Posts Tagged ‘community involvement’

Placing a Value on the Past

April 6th, 2014

Placing a Value on the Past

Alex Garcia-Putnam 

As archaeologists we place certain values on the objects we work with; these values often differ with those placed on artifacts by the public.  Archaeologists and conservators do not place monetary value on artifacts and objects, instead, we value objects from the past based on the information we can gain from them about the people who used them.  The public often values objects from the past based on their monetary value. Examples of this can be seen on popular television programs across numerous networks.  Many of these programs ‘dig’ for artifacts and give dollar amounts to the objects they remove, with little to no regard for the valuable data that can be gained by the less glamorous analysis involved in the archaeological and conservation process.

As previously discussed in my blog “Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology”, the Society for Historical Archaeology sets out a number of ethical principles to guide its members.  One of the critical components of this document is Principle Six, which states that archaeologists must not profit monetarily from the sale or trade of artifacts, and should discourage the placing of financial values on archaeological specimens (Ethics Statement, SHA 2007).  We have a duty to protect the past, and placing financial values on artifacts could easily contribute to the illicit antiquities trade. Archaeologists and conservators desire to learn about past cultures through an analysis of the material remains they left behind.  We value artifacts not for their rarity or beauty, but for their ability to better inform our interpretations of the past.

Contrary to reality, television shows and films portray archaeology as a financially driven hunt for artifacts, skewing the public’s perspective of what professionals do. This extends back to the founding of archaeology in popular culture: Indian Jones, where he is shown as essentially a glorified looter, plundering ancient sites for treasure to put in a museum (Hall 2004).  This trend is upsetting, and made tougher to stomach by current programs that follow television personalities with metal detectors that hunt for artifacts.  Inserting a measure of true archaeology into these programs, although not as glamorous, could really help alter the public’s evaluation of archaeological sites and specimens.

All that being said, these programs do provide a crucial service to archaeology: public awareness.  That value cannot be overlooked.  The public is at least being made aware of archaeology, even if it is a skewed version.  Archaeologists and conservators should strive to work with these programs to insert as much actual archaeology into them as possible, while maintaining viewership and interest.  In this way we can attempt to alter the public’s interpretation of archaeology, and potentially get our values all in line: to help understand and preserve the past.

Work Cited

“Ethics Statement”, Society of Historical Archaeology (2007).

Hall, M.A., 2004. “Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema” in European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 7(2): 159–176.

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Ethics of Artifact Hunting Reality TV Shows

April 3rd, 2014

Ethics of Artifact Hunting Reality TV Shows

 Allison Miller

With the rise of popular reality TV programs showcasing artifact hunting, such as Spike TV’s American Diggers, The Travel Channel’s Dig Wars, and National Geographic’s Diggers, a new venue for ethical concerns from the archaeological community has been created. Questions arise not only about the artifact damage the individuals on these shows are directly causing, but also about the damage these shows could be creating by failing to inform the public of proper excavation processes and the legalities surrounding such searches (Kloor 2012; Ewen et al. 2013). These shows, particularly American Diggers, highlight the monetary value of such “found” artifacts, as well. It would seem that this placement of a dollar value on artifacts could only further encourage amateur enthusiasts to begin their own searches for artifacts. “Diggers” searching only for items of value will discard items, such as nails, that could lead to larger finds for archaeologists. How much of our cultural heritage is being lost because of these shows and the individuals they are encouraging, inadvertently or not, to search for artifacts of their own?

Once these valued items have been unearthed, it also raises questions for conservators. Whether or not these artifacts have been obtained illegally, or at least unethically, the conservator must then make the choice on whether or not to conserve such an item. An artifact that has been illegally retrieved can create legal questions for the conservator. If he/she chooses to conserve an object that has been illegally obtained, the conservator can be considered an accessory to the crime. The conservator also has an ethical responsibility of reporting any artifacts they know to have been illegally excavated. Many of artifact hunters may know that their artifact has been unearthed illegally, and therefore do not take it to a conservator. Instead, they will attempt their own conservation methods, which may ultimately create more damage to the item.

Artifacts that have been unearthed within the terms of the law but not with best archaeological practice also create ethical questions for the conservator. It can cause conflicting interests between the desire to conserve the artifact for its own sake and not conserving the artifact in order to not be affiliated with questionable archaeological practices. Ethical codes and guidelines provided for conservators by organizations such as the American Institute for Conservation leave such ethical decisions to the determination of the individual conservator.

Works Cited

Ewen, Charlie, Dan Sivilich, and Paul Mullins 2013    National Geographic’s Diggers: Is It Better? Society for Historical Archaeology Blog, 1 February 2013. <>. Accessed 18 March 2014.


Kloor, Keith 2012    Archaeologists Protest ‘Glamorization’ of Looting on TV. Science Insider, Washington, D.C. <>. Accessed 18 March 2014.

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Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

February 12th, 2014

Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

 Allison Miller

The study and care of human skeletal remains continues to provide challenges to archaeologists and conservators, as the cultural implications of the remains often supersede their scientific implications. Many of the cultural and legal aspects of working with skeletal remains, however, can be mitigated if archaeologists and conservators remain vigilant about treating the remains of the individuals and their potential ancestors with the proper respect. While certain laws, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), exist to prevent the study of remains in deference to religious and cultural beliefs, they do not broadly hinder the study of human remains, as there continue to be many other remains to be examined. Conservators working with human remains should both be knowledgeable about conservation of bones and be concerned with the remains as a person.

Though the conservation of skeletal remains often lies outside of the scope of study of conservators, they are regularly called upon to assist in the best care of such remains (McGowan and LaRoche 1996). Considering the regularity with which conservators are asked to assist in the care of skeletal remains, it is prudent that dissemination of information on proper care practices for bones be provided through educational courses and publication of studies. “The treatment of human remains is an evolving topic, subject to updated and revised philosophies” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:112), of which publication would help conservators keep abreast of the most current care practices. Though it is as true as with any other material, no one practice would prove best for all situations, knowledge of the variety of treatments and storage available would provide conservators with the greatest ability to continue the preservation of the remains.

In handling skeletal remains, their dual scientific and cultural value must be remembered at all times. Archaeologists and conservators must remember not to separate themselves from the remains they are handling; they must always remember that those remains were once, too, a whole person, an individual, with a personality and a life story. The cultural background of the individual should also be remembered, as it can provide a basis for the treatment and storage options that are most culturally acceptable; sometimes reburial may even be best practice. Care for individuals whose identity and therefore cultural background is unknown, though case dependent, should often include reburial in a condition relatively unaltered from first recovery (Ubelaker and Grant 1989).

Proper storage is likely to be the primary concern of conservators working with skeletal remains, as many conservation techniques used elsewhere may prevent further study of the remains. This study is often fraught with complications, as well, since they can damage the physical characteristics of the bone, though new, less invasive methods are being developed (Bolnick et al. 2012). Too often, bones are improperly stored at the excavation site, which then becomes long-term storage. Sound conservation practices should ensure that skeletal remains are properly stored in acid-free materials with environmental controls and correct cataloging of the remains. “The proper storage and treatment of human remains serve the interests of both an engaged descendant community and the scientific community” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:116).

Working with human remains can be a sensitive subject, as it highlights many spiritual and philosophical belief systems. Concern for the proper scientific analyses and conservation practices of skeletal remains can communicate the respect shown for the individuals and help allay the concerns of descendant cultures.



Bolnick, Deborah A., Holly M. Bonine, Jaime Mata-Miguez, Brian M. Kemp, Meradeth H. Snow, and Steven A. LeBlanc, 2012, Nondestructive sampling of human skeletal remains yields ancient nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 147(2):293—300.

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl T. LaRoche, 1996, The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Human Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2):109—121.

Ubelaker, Douglas H. and Lauryn Guttenlan Grant, 1989, Human Skeletal Remains: Preservation or Reburial? Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 32:249—287.

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“Ethnographic Conservation?”: Public Participation in Conservation Decisions

January 28th, 2013

“Ethnographic Conservation?”: Public Participation in Conservation Decisions

Stephanie Croatt

            When considering working with ethnographic materials, one should consider, should conservators take non-technical expertise into consideration while preserving objects for a community or ethnic group? Some in the conservation field argue that “opening the door to non-professional participants may erode professional authority, and can lead to decisions that contradict conservation principles such as honoring artists’ intent and other versions of a settled ‘historic’ value” (Wharton 2008, 170). But successful attempts at gathering community input on communal objects have demonstrated that the practice is, in fact, a wonderfully effective tool at not only educating the public about conservation and its importance, but also facilitating the community’s investment in the continued maintenance of the objects, which would almost ensure the object’s stability and safety in the future.

One example of a successful “ethnographic conservation” project is Glen Wharton’s conservation of the Kamehameha I sculpture in North Kohala, Hawaii. During the course of this project, Wharton solicited public opinions about whether the brass sculpture should be gilded or painted. There was also community discussion about what colors to paint the statue’s clothing and skin. During the course of this project, Wharton effectively opened up community discourse that allowed the public to think about the conservation project and what impact their decisions might have on the outcome. Wharton was also able to share what steps he was taking to stabilize the statue and prepare it to be finished with gilding or paint (Wharton 2008).

Through the community’s involvement, Wharton was able to respect the significance the object held for the community. Furthermore, because Wharton did not hide the conservation process from the public, the community was able to see how important proper conservation was for the statue and the important symbolism it held.  This not only made conservation visible to the public, it also gave the community a sense of ownership of the process. This in turn would make the continued maintenance of the statue an important priority for the community.

From the success of Wharton’s project, it is clear that projects that take into consideration an object’s importance to the community from which it comes, and seeks to include the community in the decision making process (if at all possible) enriches the field of conservation. No doubt, adding this facet to conservation decision making raises concerns about who in heterogeneous communities should make the decisions presented to the conservator, and what should be done if the community does not want the object conserved or makes demands of the conservator that would run counter to the object’s benefit. These difficulties, however, should not be shied away from. Although this particular approach may be costly and require more time on the conservator’s part, it goes a long way to ensuring the continued stability of the objects for generations to come.


Wharton, G. 2008. Dynamics of Participatory Conservation: The Kamehameha I Sculpture Project. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 47(3): 159-173.

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