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From the Ethics Committee--

What If . . . ?

Hester Davis

SAA's standing Committee on Ethics is the result of almost five years of work by the Ethics in Archaeology Task Force, about which you should have read extensively! The latest and best summary of its efforts, along with the latest version of SAA's Principles of Archaeological Ethics, was written by Mark Lynott (cochair of the Task Force with Alison Wylie) and published in American Antiquity last fall [1997, 62(4):589-599]. The Task Force recommended to the Board of Directors that a standing Committee on Ethics be created. This was approved by the membership through an amendment to the By-Laws in 1996, and the Executive Committee appointed six members and a chair. The chair serves for three years, and of the first six members, two served for one year, two for two years, and two for three years. Alison Wylie and Julia Costello both drew the shortest straws and served only one year (1996-1997). The current committee members are follows:

Chair: Hester A. Davis


Mark Lynott (1999)
Karen Vitelli (1999)
Anne Pyburn (2000)
Larry Zimmerman (2000)
Joe Watkins (2001)
Maria Franklin (2001)

Our formal charge is promoting discussion and education about ethical issues in archaeology, and proposing revisions, as necessary, of the Principles of Archaeological Ethics. The committee is not charged with enforcement powers or responsibililties.

Given those generic responsibilities, the committee has discussed ways to educate colleagues about ethics and the ethical principles, and how to promote discussion on these issues. This column in the Bulletin, which will appear in three issues each year, is one of the ways to accomplish this charge. It will present issues to be discussed, generate the discussion itself, contain "editorials" on ethical issues (written by any member of SAA), and pose generic dilemmas to stimulate further discussion in a classroom or over coffee. I like the dictionary definition of a dilemma: "any situation necessitating a choice between unpleasant alternatives; a perplexing or awkward situation." Ethics are tough to talk about and people tend to have strong feelings about the issues.

We welcome ideas for the column and would appreciate your bringing any puzzling ethical issue to our attention (Hester Davis, Arkansas Archeological Survey, P.O. Box 1249, Fayetteville, AR 72702, email Remember, the committee cannot resolve specific ethical problems--this now becomes the responsibility of ROPA. But we can be the springboard for the discussion of issues. Ethics and ethical issues are always going to be a shadowy gray area--the principles say "archaeologists should" not "archaeologists will." These principles are guidelines for conduct, for the appropriate way to approach how we do archaeology; circumstances in individual cases will always differ and must be considered on an individual basis. It is the more generic nature of ethics which we wish to discuss, so that the various views of a dilemma--and by its very nature there is always more than one viewpoint--can be seen.

In addition to producing this column, the committee plans or organize a forum at each SAA meeting to stimulate discussion. In Seattle, the forum consisted of four invented "scenarios" in which an ethical issue was presented and the audience then participated in discussion through role playing. Below are two of these scenarios which you may find useful in your classes, assigning students to argue the points of view of the characters involved in these "dilemmas." We would be pleased to have your suggestions for topics for future forums as well, such as more scenarios for discussion, discussions about archiving collections, records, photographs, digital, and electronic data as a part of every archeological project, teaching ethics at the undergraduate and graduate level, and more.

Scenario 1
Archaeologists' Relations with Collectors

Anne Pyburn


Dr. Phillipa, an American professor and project director, working abroad

Dr. Jack, Phillipa's assistant, good friend, and colleague

Mr. Nick, local high school biology teacher in a village near Phillipa's site

Phillipa is directing a new field project in a rural area of a Central American country that has seen little archaeological exploration. The government has very strict standards for issuing excavation permits to citizens and foreigners alike, and forbids the export of all archaeological artifacts. Its citizens, however, may buy, sell, and maintain private collections of antiquities, provided they are registered with government authorities.

Phillipa's crew has located many sites, recognizable as low mounds, but most had been practically leveled by deep plowing and recent road building. Phillipa chooses to excavate a site on the slopes that appears to have been spared such destruction. The choice seems to be a good one: Features are well-preserved, the stratigraphy is clear, recovery from the water sieve is high, and artifacts are plentiful, although extremely fragmentary. Some artifacts suggest interaction with cultural groups to the north; others are different from anything known from the period. Especially tantalizing are fragments of what appear to be complex figurines. Things are going well. They have established a collegial relationship with their government supervisor, Dr. Efor, and, after an initially cool welcome, relations with the area residents are improving with the invitation to visit the site on Thursday afternoons.

One Thursday, Nick, the biology teacher at the nearby school, requests a tour. He is charming, witty, a good listener, and very interested. When they finally show him the day's figurine fragment and explain what they think it might have looked like, he modestly suggests reorienting the piece and makes a sketch of the missing parts. The implications--if his drawing is accurate--are profound, but there is no way the whole could be inferred from the small fragment. Nick explains that for years he has walked the valley after plowing and heavy rains, collecting exposed pieces that would otherwise be destroyed. He never actually digs, nor does he sell or buy artifacts. On occasion, he has even given a few pieces to the museum (50 miles away). He is a good friend of Efor's, who had encouraged him to visit the site, and to whom he reports all his best finds. Nick tells Phillipa and Jack of his very large collection of nearly complete figurines and invites them to see them in his home. Phillipa abruptly excuses herself to close things up for the night. She thanks Nick for his visit and interest, gives Jack a meaningful glance, and leaves. Jack gets directions to Nick's house before sending him off with a warm handshake.

As soon as Nick is out of earshot, Phillipa tells Jack that they must get rid of this man and wonders how to do so gracefully. Jack, on the other hand, can't wait to see the collection to see what their fragmentary material might have looked like, and thinks they were very fortunate to have a local school teacher provide this connection to the community.

Discussion for role-playing: Defend Phillipa's position of not wanting to deal with a collector; defend Jack's feeling that Nick might have useful information; how will Nick react to each of these? Is a compromise necessary or possible?

Scenario 2
To Keep or Not to Keep

Julia Costello


Dr. Sandra, archaeologist with a federal agency

Dr. Noreen, contract archaeologist

Mr. Ned, collections manager

A large, five-year CRM contract is being concluded in northern California, in preparation for the construction of Macrosoft World, a corporate interactive, birth-to-death life-care community. The archaeological work involves the survey of a 70,000-acre watershed and then testing and mitigation excavations of a total of 30 prehistoric and 25 historic sites.

During the course of the project, over 280 archive boxes of artifacts, soil samples, and paperwork were generated. The designated curation facility does not have room for this massive collection. Standard curation fees are $750 for each box, making the project's costs $210,000 to store the materials. If the size of the collection could be reduced, Macrosoft World has committed to contributing any cost savings to the project's public interpretation program.

Sandra is a 20-year veteran of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and a nationally recognized advocate for cultural resources, charged with providing oversight for legal compliance with federal statutes. She is opposed to any culling of the collections, arguing her agency's point of view that research questions change over time and therefore all recovered materials must be kept.

Noreen is a contract archaeologist with a large CRM firm, and has been directing the mitigation program. She is a respected professional with a good publication record and has directed similar smaller projects for over a decade. She argues for allowing the project to develop guidelines to cull material with minimal research potential. She casts a practical and critical eye toward what is traditionally packed away for "future study" and believes that archaeologists generating collections should sort out the grain from the chaff.

Ned is the new collections manager of the university curatorial facility that committed to receiving the Macrosoft World collection five years ago. He is overwhelmed by this obligation as his archive space is already crowded. He is struggling with a statewide curation crisis that is now reaching critical mass due to the enormous increase in CRM projects over the past decade. He has applied to the dean to raise the archive fee to $1,000 per box, but even this will not cover "in perpetuity" archiving.

Discussion: Can (or should) some artifacts be recorded in the field and left there? What are Sandra's and Ned's viewpoints? Should curation cost be a consideration in deciding what to keep and what not to keep? Are there any types of artifacts (bricks? flakes? undecorated body sherds?) that might not need to be curated after being recorded? Who should take responsibility for making sure we have adequate curation facilities in the future, and who should oversee guidelines for museums "discard" or deaccession policies?

Hester Davis is the state archaeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey and professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

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