Archaeological Issues

On Ethics, contributed by Christy Hedden

You are visiting the GVSU Archaeology site because you are interested in what the field of archaeology has to offer you as a future archaeologist. Let me begin by saying, we are not Indiana Jones; let’s let that sink in for a moment… are you still there? Good, now that we have that out of the way, we can take a small peek into some of the aspects that make archaeology one of the best professions ever!

            Archaeology is multi-faceted. Yes, there is the hands-on portion of excavating; uncovering the past, long since forgotten. Using your knowledge to hypothesize what each artifact and site was used for, and for how long. But, there is a deeper responsibility that we have as archaeologists; not just to ourselves, but to the artifacts, the community and the discipline itself.

            Here’s a scenario, what will you do? You are walking around a museum in another state after walking through and exiting, you see small stands selling different souvenirs. As you peruse each stand, there is one that claims that their souvenirs are legitimate artifacts; obtained from some of the sites that you have just seen in the museum. What do you do? Do you buy, wanting something “authentic” from you trip to show those back home? This is something that you may come upon in your travels as an archaeologist, and the best way to explain why WE DO NOT BUY, has to do with ethics.

            Ethics as explained by Resnick is “ A set of standards guide actions, a social norm that prescribe or prohibit certain kinds of behavior, or a code of conduct ( Resnick 1998:14). Ethics is what drives us as archeologist to make sure that we are not “looters.” When we are excavating a site, or merely walking about, ethics plays an important role when we or others come upon artifacts that incite excitement.

            By now, you have done some type of online shopping. Sites such as Craigslist, Ebay, Amazon all offer great deals on products that you just have to have, at great prices. While some might not think anything of it when they see the posting, claiming to have an abundance of what they term “arrowheads” for sale, this is a huge problem for many reasons.

            When we remove something from the ground, we are removing the history that is encompasses. We are removing it from the story that it holds, in order to make a new one for our benefit. When it comes to excavating, we follow strict guidelines, on how items are removed. We take pictures, lots of pictures, we sketch the area, we make field notes that will help us when studying the objects back at the lab. We look to preserving the past the best we can when we excavate. We make sure that the artifacts upon their removal, are properly cared for, and allow for future studying as different technologies come to light.

            Buying of artifacts from the standpoint of the archaeologist is just as bad as if they were to remove something from a dig site. We are there to preserve the past, and as much as buying artifacts sounds like you might be preserving them, but it's not that simple. Artifacts that are located on the sites mentioned above often have no documentation of where they came from. On eBay alone, I found over fifteen pages of cultural artifacts; each one claiming that what they were selling was original and rare. In some cases, this statement is very true, there are some truly rare pieces being sold, pieces that belong in a museum; pieces that have absolutely no provenience documentation. This is where the problem lies. For many of the items being sold, there is no way of telling where the items came from, nor how they were obtained. When there isn’t proper documentation, the item looses its relevance, we really can't even take an educated guess as to where or how it was used. 


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Page last modified May 31, 2017