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Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

February 19th, 2014

Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

 Alex Garcia-Putnam

            Every professional society or organization has its own statement of ethics or list of guidelines for its members; archaeology and conservation are no different.  Should conservation, working alongside archaeology, be subject to both archaeological and conservation ethics, and vise versa?  Every archaeological society has its own ethics statement, so for the purposes of this entry, as it is most likely to affect conservation, I will focus on the Society of Historical Archaeology, and their code of ethics.  This particular code is relatively standard amongst the archaeological societies.

The SHA ethics statement calls for its members to follow seven principles of professionalism, detailed here.  Members must behave and work in a professional manner. They have a duty to preserve and protect archaeological sites and collections. They should make their knowledge public through peer-reviewed publications. They have the duty to collect accurate information and data and make it available to future researchers. They must respect the “dignity and human rights of others”.  They cannot profit from the sale of artifacts, nor should they place a monetary value on archaeological specimens. And finally they have a duty for public outreach. (Ethics Statement, Society of Historical Archaeology, 2007).

The American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a similar set of ethical statements, compiled on their website.  They too call for professional behavior and work.  They also have a duty to respect and care for archaeological and artistic specimens.  They have a duty to do the best work possible preserving a particular artifact or work of art.  They also have a duty to know the limits of their expertise, in order to best serve the conservation of an object. They have a responsibility to use practices that will not negatively affect the objects they work with, as well as a policy of reversibility and limited alteration in their treatments.  They have a duty to promote the profession, and enforce and promote these ethics.  (Code of Ethics, American Institute for the Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works, 2013).

In general these codes are similar enough that following them both would not be a challenge and would probably be positive for both archaeologists and conservators.  They both stress professionalism, public outreach, and responsibility to the protection and preservation of the past.  Really, both of these codes are standard, and could probably be tweaked for any profession.  But there are particular elements that are crucial to each society and should be strictly adhered to by both archaeologists and conservators.  I think public outreach is critical for both groups, for the simple and pragmatic reason of funding.  The more we get the public involved, the more interest we can develop, and hopefully that leads to a more concerned public.  This concern can help in the preservation of sites and artifacts, as well as aid our funding woes.   Also critical for both groups, but not mentioned specifically by the AIC, is the honest and timely publication of results.  It is critically important to produce peer-reviewed works, both for current and future researchers, but also for the public.  It surely seems obvious to those in both fields that a respect for the past and the object we work with is paramount; our ultimate responsibility lies with that, and both codes of ethics make that clear.  In sum, the codes seem to work well with each other and should be, and can easily be, adhered to by both archaeologists and conservators.

Works Cited

“Code of Ethics”, American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2013). http://www.conservation-us.org/about-us/core-documents/code-of-ethics#.UvKL_v1ATwI.

“Ethics Statement”, Society of Historical Archaeology (2007). http://www.sha.org/about/ethics.cfm.


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