Ethical Issues in European Professional Archaeology
It is entirely appropriate that for the one discipline with the widest of scopes – the study of all the
physical traces left by humanity in all of its prior existence – that there are a multiplicity of
understandings of what archaeologists are and what they do.
And with archaeologists holding differing understandings of what constitutes archaeological practice,
levels of (mis)understanding can easily arise about how archaeologists carry out their work, why and for
whose benefit. Confusion develops about what is right and what is wrong, what is “ethical” and what is
not, and the consequences of such misunderstandings can be conflict or exploitation.
Professional archaeological practice has evolved in different ways in different parts of the world, and the
dominant ethical issues vary too. In a round table session held at the European Association of
Archaeologists’ 2006 Annual Meeting in Krakow - “How should we conduct ourselves? Dilemmas in
archaeological ethics and professional conduct”, organised by Jeffrey Altschul of the Register of
Professional Archaeologists – participants explored the ethical issues that they felt impacted upon
archaeological practice in the differing global contexts of their workplaces.
The issues raised by North American participants were dominated by the ethical questions raised
through interaction with, and the perceived exploitation of, past indigenous cultures and/or descendant
communities, or by the exploitation of the pasts of other countries. In many cases, these issues are tied
very strongly to the removal of portable antiquities. By contrast, the experiences of the European
participants identified ethical questions that were about business, financial advantage and relationships
between archaeologists and their commercial clients.
This paper will explore the development of these issues of ethics and the professionalisation of
archaeology, in their European and global contexts.
Ethics in Archaeology – background and evolution
Ethical beliefs are not scientific assertions – they cannot be tested on a true/false basis, but they can be
challenged, debated and shared. They are outlines of acceptable behaviour, and within archaeology, “a
viable ethics should provide the working archaeologist with a framework that allows them
systematically to identify, assess and balance the ethical considerations which are relevant to their
practice” (Groake & Warrick 2006, 164).
The earliest debates concerning archaeological ethics concentrated almost exclusively on the welfare of
artefacts and human remains (Colwell-Chantaphonh & Ferguson 2006): “…within archaeology …two
particular issues have tended to dominate – ‘indigenous’ issues, especially reburial and repatriation
within post-colonial contexts and looting and the relationship of archaeology to the art world and
archaeological artefacts as saleable commodities” (Pluciennik 2001, 3).
The Society of American Archaeology (SAA)’s 1961 “Four Statements for Archaeology” (Champe et al)
included what was perhaps the first codified statement on shared ethical principles in archaeology – this
was essentially a response to the problems of looting (although other writers had been considering
these issues a long time before – Flinders Petrie’s 1904 Methods and Aims in Archaeology included
advice on “the ethics of archaeology” [referred to in McAdam 1995, 92]).
The SAA’s policy subsequently evolved; the four statements became six, and then eight Principles of
Archaeological Ethics (adopted in 1995) – (1) Stewardship, (2) Accountability, (3) Commercialization, (4)
Public Education and Outreach, (5) Intellectual Property, (6) Public Reporting and Publication, (7)
Records and Preservation, (8) Training and Resources (Lynott 1997, 593). Principle 3, Commercialization,
entirely relates to objects and their commodification, and specifies that archaeologists should “…
carefully weigh the benefits to scholarship of a project against the costs of potentially enhancing the
commercial value of archaeological objects” (Kintigh 1996). This Principle is not a discussion of
commercial archaeological practice and ethical issues relating to ‘business’ or ‘professional
Addressing these issues in the United States was the Society of Professional Archaeologists (SOPA),
which was established in 1976 “… to meet a perceived need by the archaeological community and
federal agencies to identify standards of professional conduct and to recognize the archaeologists that
met these standards” (Lynott 1997, 591). This organisation originally developed as a committee of SAA,
but legal concerns led to SOPA becoming established as a separate body; some individuals also felt that
registration was not appropriate for all SAA members, but only for those working in private (and, to a
lesser extent, public) sector cultural resource management. Subsequently, the Register of Professional
Archaeologists (RPA) developed from SOPA, and other comparable professional associations for
archaeologists have been established elsewhere in the world.
It is the concept of cultural resource management - archaeologists providing services for third parties,
whether those are public or private bodies - that underpins professional archaeology in North America
and Europe today. By the end of the twentieth century, nearly 90% of all archaeological work in
England was being initiated through the planning system and undertaken on a commercial basis (Darvill
& Russell 2002, 3). This writer confidently believes that this percentage has increased since then, and
that this can be considered to apply across the whole of the United Kingdom. In 2002-03, at least 5700
people were working in professional archaeology in the UK, which represented a growth of 29% over the
five years previously (Aitchison & Edwards 2003, 29).
At this point, it is worth discussing what is meant by ‘professional archaeology’.
Cumberpatch & Blinkhorn (2001, 42) state that they consider “… a professional archaeologist is one who
makes his or her living from the practice of archaeology”. This writer would contend that this is not the
case. Remuneration for services rendered is not the only defining characteristic of a professional.
Historically, individuals who can be considered to be professionals have been defined as possessing “a
specialized skill and service, an intellectual and practical training, a high degree of personal autonomy
and responsibility, a fiduciary relationship with the client, a sense of collective responsibility for the
profession as a whole, an embargo on some methods of attracting business and an occupational
organization testing competence, maintaining standards and regulating discipline” (Elliot 1972, 5).
By these requirements, archaeology can be considered to be a profession (in some countries at least),
because the sector does meet all the benchmarks set out by Elliot, not least in that there are now
occupational organisations that test competence, maintain standards and regulate discipline – the
professional associations already referred to above. Crucially, in order to regulate discipline within the
profession, each association must hold, maintain and test a shared set of professional ethics. Writing in
the early twentieth century (but not published until the 1950s), the sociologist Emile Durkheim defined
common morality and shared responsibility as being “… the fundamental condition without which no
professional ethics can exist. A system of morals is always the affairs of a group and can operate only if
this group protects them by its authority. It is made up of rules which govern individuals, which compel
them to act in such and such a way, and which impose limits to their inclinations and forbid them to go
beyond” (Durkheim 1957, 6-7).
A professional can be defined as an individual who has underpinning, technical knowledge and abilities
that allows them to carry out specific, skilled tasks and to give advice based on that knowledge. The
professional differs from the technician in that they subscribe to a shared ethical code that guides them
in making judgments both as to how, and indeed whether, they should carry out these specific tasks.
They then should be able to give advice that is purely based upon their technical knowledge and ethical
decision, unaffected by issues of their own personal benefit.
Ethics in Professional Associations
Archaeology is a profession, and the privilege of professional practice requires professional morality and
professional responsibility, as well as professional competence, on the part of each practitioner (RPA nd,
Code of Conduct, preamble)
The Register of Professional Archaeologists’ Code of Conduct is broken down into three parts, and it is
entirely presented in terms of the responsibility of the archaeologist - to the public; to colleagues,
employees and students; and to employers and clients. This ethical code establishes shared principles
and collective responsibility for their upholding. Through this commitment to collective responsibility, all
of those that subscribe to the Code know what constitutes acceptable standards of individual practice
The European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) considers that all European archaeologists should
have access to a professional association in order to set, maintain and improve standards for European
archaeologists (EAA 2003). Self-regulation is seen as the route to ensure common standards, as
(normally) governments cannot, or choose not to, impose the regulations that archaeologists need;
archaeologists can join an association and democratically decide what regulations apply (if they are
lawful); and so, if enough archaeologists (a majority of practitioners) join, the profession as a whole is
regulated. Until that majority of practitioners join, only the committed minority can be seen as meeting
and working to professional standards.
By definition, professional associations in archaeology should: hold codes of conduct that apply equally
to all members; have entry conditions for membership; provide or promote continuing education
(publications, conferences); promote the development of archaeology as a discipline; represent the
profession; and be equally concerned for practitioners (members), practice (archaeology) and clients
(including the archaeological heritage itself).
Membership based on peer-review ensures that all archaeologists who are members of a professional
association share a common understanding of what constitutes the ethical behaviour appropriate for,
and expected of, their fellow professionals.
While the EAA is the pan-continental association for archaeologists in Europe, and by joining the
association members commit themselves to undertake their work to the highest standards recognised
by their peers, the EAA is not in itself a professional association, as beyond a commitment to the
Association’s Code of Practice and Principles of Conduct there are no conditions on entry. Nor is there
any form of disciplinary procedure to ensure that members remain committed to this Code and
Codes of Conduct that are held by bodies that do not undertake quality control of membership criteria,
and that cannot impose sanctions for transgression of such a code – such as the EAA, and the World
Archaeological Congress (WAC) - can only be guides that help to shape shared principles; they have no
power or means to enforce quality standards in practice or behaviour.
Few professional associations that have the ability to impose such sanctions actually exist in European
archaeology. At the time of writing, only three, nationally based, organisations can be truly considered
to be professional associations as defined above – the Nederlandse Vereniging van Archaeologen (NVvA)
in the Netherlands, the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI) and the United Kingdom’s Institute of
Field Archaeologists (IFA). There are a number of nascent organisations, although most bodies that are
currently aspiring to professional association status have more in common with learned societies. Both
IFA and NVvA welcome members based in and working in other countries; the Associations’ Codes of
Conduct are binding upon members wherever they work in the world.
Institute of Field Archaeologists
The largest and longest established professional association in European archaeology is the UK’s IFA,
founded in 1982 and with over 2300 members in 2007 (Hinton 2007, 7). This organisation has a system
of self-regulation whereby complaints against members are examined through a disciplinary procedure.
This is founded upon the association’s ethical principles, which are set out as a Code of Conduct (IFA
2006). This system functions effectively; it has demonstrated that it is able to deal fairly with allegations
of misconduct brought against both individual members and registered organisational bodies; “[i]n 2005
six members were the subject of disciplinary investigations or proceedings: one received a written
warning as to future conduct, two were the subject of advisory recommendations and three are still
subject to disciplinary investigation or process. In the same year four registered organisations were
investigated, resulting in a range of responses: additionally an organisation was removed from the
register when it became clear that it had supplied false information in support of its application for
registration” (Hinton & Jennings forthcoming).
Ethics, Archaeological Business and Why Ethical Issues Arise in Archaeological Business
More than 20 years ago, Ernestene Green recognised that archaeology in the United States was
encountering values and ethics that were not those of academia: “… the conflict between the values and
objectives of business management and those of traditional research management. Archaeologists had
not previously dealt with such business concepts as profit requirements, labor costs, fringe benefits and
so on. Traditionally, an archaeologist worked until the research project was finished. The main concern
was that the quality of work satisfied professional research standards, not a business client’s financial
and time constraints.” (Green 1984, ix)
Many of the papers in the volume that Green edited were concerned with the “traditional” archaeo-
ethical issues of repatriation, artefacts and human remains. But, in addition to Green’s Introduction,
two others are particularly pertinent to the business of archaeology – Raab’s Achieving Professionalism
through Ethical Fragmentation: warnings from Client-Oriented Archaeology and Fowler’s Ethics in
The commercialisation of archaeology, and its transformation to a business-orientated profession where
“… an unwilling client contracts for undesired work to a company that owes its continuing existence to
pleasing that client” (Fowler 1984, 109) have led to conflicts of interests and subsequent ethical
dilemmas. Fowler considers that the two principal causes of problems are where the client organisation
lacks archaeological expertise, or where the archaeological contractor lacks business expertise (Fowler
Cumberpatch and Blinkhorn (2001, 40) define commercial archaeological work as being “carried out for
the benefit of the client, where the client is defined (both specifically and implicitly) as the individual or
organisation who commissions and pays for the work” [my emphasis]. If this assumption is always
believed to be the case, then there would be no ethical dilemmas or compromises – the customer would
simply always be right. But this is not the case – Cumberpatch & Blinkhorn’s statement can be recast –
the client is being financially penalised for threatening a non-renewable environmental resource. The
polluter is paying, this is sustainable development and the archaeologists are working in the interests of
the archaeological resource (and subsequently the greater public) by helping the client to minimise their
actions’ impact upon the archaeology.
By subscribing to shared and enforced codes of ethics, archaeologists become able to resolve these
dilemmas for the common good, both of the archaeological profession and of the historic environment.
Ethics and Globalisation: a case study
Gold reserves at Roşia Montană in Romania have been exploited since the Roman period. This has
meant that Roşia Montană has simultaneously become both a remarkably well preserved archaeological
site and a mineral resource with significant economic value. At the closing session of the European
Association of Archaeologists’ Annual Meeting in 2004 (held in Lyon), a motion was presented to the
membership urging restraint in the exploitation of those reserves – which led to a forceful reaction from
Romanian archaeologists who were working at the site. They felt that EAA was unjustly criticising the
archaeological work that was being undertaken there, as this work was being done in order to mitigate
the impact of the mineral extraction.
“The realities of globalisation and the urgent needs of development and renewal across Europe mean
that the challenges of managing this impact on archaeological remains have to be tackled across the
continent” (Aitchison 2004, 13). Those archaeologists were responding appropriately on behalf of their
clients, for whom they were managing the potential impact of mining activities on archaeological
Roşia Montană has been a landmark issue. It has shown that commercial archaeology has become
established across Europe as the means by which sustainable outcomes to development’s impact on
archaeology are mediated.
We will continue to encounter emotive issues, as macro-economic imperatives threaten archaeological
resources – the Ilisu dam in Turkish Kurdistan is one such major and enduring issue (Ronayne 2006) –
but we have to accept that while archaeology is irreplaceable, it is not priceless.
We are not archaeology’s guardians – sometimes we may be its stewards, but, whether we like it or not,
professional archaeologists are the managers of its change, the expert advisers upon its conservation or
Rejecting the ethics and values of commercial archaeology is simply not an option for those who interact
with clients and the rest of the world on a daily basis. Raab (1984) asked whether work that is done
under contract serves the client’s interests or that of the research needs of the discipline? The two
objectives need not be exclusive, this work can achieve both. He went on to ask “do archaeologists in
private enterprise have ethical imperatives that differ from those of colleagues in academia or
government?” (51), to which the answer is – of course not. This is not a conflict between good and evil,
but ethical relativism leading to decisions being made between competing priorities. Commercial
archaeologists solve their clients’ problems. They solve those problems by advising them on how to
mitigate the impact of their actions on the non-renewable archaeological resource, and by so doing are
minimising the destructive processes that change brings to the resource.
European archaeology is still coming to terms with the commercialisation of the discipline, and it is still
learning how to function as a series of interrelated businesses. With the liberalisation of the movement
of labour and businesses across the European Union (under Article 39 of the EC Treaty), globalisation
(both political and economic) means that commercial archaeology is becoming the norm – and so
dealing with the ethics of business is becoming central to archaeological practice across the continent.
In North America, commercial archaeology has matured to the point that questions relating to the ethics
of archaeological business can be seen simply as questions of business ethics. As archaeologists learn
how to manage business, they learn business ethics. North American archaeologists have been able to
return to ethical issues that are concerned with archaeologically specific questions relating to the
remains of past lives. In the United Kingdom the business of archaeology has had at least a decade’s less
development, and, in many European countries, commercial archaeology is another decade younger yet.
A suggestion was made at that conference session referred to in the introductory paragraphs above that
to talk about ethics means that ‘either you are a troublemaker or that you are in trouble’. Talking about
ethics, sharing ethical codes and following them are the ways that archaeologists will keep themselves
out of business trouble and that will protect the archaeological resource.
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Kenneth Aitchison works as Head of Professional Development for the Institute of Field Archaeologists
and is Secretary of the European Association of Archaeologists’ Committee on Professional Associations