There is currently a deadlock between cultural heritage advocates and commercial entities in the field of maritime archaeology. This deadlock exists in response to the ethical problems relating to the means and motive behind treasure-hunting operations and commercial involvement. While this conflict obviously affects archaeological policies, it also extends to the field of conservation. As stewards of historical and cultural heritage, should conservators be expected to uphold the same ethical policies as archaeologists? Do the different objectives of these fields influence their ethical obligations? Is the responsibility of the conservator owed to the artifact at hand, or to the field in which they are assisting?
Over the last ten years, the field of maritime archaeology has struggled with the problem of treasure hunting and salvage. This problem has stemmed from unscientific excavation methods destroying archaeological evidence and commercial entities selling priceless artifacts to the highest bidder. As a public entity, museums have been the forefront of archaeological policies such as accession, exhibitions, and conservation. In the article “The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations,” Dr. Paul Johnston fervently stands up against the display of salvaged artifacts in maritime museums. He discusses the bylaw history, which resulted in the adoption of this ethical statement by the Council of American Maritime Museums,
“CAMM member institutions shall adhere to archaeological standards consistent with those of the American Association of Museums/International Congress Museums (AAM/ICOM), and shall not knowingly acquire or exhibit artifacts which have been stolen, illegally exported from their country of origin, illegally salvaged or removed from commercially exploited archaeological or historic sites” (Johnston, CAMM, The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations).
However, according to the American Institute for Conservation, “The primary goal of conservation professionals, individuals with extensive training and special expertise, is the preservation of cultural property.” This goal brings up an obvious question, should the primary concern of a conservator differ from that of an archaeologist? Personally, I am undecided on this issue. As cultural and historical stewards, archaeologists and conservators ought to be preserving the authenticity of the past. Is accurate stewardship possible when “tainted” or unethical artifacts are discounted? Is history only valid and acceptable when acquired through ethical means?
These questions are difficult to answer, which is why this controversial matter has yet to be resolved. However, the answer to unethical archaeology and conservation is not passively sitting by and ignoring the situation. All history should be recognized, recorded, and studied regardless of its nature, origin, or method of discovery. And as stewards of the past, we should do everything in our power to accomplish this.
Johnston, Paul. “CAMM, The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations.” CAMM Archaeology Committee. Date unknown.
“Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.” About AIC, accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&pageID=858&nodeID=1