Ethics: Who Decides?

Ethic – n. rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad. (Webster’s online dictionary) And for our members across the pond, the Oxford dictionary defines ethic as a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct (e.g. the puritan ethic was being replaced by the hedonist ethic).

As the outgoing chair of the Ethics committee and incoming president of the SHA, I have observed that few things are more likely to spark a visceral response in archaeologists than challenging their ethical interpretations. But where do our ethics come from? Are they the same for everyone? Are they unchanging?

Many years ago, while working at the Arkansas Archeological Survey, I was talking to its founder, Bob McGimsey, about ethics and Public Archaeology (how often do you get to ask questions of the man who coined the term?!). During the course of our conversation he related that SOPA (the Society of Professional Archaeologists) was founded because the SAA could not agree on a code of ethics and this was a way to get one formulated. It was only later that the major archaeological organizations finally adopted their own codes (based on SOPA’s). Shortly thereafter SOPA disbanded and later reconstituted as the RPA (Register of Professional Archaeologists).

So, our current code of ethics owes its origin to a handful of people, mostly in Arkansas, hammering out professional principles of behavior that the rest of the profession could not previously agree on. However, when you talk to the average archaeologist you get the sense that these principles are immutable. You certainly get that impression if you look at the Code of Conduct on the RPA website. There are many “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots”. The only thing lacking is these principles being carved in stone (I’m sure a good webmaster could whip that up).

However ethics, like the cultures that make them, are dynamic. The suspension of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson over comments he made is evidence of changing moral values in this country. Changing views on sexual preferences are one thing, but are professional archaeological ethics as volatile? I show an episode of the original British “Time Team” to my historical archaeology class. It never fails to elicit gasps of outrage. “My God, they aren’t screening their soil!” Shocking that the British don’t see this as an issue.

However, we have bigger fish to fry these days. Controversial metal detecting shows that put $ values on artifacts. We expect it when we watch Pawn Stars or American Pickers, but somehow it doesn’t sit right when we are talking about artifacts out of the ground. Underwater treasure salvors who want to publish the site data before they sell it to finance further work. Should we let them or is this a slippery slope that leads to further destruction of sites? These topics and more will be addressed at several sessions at the meetings in Quebec (spoiler alert – Ivor Noel Hume will be commenting positively on the sale of redundant artifacts at the Ethics Panel on Friday).

I hope that everyone will avail themselves of the opportunity to weigh in on the current state of archaeological ethics; either by attending sessions at the meetings or weigh in on the blogs. But please, be civil, we all share the same passion: to know about the past. Let’s save our outrage for the unabashed looters of our heritage.