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Cultural Heritage Ethics

Constantine Sandis

II. History and Archaeology

7. The Ethics of Digging

Geoffrey Scarre

Texte intégral

  • 1 Sir Thomas Browne, ‘Concerning some Urnes Found in Brampton-Field, in Norfolk, Anno: 1667’, in Rel (...)

[W]hile the Workmen made several Ditches, they fell upon divers Urnes, but earnestly, and carelessly digging, they broke all they met with, and finding nothing but Ashes, or burnt Cinders, they scattered what they found.1
Sir Thomas Browne

1Sir Thomas Browne’s account of the chance discovery and thoughtless destruction of Roman sepulchral urns near Brampton in Norfolk is the stuff of archaeologists’ nightmares. Fortunately, this particular story had a happy ending: following the antiquarian knight’s arrival on the scene several more urns were unearthed, which Browne carefully described in what amounts to an early example of an archaeological report. We can only speculate how much of the English archaeological record disappeared in similar incidents over the centuries but vast quantities of ancient material must have been destroyed by the ignorant or the uninterested. The rise of antiquarianism in the eighteenth century and its gradual transmutation into a professional and scientific archaeology were of inestimable importance in stemming this loss of objects and the information to be obtained from them. And scholarly excavators not only preserved the archaeological riches but became increasingly adept at reading the messages they conveyed. By the mid-twentieth century, university-trained archaeologists had understandably come to see themselves as the primary stewards of the archaeological heritage. For they, more than others, had the knowledge and skills to extract maximum information from an often partial and imperfect record. Archaeology, which had formerly been a pastime for amateurs, had evolved into a business of experts.

2Yet professionalism in archaeology, as in some other scholarly fields once dominated by laymen, is not an unmixed blessing. If the past and the things of the past are our common heritage (as the familiar mantra runs), then the privileging of the expert over the amateur in the practice of archaeology raises certain questions about equity. Where professionals rush in, amateurs may fear – or more often be forbidden – to tread. At worst, professional archaeologists may look on untrained amateurs as interfering nuisances, to be kept at a distance; at best, amateurs on excavation sites are treated as unpaid assistants to the experts, useful pairs of hands to carry out the dirty work. If all of us are equally heirs to the past, then it seems that some heirs are more equal than others. But if the relegation of amateurs to subsidiary roles is to some extent an inevitable effect of the ever-increasing dependence of archaeological research on sophisticated technology and analytical techniques (even in the world of supposedly post-processual archaeology, with its greater tolerance of alternative narratives), there are other exclusionary effects of professionalisation that may be more avoidable. Archaeologists who claim to be stewards of the archaeological heritage on behalf of everyone doubtless speak sincerely. But not everyone accepts that archaeologists are the best people to manage that heritage or to construe its meaning. Thus, many indigenous people in North America, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere protest at the disturbance by archaeologists of the sites at which their ancestors lived and died, which they see as disrespectful and intrusive; or they are highly sceptical about the truth, or the relevance to themselves, of the accounts of the past that archaeologists deliver.

  • 2 C. Renfrew and P. Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, 6th edition (London: Thames a (...)

3In the latest edition of their textbook Archaeology: Theory, Methods and Practice, Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn assert that ‘the fundamental purpose of archaeology must be to provide people with a better understanding of the human past’.2 This statement appears in a chapter on archaeological ethics bearing the significant title ‘Whose Past?’ At one level, this is a question about who has the right to decide what is removed from the ground, how it should be handled, whether it should be retained or reburied, and who should ultimately have control of it. At another level, it raises subtler issues about identity, allegiances and social continuity: about who is entitled to speak about the past of a community whose sense of itself is founded in certain beliefs (which may be true or false) about its own origins. Few of us enjoy having our identity defined for us by others, and we may be still more resentful when outsiders tell us that our own favoured stories about our roots are wrong. Nevertheless, archaeologists cannot and should not be expected to compromise their professional standards of evidence when conducting excavations or interpreting their finds. Archaeology is a scholarly discipline, not a spinner of myth, a servant of ideologies, or a rubber stamp for popular opinions. Archaeologists need to be rigorously scientific in their methods while avoiding the academic bullishness that so naturally offends others. This is not an easy ethical nut to crack.

4In the survey that follows I look briefly at some of the moral responsibilities that professional archaeologists, and particularly those engaged in the excavation and interpretation of sites, must bear on their shoulders. Knowing how to behave as a virtuous archaeologist is difficult when the responsibilities in question pull in divergent directions, as they often do. For convenience’s sake, I shall divide the discussion somewhat arbitrarily into three sections: 1) Responsibilities to People; 2) Responsibilities to Things; 3) Responsibilities to the Profession. (These labels do not, of course, identify entirely disparate categories of issues.)

1. Responsibilities to People

5In recent years there has been increasing recognition of the variety of ‘stakeholders’ in the archaeological enterprise – that is, the different sets of people whose interests are actually or potentially affected by the activities of archaeologists. A short-list of those who have been considered stakeholders includes (in no order of precedence, and allowing for overlap): a) archaeologists; b) the general public; c) local (including indigenous) communities; d) genetic and/or cultural descendants of the subjects under investigation; e) tribal associations; f) religious affiliates, or claimants to that status; g) national or local governments; h) owners of land or property on which excavation is carried out; i) planners and developers; j) the dead (if, as some philosophers believe, some kind of ‘moral estate’ can be ascribed to people after their death). In addition to present people who are affected by the activities of archaeologists, there are also potential effects on future ones to be considered. So (to state the obvious) a site which is excavated today will not be available as a virgin site for later generations of archaeologists and their public.

  • 3 L. J. Zimmerman, ‘When Data Become People: Archaeological Ethics, Reburial, and the Past as Public (...)

6Satisfying the particular, and sometimes sharply conflicting, interests of such a variety of groups can produce hard dilemmas for archaeologists. Larry Zimmerman emphasises that while archaeologists claim to act as stewards on behalf of the public, that public is far from homogeneous and may contain members who ‘have a substantially different view of stewardship of the past than archaeologists’.3 Given the diversity of interests and viewpoints, even archaeologists who acknowledge their accountability to the public might sometimes be stumped to answer the question ‘What public?’ In the notorious controversy over the disposal of Kennewick Man in the north-west USA, members of the Umatilla tribe argued that the only respectful mode of caring for the extremely ancient remains in question was to rebury them, a mode of ‘stewardship’ which archaeologists who wished to preserve them for further research rejected with horror. There may also be people whose paramount interest is not in stewardship of any kind, sometimes for perfectly legitimate reasons. A town council or construction company which wants to build a school or social housing on an archaeologically sensitive site may reasonably argue that the land cannot be frozen forever in the past, and that present needs must sometimes trump the case for preservation. (Fortunately, in many such cases some compromise is possible, whereby a portion of the site is preserved or a ‘rescue dig’ by archaeologists is commissioned before the developers move in.)

7The interests that need to be considered when archaeological excavation is in prospect vary considerably from place to place. Generally speaking, the investigation of the site of a deserted medieval village in the British countryside is less ethically sensitive than a project to excavate the dwelling site of an indigenous community in North America or Australia. Digging a settlement in rural Yorkshire or Oxfordshire to learn more about the former inhabitants is likely to be welcomed by the local residents as a way of making connections with their forbears, bringing the past to life and fostering a sense of trans-temporal community. (However, not all contemporary Britons feel ethically relaxed about the practice of archaeology. In the last few years the Society for Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) has argued for the adoption in Britain of a default procedure of reburial of human remains discovered in the course of research – a proposal that has been met with resistance by much of the archaeological community.) By contrast, the excavation of a former tribal occupation site on the American Great Plains by archaeologists trained in western techniques of scientific analysis grounded on Enlightenment epistemology, may be seen by a present-day Indigenous community as an act of intellectual and moral arrogance that treats people – their people – as mere data for research.

  • 4 C. Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson, ‘Virtue Ethics and the Practice of History: Native Ame (...)

8In the USA, the passing of the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, which mandates that tribes be consulted before human physical remains or associated funerary objects are removed from tribal or federal land, and establishes the right to demand the return of those that have previously been removed, has set the framework for generally improved relations between archaeologists and indigenous groups. But even before the enactment of NAGPRA, changing conceptions of their role by archaeologists, including a wider and more generous recognition of their responsibilities to other stakeholders, were producing a less imperious mode of conducting research, in which purely academic considerations no longer alone ruled the roost. What Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson have called an ‘ethic of collaboration’, that emphasises a cooperative role for native communities in deciding research questions, selecting sites for analysis, managing excavations, and publishing and publicising results, is fast becoming a standard component of cultural resource management in the USA.4

  • 5 World Archaeological Congress, First Code of Ethics, 1990, http://www.worldarchaeologicalcongress. (...)
  • 6 T. Allen, ‘Legal Principles, Political Processes and Cultural Property’, in G. Scarre and R. Conin (...)
  • 7 A. Omland, ‘The Ethics of the World Heritage Concept’, in C. Scarre and G. Scarre (eds.), The Ethi (...)

9While it would be hard to deny that cooperation and consultation among stakeholders is highly desirable on both moral and on practical grounds, it would obviously be too sanguine to suppose that consensus will invariably be the outcome of such practice. It is not always possible to reconcile the different interests, still less the underlying ideals that may be at issue; it can also be hard to decide just who the relevant stakeholders are, or who is entitled to speak for them. The fifth principle of the World Archaeological Congress’s First Code of Ethics calls on archaeologists ‘[t] o acknowledge that the indigenous cultural heritage rightfully belongs to the indigenous descendants of that heritage’.5 Yet the prima facie justice of this principle ought not to obscure the fact that an unwillingness to share one’s cultural heritage is not always defensible on the ground that such sharing would be a threat to that culture’s integrity. Moreover, if the principle implies that indigenous owners have the ultimate say over what happens to their cultural heritage, then it may inadvertently warrant even such acts of wilful destruction as the Afghan Taleban’s dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 or the current spate of destruction of cultural heritage by Islamic fundamentalists in Mali. Such cases evince a total, but surely disputable, rejection of the idea that there may be other people with a legitimate interest in the heritage in question. (It is also worth noting in this connection that conventional legal notions of property, which mostly accord owners the right to do what they like with whatever belongs to them, are inadequate tools for thinking about the ethical responsibilities of the finders, managers or controllers of sites or objects of cultural interest)6 In the contemporary global village, people increasingly care about sites of cultural interest wherever in the world they are. As Atle Omland writes, ‘The [UNESCO] World Heritage concept rests fundamentally on the idea that cultural heritage can be held in common’.7 But while this view has evident attractions, determining the relative weight of different stakeholder interests and finding modes of conflict-resolution that are acceptable to all parties are not always simple.

2. Responsibilities to Things

10When archaeologists speak about the ‘archaeological record’, they are sometimes referring to the material sites and objects located within them, and sometimes to the knowledge obtainable from that material by the application of appropriate investigative techniques. This ambiguity is not entirely harmless. For archaeologists may persuade themselves that they are ‘preserving the archaeological record’ when they write up their excavation reports, where their investigations have actually damaged or degraded the material record. Brian Fagan sounds a salutary warning note:

  • 8 B. Fagan, ‘Foreword’, in V. Cassman, N. Odegard and J. Powell (eds.), Human Remains: Guide for Mus (...)

[I] n an era when the archaeological record [in the material sense] is under threat everywhere, the first concern of any research project should be the maintenance of the site and the stakes of all those concerned with its conservation – be they archaeologists, local land-owners, tourist officials, or indigenous peoples.8

11Fagan’s proposal may seem the merest common sense. Yet the only way of wholly conserving a site is to leave it completely alone. Even light-touch investigation which creates minimal disturbance causes permanent changes to a site. Attempts to restore it to its previous condition at the close of a dig often consist in little more than a cosmetic replacement of its previous covering of earth. Although the visual status quo ante may be restored in this way, signs of previous activity will still be apparent to later investigators who reopen the excavation. Objects of significance found at the site will have been removed, reducing the informational basis available to subsequent researchers. In some cases, exposure by archaeologists to the light and air of what has been long buried actually serves a sentence of destruction. (One of the most tragic examples is the fading away of hundreds of painted frescoes and inscriptions at Pompeii since they were first uncovered by diggers in the nineteenth century.) Clearly, archaeologists must be willing to put up with some loss of the material record in the creation of the knowledge-record; yet there can seem something oddly conflicted about a science that is willing to destroy the very thing it loves.

  • 9 M. K. Trimble and E. A. Marino, ‘Archaeological Curation: An Ethical Imperative for the Twenty-Fir (...)

12Still, without digging there would be no data, and most archaeologists consider that some amount of dislocation and destruction is an acceptable, if regrettable, price to pay for making the material record speak. But justifying the pretension to stewardship requires that a maxim of ‘excavational economy’ is adopted whereby a site is disturbed no more than is necessary to realise the basic research objectives. Collecting items that are surplus to requirements, and that will be left to gather dust in the storerooms of museums or archaeology departments, is academically pointless and morally irresponsible. Investigators need also to ensure that maximum benefit accrues to stakeholders from the work that has been carried out, by publishing and disseminating their analyses, facilitating public access to the site where practicable, and exhibiting the finds. (An exception to this publicity condition may be made where revealing the details of an archaeological site is liable to attract the attention of professional or amateur looters.) Last but not least, archaeologists must interest themselves in the proper curation of objects that are removed in the course of excavations. Michael Trimble and Eugene Marino complain that many archaeologists continue to be negligent concerning the future of the objects collected once their own research questions have been answered. In their view, ‘These collections should be valued, curated, and studied, not just by archaeologists, but by everyone with a professional interest and the results of those studies should be made widely available’.9 If a particular institution lacks the facilities to look after objects properly, either it should not have acquired them in the first place or it should now transfer them to another location where they can be better studied, enjoyed and protected.

  • 10 D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1888) (...)

13To speak about archaeologists’ responsibilities to things is a way of acknowledging the value they have as objects created by and associated with our ancestors. This, of course, is quite different from their financial value in the commercial market; the earthenware funerary urns that so excited Sir Thomas Browne would have been of no interest to treasure-hunters on the trail of gold and silver. Nor is it identical with beauty or artistic value, as many objects without these (including human remains) can provide important information to the specialist. But the value that old objects possess for us is not entirely a function of what they can tell us about past lives. Much of the thrill of gazing on an ancient coin or pottery vessel or textile fragment derives from the very fact of its association with people who were once as real and vital as we are. In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume speculates that the ‘esteem and admiration’ we feel for very old objects stems from the sense of awe aroused in us when we contemplate vast passages of time.10 But while Hume may be right that objects can fascinate by virtue of age alone, we are less likely to be deeply moved by ancient things that lack the human connection. The oldest stone tools or earthenware pots are vastly younger, for instance, than the fossilised tree-ferns that we blithely burn on our fires in the form of coal, yet only the former evoke our ‘esteem and admiration’. Human remains, which have an even more intimate relationship with our forebears than the things they made or used, are naturally the most intriguing and evocative objects of all.

3. Responsibilities to the Profession

  • 11 Fagan, 2007, p. xvi.
  • 12 J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. P. Laslett (New York: New American Library, 1963), p. 3 (...)

14Archaeology is unusual among the sciences in that it can easily become a victim of its own success. Too much archaeology, or too many archaeologists, and the future of the subject is endangered by the sheer depletion of its source material. There are only so many ancient cities, sites and landscapes awaiting the archaeologist’s spade, and the understandable desire of researchers to engage with the more before the less interesting means that the richest plums will tend to be selected first. When the richer sites are exhausted, archaeologists turn their attention to those of more marginal interest until they, too, are worked to the point of exhaustion. According to Fagan, ‘Today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers who are mining sites, often without reference to all the potential stakeholders involved, to answer purely academic – and often very insignificant – questions’.11 It might be countered that such sites provide useful training-grounds for young archaeologists in places where they can do relatively little harm; also, that even minor academic questions may be worth answering in order to add small pieces to the larger jigsaw of the past. (But the questions really must be answered, and the answers published in appropriate places and within a reasonably short period of time, otherwise the disturbance of a site is indistinguishable from vandalism.) However, John Locke’s principle that a resource may be appropriated only on condition that there is ‘enough, and as good left in common for others’ is difficult to apply in archaeology.12 It looks as though future archaeologists will be forced to make do with the leavings from the current archaeologists’ table.

  • 13 Zimmerman, 1998, p. 78.
  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 L. J. Zimmerman, ‘Social Problems and Creating an Archaeology of “Now”, Not Just “Back Then”’, Add (...)

15Some archaeologists judge this picture to be needlessly alarmist. So long as human societies exist there will always be something new to excavate, as fresh generations go the way of their ancestors, leaving behind their own material traces. Larry Zimmerman pertinently asks: ‘Archaeologists promote the idea that archaeological sites are non-renewable resources, but aren’t humans creating new archaeological sites all the time?’13 If archaeology aims ‘to develop general principles about human behaviour’, then sites of recent creation should be equally productive of information as older ones.14 As one obvious example, in Britain and other early industrialising centres there is now a lively ‘industrial archaeology’ whose raw material is frequently less than a century or two old. In a few generations’ time, archaeologists may be enthusiastically excavating the remains of our own civic centres and shopping malls. According to Zimmerman, there could in principle be a fruitful ‘archaeology of five minutes ago’.15 But while this is so, archaeologists who are fascinated by more ancient things – those who wish to study the origins of man, or the migrations of long-gone peoples, or the development of early technologies, or the rise of early civilisations – will eventually face a much more straitened choice of unexcavated locations. Do present archaeologists treat their successors unjustly by removing the opportunities for research that they themselves enjoy?

16Depriving future archaeologists of similar opportunities to those enjoyed by present ones to excavate sites of prime importance may not seem a particularly grave evil in the greater scale of things. And if professional courtesy (to rank the moral obligation no higher) of current archaeologists to future ones dictates that they should reserve for them some potentially significant sites, there are other stakeholders in the archaeological enterprise whose interests may be less well served by such a self-denying ordinance. A rural community wanting to learn more about the history of their village, a people who wish to know who their ancestors were and where they came from, or members of the public who value the feeling of closeness to the past that archaeological discoveries can provide, may think it a poor reason for waiting to have their curiosity satisfied that future archaeologists will need to have something to do. Resolving this particular tension is challenging, but once again much may be achieved by mutually respectful and tolerant consultation among the various stakeholders concerned, and by a willingness to give and take. By encouraging the idea of an ‘archaeology for all’, professional archaeologists not only show themselves sensitive to the interests of those outside the profession, but benefit their own and later generations of archaeologists as well. By getting the public on their side, archaeologists are better placed to secure for their discipline the popular, political and financial support that is necessary to ensure its long-term prosperity. In the long run, the self-interest of the profession and the interests of other stakeholders may be less divergent than they may first have appeared. And if that is true, it is good news for everyone.


1 Sir Thomas Browne, ‘Concerning some Urnes Found in Brampton-Field, in Norfolk, Anno: 1667’, in Religio Medici and Other Writings (London: Everyman’s Library, 1969), p. 142.

2 C. Renfrew and P. Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, 6th edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012), p. 540.

3 L. J. Zimmerman, ‘When Data Become People: Archaeological Ethics, Reburial, and the Past as Public Heritage’, International Journal of Cultural Property, 7, 1998, p. 70.

4 C. Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson, ‘Virtue Ethics and the Practice of History: Native Americans and Archaeologists along the San Pedro Valley of Arizona’, Journal of Social Archaeology, 4, 2004, p. 23.

5 World Archaeological Congress, First Code of Ethics, 1990,

6 T. Allen, ‘Legal Principles, Political Processes and Cultural Property’, in G. Scarre and R. Coningham (eds.), Appropriating the Past: Philosophical Perspectives on the Practice of Archaeology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 239-56.

7 A. Omland, ‘The Ethics of the World Heritage Concept’, in C. Scarre and G. Scarre (eds.), The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on the Practice of Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 243.

8 B. Fagan, ‘Foreword’, in V. Cassman, N. Odegard and J. Powell (eds.), Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007), p. xvii.

9 M. K. Trimble and E. A. Marino, ‘Archaeological Curation: An Ethical Imperative for the Twenty-First Century’, in L. Zimmerman, K. Vitelli and J. Hollowell-Zimmer (eds.), Ethical Issues in Archaeology (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003), p. 99.

10 D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1888), pp. 432, 433.

11 Fagan, 2007, p. xvi.

12 J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. P. Laslett (New York: New American Library, 1963), p. 329.

13 Zimmerman, 1998, p. 78.

14 Ibid.

15 L. J. Zimmerman, ‘Social Problems and Creating an Archaeology of “Now”, Not Just “Back Then”’, Address to World Archaeological Congress, WAC-6, University College, Dublin, 29 June – 4 July 2008.


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