Ethics in Conservation and Archaeology
Ethics, a concept of recommending right and wrong, is essential to all fields of study. In the United States, a standardized set of ethics has been published for both conservators and archaeologists by their respective professional bodies (American Institute of Conservation and Society for American Archaeology). While Conservation in the United States began with an archaeologist, few American archaeologists have worked frequently with conservators. As a student of both fields, it is important to understand where the two codes are similar and different.
From the start, there is a difference in the length of both: the Principles of Archaeological Ethics adopted in 1996 by the SAA Executive Board has eight Principals, while the Code of Ethics published by AIC in May 1994, has thirteen codes. However, do these ethics significantly diverge?
In short, the answer is no. The SAA’s first principal, Stewardship, underlies multiple of the AIC’s codes, and the SAA’s Stewardship principle even calls for “long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record” (Society for American Archaeology 1996). This principle of Stewardship can be seen in II, III, and IV. Code II calls for an “an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it,” code III calls for conservators to recognize society’s right to the use of the cultural heritage, but for conservators to also advocate for the preservation of cultural property, and code four calls for practice within “personal competence and education” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). The Principle of Stewardship also calls for archaeologists to advocate for the archaeological record, the use of specialized knowledge, and long term preservation.
Principal No. 4 of the SAA Principles of Ethics, and Code IX of AIC’s Code of Ethics. This places an emphasis on educating the public about modern methods of archaeology and conservation, but also staying in contact with the “owners” of the cultural property or heritage, whether that be the general public, the owner a of specific artifact, the owner of a farm which contains an important site, the Native American tribe that can be traced back to the archaeological site, or any other entity. Activities can also extend to “promoting awareness” (American Institute for Conservation 1994).This could be as simple as an educational talk open to the public, to a blog post about conserving a Civil War-era rifle.
The SAA’s Principle No. 6 overlaps with AIC’s Code VII, as both call for documentation of the process undertaken by the professional. However, while the SAA Principles explicitly call for publication of these records in “an accessible form,” the AIC Code does not go this far. AIC’s Code X could be interpreted to also overlap her, as it calls for contribution “to the evolution and growth of the profession…adding to the profession’s written body of knowledge…” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). Additionally, the SAA calls for the publication to be available to “as wide a range of interested publics as possible” (Society for American Archaeology 1996), though how this is to be done and how often it is fully followed through on continues to be hotly debated. The SAA’s Principal No. 7 also overlaps here, as it calls for the recording of the archaeological record, and for other students and professionals of the field to make use of it. This also allows future archaeologists to know what has already occurred at a site, just as documentation of the process undertaken by the conservator is preserved for a future conservator, should the need arise for more preservation of the object.
Both professional organizations also call for education and training of their members, Principle No. 8 and Codes I, IV, X, XI. This calls for the members to assure not only that they have proper, up-to-date education on methods, techniques, and the science of the field. The SAA also explicitly calls for “other support necessary to conduct any program of research,” often interpreted as calling for archaeologists to hire the correct professional for the job (such as a zooarcaheologist, bioarchaeologists, or conservator). While the AIC implies this with multiple statements telling their members to practice within “professional competence,” it does not say to hire someone else.
There are additional Codes put forth by AIC not found in the SAA’s Principles. This is due to the nature of the professions. Conservators must work with many different groups of people in multiple facets, as well as with other conservators. Additionally, conservators do work with dangerous chemicals, and Code XII calls for a minimization of “personal risks and hazards to co-workers, the public, and the environment” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). Code IX also states in very clear language how to conduct professional relationships, something not found in the SAA’s Principles. Code V from the AIC also deals with the realities of conservators being hired by anyone, be they a woman trying to preserve her grandmothers wedding dress to a museum in charge of the preservation of a thousand piece shoe collection. As such, Code V calls for the quality of a conservators work to not change with the amount of resources provided by those who hired the professional.
These published ethics guide both professions today. While extremely similar documents, they both have some ethics that are particular to their profession, especially conservation. Of all the declared codes and principles, it is helpfully to remember that the concept of stewardship can be seen to underlie the majority, if not all, of the ethics. As professionals who work in close contact with cultural heritage it is important to remember this, and to always take this into account when beginning a new research program or conservation process. As Hamilakis (2009) notes, all archaeologists must critical of their own cultures history and how they define “archaeological material” past.
American Institute for Conservation
1992 Code of Ethics. Electronic Document, http://www.conservation-us.org/about-us/core-documents/code-of-ethics#.VL_W3tLF_-s, accessed January 20, 2015.
2009 The “War on Terror” and the Military-Arcaheology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonism. Arcaehologies 5:1):36-65
Society for American Archaeology
1996 Principles of Archaeological Ethics. Electronic Document, http://www.saa.org/AbouttheSociety/PrinciplesofArchaeologicalEthics/tabid/203/Default.aspx, accessed January 20, 2015.
Ethics and Theory, General Conservation