Archaeological ethics

The Society for Georgia Archaeology promotes the preservation of information about the past. Part of the Society’s mission is to educate the public about the past and about the conservation of archaeological sites and artifacts. SGA members themselves subscribe to professional standards of conduct, and they also would like the informed citizen to appreciate these standards and to follow them.

Members of the Society for Georgia Archaeology follow the ethical standards of the largest national association of archaeologists in North America, the Society for American Archaeology, which in 1961 published in its journal American Antiquity and called “Four Statements for Archaeology,” a report by the SAA Committee on Ethics and Standards, and authorized by the SAA membership in May 1961.

The following paragraphs are extracted from these “Four Statements.” Although the language and tone are academic, the meaning is clear and the statements apply to all of us—students, lay persons, teachers, scientists, collectors, developers, land managers, and all citizens and residents:

Archaeology, a branch of the science of anthropology, is that area of scholarship concerned with the reconstruction of past human life and culture. Its primary data lie in material objects and their relationships; of equal importance may be ancillary data from other fields, including geology, biology, and history.

Archaeological research depends on systematic collection of material objects together with adequate records of the circumstances of the finds and relationships among objects and their surroundings. Value attaches to objects so collected because of their status as documents, and is not intrinsic. Therefore, collecting practices which destroy data and thus prevent the scholarly goal of archaeology are censured.

Explicit permission of the property owner must be secured before excavation. State and federal statutes regarding preservation of antiquities and permits for excavation must be scrupulously observed.

Field techniques aim at preserving all recoverable information by means of adequate descriptive records and diagrams….

To do the best job of recording the information that is lost when an archaeological site is excavated or disturbed, basic field records must be kept, including the following:

  • 1. A map of the site, with scale and north arrow.
  • 2. Detailed written records.
  • 3. Notes on stratigraphic relationships of data, including drawings, photographs, and videos as appropriate.
  • 4. A catalogue of all specimens found indicating their location, stratum of origin, and cultural association. Specimens should be labeled, numbered, and catalogued to preserve their identity as scientific data.
  • 5. Photographs, drawings, and other documentation necessary to clarify the technique of the work and the context and associations of the finds.

In addition, collections made by competent archaeologists must be available for examination by qualified scholars.

It is the scholarly obligation of the archaeologist to report findings in a recognized scientific medium….

Inasmuch as the buying and selling of artifacts usually results in the loss of context and cultural associations, the practice is censured.

Willful destruction, distortion, or concealment of the data of archaeology is censured….

Archaeology is a scholarly discipline requiring knowledge of field techniques, competence in laboratory analysis of specimens, and the ability to prepare a detailed report of the investigations and their implications in archaeology….

The above professional standards are abstracted from those published by the Society for American Archaeology in its flagship journal American Antiquity (Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 137-138).