Responsible Archaeology

Laws and professional standards developed over the past century guide the practice of responsible archaeology. How archaeologists conduct their research, what they hope to learn from it, and how they view their responsibilities to other researchers, descendant groups, and the general public have transformed the discipline from one focused on objects of antiquity to one focused on increasing our understanding of human societies.

Responsible Archaeology

  • is undertaken with a respect for . . . +

    . . . the archaeological resources that are the subjects of scientific inquiry.

    jk 2010 Slickhorn 023Excavation and other types of fieldwork that disturb cultural deposits and cause artifacts to be removed from their original contexts are inherently destructive, so archaeologists must

    • develop specific questions that they hope to answer with their research
    • employ a conservation ethic—that is, they must use the least destructive methods to obtain the data needed to answer the questions
    • meticulously document the contexts they disturb, so that information about stratigraphy and artifact associations―which is essential to archaeological interpretation—is not lost.

  • is never conducted for . . . +

    . . . personal gain.

    projectile points-370bThe sale, purchase, or collection of artifacts for private use is a serious and ongoing threat to archaeological resources and research. Looting, including surface collecting, results in the undocumented removal of artifacts from the stratigraphic and cultural contexts that give them meaning, rendering them useless for most scientific purposes.

  • acknowledges the interests of . . . +

    . . . indigenous peoples who may be descended from, or culturally affiliated with, the people who inhabited archaeological sites in the past.

    mc 2014 NEH MV tessieIndigenous peoples in many parts of the world have a strong interest in archaeological sites to which they feel cultural and historical connections. Archaeologists and indigenous peoples sometimes have different views regarding the scientific study of archaeological resources. Responsible archaeology respects alternative viewpoints, engages indigenous peoples in constructive discourse, and seeks to conduct research in ways that are sensitive to the cultural concerns of descendant or affiliated groups.

  • is shared with other researchers . . . +

    . . . and with the public.

    jk 2010 NEH2 Inquiries02The goal of archaeology is to learn about human society, for the betterment of all. Therefore, archaeologists have an obligation to disseminate the results of their research, make their original documentation available to other researchers, and ensure that records and artifacts are permanently curated in reputable facilities, such as museums, for future study. Archaeologists are increasingly aware of the need to share the results of their research with the public—after all, it is through engaging and educating the public that archaeologists are most likely to shape societal attitudes and public policy in ways that are beneficial to archaeology.

  • complies with all . . . +

    . . . local, state, and federal regulations regarding the management and study of archaeological resources.

    jk 2013 Earthwatch BCP Sept02Laws govern the responsible practice of archaeology. Excavation and other field activities generally require permits from one or more agencies, who weigh the merits of the proposed research against the anticipated impacts on archaeological resources. Depending on the requirements of the permitting agency, applications may require archaeologists to detail, among other things, the nature and goals of the research, the qualifications and credentials of the researchers involved, the field methods to be used, publication schedules, and plans for landscape restoration and disposition of artifacts.

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What Can You Do?

Stay informed

Keep abreast of current issues relating to archaeology, including recent and pending legislation at the state and federal levels. The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) website is an excellent starting point. Your state's historic preservation office website is another source of information about local developments (see a complete list of state offices on the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers website).

Become an advocate

Join your local archaeological society. For links to societies for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, visit the "Societies and Associations" page on the SAA website.

jk 2012 wolfman panelBecome a site steward. Many local archaeological societies, as well as various federal agencies, have site-stewardship programs, which train volunteers to monitor and document the condition of archaeological sites, including damage caused by natural forces, visitation, and vandalism.

Write your elected officials about matters related to the protection and preservation of archaeological resources.

Promote public education

jk 2009 BlueOaksInitiate or support efforts in your local community to educate children and adults about the irreplaceable nature of archaeological resources, the benefits to be derived through professional research, and the need to respect, protect, and preserve our collective cultural heritage.

For more information, see Archaeological Ethics and Law, by William D. Lipe.

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