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A Survey of Attitudes and Values in Archaeological Practice

Julie Zimmer, Richard Wilk, and Anne Pyburn

As part of a project supported by the program in Ethics and Values Studies of the National Science Foundation, the Center for Archaeology in the Public Interest at Indiana University mailed a survey to 1,000 North American archaeologists in November 1994. The random sample was drawn from U. S. and Canadian members of four professional organizations: Society for American Archaeology (SAA), Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), and Society of Professional Archaeologists (SOPA). The purpose was to gather information about attitudes toward preservation and about relationships between archaeologists and the communities where they do fieldwork. Our goal was to find out what positive ideals and values archaeologists hold and what they think should be required of all field archaeologists. The survey elicited archaeologists' values by asking them to rank a series of practices on a Likert scale, which ranged from obligatory at one end, through optional in the middle, to unnecessary and to be avoided at the other end.

This survey is the first phase of a larger project. A second questionnaire has been sent to 200 of the original respondents who indicated a willingness to participate and who have directed a field project outside of the United States or Canada. This open-ended questionnaire focuses on actual practices and experiences during a recent field project. In the third phase of the project, we are collecting narratives from archaeologists about their experiences with host communities and local organizations. Announcements published in several newsletters have generated a strong response from archaeologists who want to share their stories. From this wealth of information, we hope to draw some useful generalizations about how archaeologists can build positive relationships with host communities, generate local interest in the past, and promote site conservation.

Of the 1,000 surveys mailed last fall, we received 747 responses. This return rate is phenomenally high for a survey of this size, according to the Indiana University Center for Survey Research, who handled the mailing and data coding. Approximately 60% of those who responded are SAA members. Of respondents who do not belong to the SAA, 15% are members of SHA, 16% are SOPA members, and 9% are AIA members.

Demographics and Background

The responding archaeologists represent a good cross-section of the profession: 69% are male, and 31% are female, and ages range from 25 to 88, with an average age of 46. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents hold a Ph.D. degree, while an M.A. was the highest degree for 27%. Despite this high level of education, only 20% of our sample had received more than one lecture in ethics or professional conduct in archaeology during their careers.

From our sample, 41% were employed by a major university (more than 10,000 students) and 13% by a smaller college or university. Eighteen percent of respondents were employed by a private contracting or consulting firm, 16% by a government agency, and 8% by a museum or research institute. Only five of the 747 respondents (< 1%) listed themselves as unemployed. Of the respondents, 42.5% live in an area with a substantial and visible Native American, Alaskan Native, or Native Hawaiian population. A total of 26% of the sample say that teaching takes up the majority of their time, while 21% chose contract research, 18% academic research, 17% administration; 7% chose two of these activities, and 11% "other" (e.g. curation, compliance review, government research, retired) to describe how the majority of their time is spent.

The respondents' listing of where they had done fieldwork included 171 different countries, although only 38% had directed a field project outside of North America. The most frequently mentioned foreign locations were, in descending order, Mexico (by far the front runner), Peru, Guatemala, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Belize, the United Kingdom, Israel, Ecuador, and Honduras. More than half--55%--had been a student or staff member of a field project outside North America. Again, Mexico was the most common site for these projects, followed by the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Guatemala, Peru, Israel, Italy, Belize, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Tunisia, Iran, and Spain. On the other hand, 38% had conducted field research on lands belonging to native peoples in North America.

The sample can also be broken down according to how respondents listed their areas of specialization. Offered a list of major work areas in archaeology (more than one answer was accepted), the most common were prehistoric archaeology (80%), cultural resource management (47%), historical archaeology (34%), technology studies or material culture (34%), environmental or geological archaeology (32%), and ethnoarchaeology (20%). Other questions about professional activities show that archaeologists engage in very diverse activities and have a high degree of involvement with the public. A total of 74% had belonged to or advised nonacademic local or amateur archaeological groups; 71% had directed or supervised a contract research (CRM) project; 66% had published on archaeology for a popular, non-academic audience; and 62% had directed or taught archaeological field school. In the area of preservation, 48% had worked to draft or enforce laws concerning archaeological or cultural property protection, and 42% had been directly involved in repatriation or reburial of human remains or artifacts. We were surprised that so many archaeologists have been involved in outreach activities.

Ranking the Recommendation Statements

We asked people to think about actions that archaeologists directing a field project should take in their research and in their relationships with host communities, scholars, and governments. Statements were ranked on a 5-point scale with the following values: obligatory, recommended, optional, unnecessary, to be avoided or discouraged, and no judgment.

The statements and the responses were as follows:

"Archaeologists should spend at least 20% of their professional time on public outreach and education."

48%--found it optional or unnecessary

40%--recommended spending this much time

8%--saw the 20% figure as obligatory

Several commented that 10% is a more reasonable and realistic portion of time to spend on public outreach.

"Should archaeologists verify the authenticity of artifacts housed in a reputable museum?"

20%--found this practice obligatory

31%--recommended it

38%--found it optional or unnecessary

4%--said it should be avoided or discouraged

"Archaeologists should appraise the value of artifacts held by a reputable museum or collector for insurance purposes."

6%--recommended it

39%--optional or unnecessary

47%--to be avoided or discouraged

Several commented that appraisal is the job of professional appraisers, not archaeologists. This difference raises some interesting questions about the intimate relationship between the value of artifacts and their authenticity.

Archaeologists are much less approving of the practice of buying artifacts that are uniquely important specimens essential for study:

5%--thought this was obligatory or recommended practice

32%--optional or unnecessary

60%--would avoid or discourage this


47%--felt it should be obligatory to report violations of permit or antiquities laws by local people to the appropriate authorities

24%--felt reporting these violations is optional or unnecessary

Among a number of issues related to fieldwork, we asked

"Should the project director's name be listed as coauthor on every publication that results directly from a field project?"

4%--felt it should be obligatory




This indicates that more discussion of the ethics of authorship may be warranted within the profession.

"Should an archaeologist accept sponsorship for excavation from a major corporation that has a poor reputation for treatment of workers and the environment?"

< 2%--recommend accepting such sponsorship

38%--felt this situation should be avoided or discouraged

We asked whether archaeologists should make the financial records of their field projects a matter of public record.


70%--such disclosure was optional or unnecessary

10%--to be avoided or discouraged

Given that a great deal of research is done with public money, this reluctance to disclose financial accounts may have serious implications.

A number of issues were raised concerning the relationships of archaeologists with local scholars in the areas where they work. We asked whether preference should be given to local archaeologists when hiring or looking for collaborators.

10%--felt this obligatory

52%--recommended it

36%--saw it as optional or unnecessary


61%--recommended that archaeologists publish accounts of their fieldwork in local scholarly journals or magazines

32%--felt that publishing in local scholarly journals was obligatory

7%--felt it was optional or unnecessary

Archaeologists are often employers. How should they deal with their laborers? There was a wide diversity of opinion about whether archaeologists should negotiate formal contracts or labor agreements with workers.

30%--saw this as obligatory


31%--optional or unnecessary

We also asked if archaeologists should preferentially hire people from local communities as laborers

14%--felt this was obligatory

48%--recommended it

42%--found it optional or unnecessary

and, if working hours must be scheduled for the convenience of locally hired workers

6%--said that hours should be accommodated

36%--recommended it

"Should archaeologists formally discuss the scientific importance of the field project with local laborers and staff?"

61%--responded that this should be required

35%--recommended this practice

We were especially interested in how archaeologists think field projects should involve the host community.

70%--recommended that archaeologists should buy food and supplies for projects from local merchants

83%--recommended or would require archaeologists to publicly announce a time when local people could come to see the site, fieldwork location, or finds

70%--recommended or would require that archaeologists arrange tourism and visits by local schools or groups during excavation

On the other hand,

28%--responded that arranging tours for schools and other groups is optional or unnecessary

52%--recommended that archaeologists should distribute teaching materials or comparative collections to educational institutions near a field site

7%--saw this as obligatory

How should archaeological field crews conduct themselves in the field?

69%--said that discussing local culture and local moral standards with students and staff before a field project begins should be obligatory

20%--felt it was obligatory to do the reverse--to discuss the permissible conduct of project members with local leaders in advance

This raises the touchy question of who should define acceptable conduct. People were generally unwilling to judge whether archaeologists should forbid students and staff to have sexual liaisons with members of the local community.

31%--thought forbidding sex with local community members should be recommended or required

6%--thought that such a prohibition should not be made

Local oversight is another important part of host relationships.

50%--said archaeologists are obliged to ask permission from communities which control land or sites where the work will be conducted before applying for an excavation permit

15%--said asking permission from communities before seeking a permit is optional or unnecessary

On the subject of whether archaeologists should locate and consult with the cultural descendants of those who created a site about how they want it treated

24%--felt this consultation obligatory

43%--recommended consultation

30%--marked it optional or unnecessary

In a related question, we asked whether to allow on-site monitoring of excavation proceedings by representatives of the descendants of those who created the site being excavated.

20%--found this obligatory

37%--found it optional or unnecessary

Comments on both these statements centered around the problem of establishing the legitimacy of "cultural descendants" or "representatives of descendants." Attitudes about making sure a site is not sacred to any group in advance of excavation also received a wide range of responses.

22%--found this practice obligatory

35%--recommended it

36%--saw it as optional or unnecessary

4%--said it should be avoided or discouraged

There was greater agreement on issues of ecological and site conservation or preservation.

49%--felt that assessing and addressing excavation impacts on the natural environment is obligatory

37%--recommended this

12%--saw it as optional or unnecessary

"Should archaeologists fill in or otherwise protect any area which has been excavated or disturbed?"

72%--found this obligatory

19%--recommended this action

8%--felt backfilling optional or unnecessary, with comments that this is only when a site is marked for development

92%--answered that it was obligatory or recommended that archaeologists formulate scientific goals for excavation in consultation with those responsible for site protection and conservation

7%--felt such consultation is optional or unnecessary


In general, stewardship is a strongly embedded value among those who responded to this questionnaire. Site protection measures and the need to address environmental impacts of excavation were consistently rated as obligatory practices. Most respondents also regarded public outreach for educational purposes as recommended or obligatory, whether in the form of giving tours, publishing in local media, or distributing teaching materials to local institutions.

On the other hand, there was a clear divergence of opinions on other aspects of community involvement in archaeology. The most controversial issues include whether archaeologists should report violations of permit or antiquities laws by local people, use formal contracts when hiring local workers, give preference to local archaeologists when hiring or seeking collaborators, consult with groups that have a cultural affinity to a site, monitor the crews' sexual behavior, or publish reports when local entities object to the contents. Another controversial area concerns the relationships among archaeologists, museums, and collectors. Many archaeologists felt they should authenticate artifacts for reputable museums, but disapproved of appraising artifacts for museums or purchasing artifacts for any reason.

These preliminary results nicely portray the profession as a whole. Next we will break down the categories to see if differences in training, employment, gender, or age relate to opinions on the more controversial issues. Archaeology is in an obvious state of change. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, responses to these questions would have differed radically, and many questions would not have even been considered. For example, a conservation ethic in archaeologicaly became explicit only with William D. Lipe's 1974 classic article [A conservation model for American archaeology. The Kiva 39(3-4):214-45], but now it is firmly established. Issues surrounding local collaboration, cultural property, and repatriation that divide opinions today are likely to become less contested over the next generation.

Julie Zimmer, Richard Wilk, and Anne Pyburn are with the Center for Archaeology in the Public Interest at Indiana University.

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