The Society for American Archaeology’s “Principals of Archaeological Ethics” were originally developed in the early 1990s. These outlined nine principles that archaeologists are to use “in negotiating the complex responsibilities they have to archaeological resources, and to all who have an interest in these resources or are otherwise affected by archaeological practice (Lynott and Wylie 1995:8).” The nine principles are as follows:

  1. Stewardship
  2. Accountability
  3. Commercialization
  4. Public Education and Outreach
  5. Intellectual Property
  6. Public Reporting and Publication
  7. Records and Preservation
  8. Training and Resources
  9. Safe Educational and Workplace Environments (this principle was added in 2016)

(It should be noted that this is just one set of archaeological principles developed by a professional organization. SHA, AIA, and RPA each have their own, but with some commonalities.)

Public archaeology projects speak to a number of these ethical principles, including Stewardship, Accountability, and Public Education and Outreach, and this ethical relevance has always been one element in favor of conducting archaeological projects with a public component. Recent examinations of archaeological practice, however, have challenged archaeologists to think more critically about how they apply these ethical principals or assume archaeologists to be the only ones who can reasonably care for or adjudicate meaning of archaeological resources.

The principal of stewardship, in particular, can become problematic in so much as some archaeologists interpret it to mean that only they have the right to interpret or care for sites and artifacts. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to inquiry that recognizes local knowledge has value and argues that research should be conducted with a goal of positive social change. Though developed in the fields of adult education and public health, this approach aligns quite well with the more engaged forms of public archaeology, including indigenous archaeology and collaborative archaeology.

The question for you, then is: How does the public archaeology described by Jameson differ from the PAR approach described by McGhee? Do these different approaches suggest that ethical principals are commonly embraced or applied in projects, or does a differential importance given to ethics shape the nature of a public archaeology project? How might we take the criticisms and categories outlined by McGhee (see in particular pp. 216-219) to make our project more collaborative and responsive to public needs? Feel free to think radically and critically.

Lynott, M. J. and A. Wylie, editors (1995). Ethics and Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s. Society for American Archaeology, Washington D.C.

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