Ethical Issues in archaeology


Ethical issues in archaeology.

The are several ethical issues involved in archaeology some obvious some not so obvious.

The most obvious issue is that of human remains.

This is a tricky issue especially in the UK due to the large quantity of graveyards and random burials that are found. Whilst many assume that human remains are found in cemeteries this is not always the case. Cemeteries have been used over the centuries and even in the bronze age they used areas as cemeteries. There are many places where there are bodies recovered not in cemeteries, for example, Roman slaves buried in ditches, the occasional murder victim from hundreds of years ago, ritual burials such as the bog bodies. These remains are often undocumented. Graveyards are also not always documented. For example, some of the most extensive Anglo-Saxon graveyards are not documented until found. The issue is about the exhumation. In commercial archaeology, we dig to record and gather information from areas that are going to be developed. If every time we found human remains we didn’t build then construction would grind to a halt in many areas. A compromise is needed and this is enshrined in law. Archaeologists have to apply for a licence to exhume remains even a single bronze age cremation in an urn. Archaeologists are trained to excavate these with care and there are procedures and techniques used to make sure all of the remains are recovered and recorded correctly as well as stored in a respectful manner. The general rule of thumb (ie. paraphrasing the law) is that human remains are to be reburied in the manner in which they were originally buried by the religious rights used at the time. It is rare to know the religious rights used in the pre-Christian era and even then unless the burial site is known consecrated ground then you aren’t 100% certain. If it is consecrated ground the remains are reburied in a cemetery if not they are stored in a climate controlled room in museum stores.

The research and display of human remains still remains a contentious issue. Egyptian mummies are a classic example of controversy. Again this is an unending ethical debate that will never be settled but treating the remains respectfully and making sure that they aren’t destroyed is the main aim.

There are other issues that are less obvious to those outside of archaeology.

One is the amount of the site that is actually excavated. In commercial archaeology, this is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of a linear feature such as a ditch or gully and 50-100% of discrete features such as pits and postholes. important features such as ring gullies and ring ditches are often excavated at 100% as well as graves but ditches are often left with 80-90 percent excavated. In Ireland, they excavate at 100% due to the paucity of artefacts and due to different regulations but this is not the case in the UK.

Why is this an ethical issue?

Well, a construction site with foundations going through it will often leave archaeology between the modern truncation or even not actually touch it as it will be covered over, this is all dependent on the methods of construction. Archaeology also takes places in quarries. Anything not excavated is left to the machines and is quarried away. Now the majority of these ditches will be empty but if you remember what I said before about human remains in ditches? There is a potential that these could exist and would be destroyed. The pottery as well could be important. Whilst any archaeologist working on such sites will know to excavate all corners and terminal ends of ditches as this is where you are most likely to find important pottery there are times when it is found across the other parts of linear features. Excavation strategies with the placing of slots, sampling and extra slots in some ditches mitigate this factor a lot but there is still the question of whether we should be excavating everything in totality if it is to be destroyed by quarrying or construction.

Another issue is artefact retention and reporting.

How many of the finds do you keep? How much analysis do you do? Where should it be displayed?

These are questions that come up on a daily basis as a finds manager (which I am). We have to remember that what is being dug up is exactly what you would throw away if you found it in your house. Broken crockery, bones from meals or butchery, broken tools or jewellery, bent nails, burnt stones (yes burnt stones, flint especially have a search for discussion of burnt mounds it’s actually quite interesting). We are digging up what others have discarded in the past. While we can use this to build up a picture of their culture and their technological advancement we can only glean so much information from this. One of the things to consider with this is our current level of technology. nowadays carbon dating is a relatively low price so can be done relatively frequently but in the past, it was prohibitively expensive. DNA analysis is similar in modern archaeology (this is an issue that as effects forensic science and current legal cases and police departments). In the future, we may have better and easier to use technology to do a more in-depth study of the artefacts but which ones and how many of them. Museums have limited space so they can only take so much. archaeologists have limited budgets and we could spend 10 years or more working on the same sites finds before deposition especially multiphase quarry sites (something which I am currently doing at work). So now not only does an archaeologist have to decide what the research and finds tell us about the past we have to predict the technologies of the future in what we retain for further study!

There is also another big issue.

Archaeology is destructive. We, albeit carefully, rip the whole lot out of the ground and have a look at it. once done no one else can do this. Have a look above where I talk about the percentage excavation of ditches. The concept here is that techniques could advance and with a 10% excavation that leaves another 9 sets of excavation to give us more knowledge on the site. This issue becomes bigger when it comes to commercial archaeology. If a housing development is unwanted by all but the developer and his chums on the council then it may well still go through. the first work is done by the archaeologists who also get flak and a lot of it. Many would rather the heritage stayed there and the developers left. The issue here is that we need to build and that just because archaeologists are there doesn’t mean we are going to find anything. frequently we find nothing or one small feature that is completely excavated and recorded. As a commercial unit, some may view the actions as enabling the destruction of our country while it is the complete opposite. There is something to be said for leaving some of the archaeology in place for future work so again a compromise needs to be reached. This is often done by the county archaeologist, developer and commercial unit. The majority of developers are completely fine to tweak their plans, eg. move a bunker on a golf course, move a couple of house and the small park or gardens, move a car park to be over the bit that needs to be kept. Some even go so far as making it a feature. a glass floor in the lobby of a corporate building showcasing an original hearth etc.

The majority of ethical issues in archaeology stem from how much do we need to do to protect the archaeology whilst allowing society and the world to keep going. A lot of time and ink is spilt over these issues but compromise is often the best way, the UK at the moment is actually doing quite a good job before it hits the museum but that is another issue.

What are others peoples thoughts on this issue?


(This was taken from an answer I wrote on Quora that can be found here:


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