Ethics: A Living Document?

Posted In: Deep Thoughts

As I begin my term as Chair of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (ACUA), it seems appropriate that my first blog as Chair would address some of the ethical considerations that have been the backbone of our actions in the past years, and that are the foundation of things to come over the next few years. Freshly accredited as a non-governmental organization (NGO) to the State’s Parties Scientific and Technical Advisory Board (or STAB) for the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, the ACUA, along with the also accredited SHA, is now in a position to be even more proactive in defending the principles expressed in the Convention while continuing to uphold the ethics statements common to the ACUA and SHA.

The ACUA has stood as a bastion of ethical principles and as a strong voice for the protection of underwater cultural heritage for decades.  Like any organization our methods and members have evolved over time, but our interests and core beliefs remain the same.  It has been suggested that ethics are not carved in stone, and I would agree that our discipline has a greater need for ethics that evolve as our understanding of the field evolves and as new technologies take us to places that were thought inaccessible only a few years ago.  This is not to say, however, that overarching ethics are somehow changeable from one season to the next.  Rather, our ethics are refined as we better focus on what we as a discipline agree are appropriate boundaries.

Fifty years ago our understanding of what was possible underwater was in its early stages.  Large scale excavations were underway and as our abilities underwater began to approach what could easily be done on land, archaeologists started to see a need for a code of ethics.  Then, as now, the lure of buried treasure excited the public imagination.  If we, as archaeologists were to provide the real, compelling, and fascinating stories behind submerged sites we needed to define what made us so different from deep sea treasure salvors.

One of the many ways we as archaeologists have defined ourselves is through our ethics statements (http://www.sha.org/about/ethics.cfm).  We have declared that the commercial exploitation of cultural heritage, whether on land or underwater, is inconsistent with the practice of professional archaeology.  We have codified this stance in the Society for Historical Archaeology’s (SHA) Ethics Statement, and supported its inclusion in the Annex of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/underwater-cultural-heritage/2001-convention/annex-of-the-convention/).  The Annex clearly states in Article 2.7 that “underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited.”  The ACUA and SHA not only support the endorsement and adoption of the Annex as best practice, but actively support ratification of the Convention around the world.

Indeed, the ACUA and the SHA feel so strongly about the Convention that both pursued and received accreditation as NGOs to the State’s Parties Scientific and Technical Advisory Board (or STAB).  In this NGO role, along with our other international partners the ACUA and SHA are working actively to promote archaeological ethics above and below the waterline.

Ethics are still an important, and often hot button discussion point among both terrestrial and underwater archaeologists.  Our concerns as a field deal with  issues that confront us every day: the impact of metal detecting reality television programs that purport to show real archaeology; curation and collections issues that confront us as budgets shrink and collections grow; and a discussion about the role of marine archaeology in places where underwater cultural heritage is still being commoditized.

The SHA continues to work on defining the discussion in regards to curation and reality television series.  The ACUA and the SHA, however, continue to find the commercial exploitation of cultural heritage incompatible with the practice of archaeology regardless of whether that cultural heritage is submerged or not.

Unfortunately it is a simple fact that it takes years to build a reputation of integrity and a single event to undermine that earned reputation and trust.  Our ethics provide us a touch point to guide our actions.  The Society for Historical Archaeology adopted its most recent ethics statement in 2003; the ethics statement was supported by the ACUA and approved by a vote of the entire SHA membership.  The first article in the Ethics Statement, Principle 1, states that “Members of the Society for Historical Archaeology have a duty to adhere to professional standards of ethics and practices in their research, teaching, reporting, and interactions with the public.”  For a maritime archaeologist Principle 1 is an explicit reminder of the need to abide by and support the ethics of our profession in order to separate ourselves and our actions from those of commercial salvors.  While it is unfortunate that archaeologists must still educate the public (including legislators and even other scientists) about the differences between professional archaeology and treasure hunting, our adherence to a code of ethics serves as a very public declaration of our intents and methods.  If in doubt, SHA’s Principle 6 states: “Items from archaeological contexts shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods, and it is unethical to take actions for the purpose of establishing the commercial value of objects from archaeological sites or property that may lead to their destruction, dispersal, or exploitation.”  In the past, this principle helped the underwater community to hold the line against treasure salvors, but in recent years this principle has become a stronger and stronger statement against the exploitation of cultural heritage.

The Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) in its Code of Conduct (http://www.rpanet.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=3) states unequivocally in Section 1.2.e “An archaeologist shall not: Knowingly be involved in the recovery or excavation of artifacts for commercial exploitation, or knowingly be employed by or knowingly contract with an individual or entity who recovers or excavates archaeological artifacts for commercial exploitation.”  If our professional ethics and codes of conduct are ever evolving, the SHA and RPA guidelines provide a road map of where we have been and where the road might lead.

Since January 2, 2009 with the entering into force of the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage the international community and our partners have begun to affect a paradigm shift that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.  Legislation in the United States, and internationally continues to evolve in recognition of our understanding of the value of our archaeological sites.  While a vocal minority continues to lobby for treasure salvors, and commodification of our cultural heritage, the solid scientific work of our colleagues around the globe continues to demonstrate the validity of our ethical stand.  SHA and ACUA are not alone in this stance.  The American Anthropological Association, in its Statement on Ethics, maintains that the conservation, protection and stewardship of the archaeological record is the principal ethical obligation of archaeologists (http://www.aaanet.org/profdev/ethics/upload/Statement-on-Ethics-Principles-of-Professional-Responsibility.pdf).  While numerous other organizations, such as the Society for American Archaeology, Institute for Archaeologists, and Archaeological Institute of America, maintain similar prohibitions against the commercial exploitation of cultural heritage we cannot become lax in our own standards.  We must remain firm in this  ethical stand against the selling of cultural heritage if we are to preserve the rights of people everywhere to study and protect their own past.

Ultimately, we as archaeologists have created something remarkable, something that good ethics can create regardless of whether you work under the water or on land – common ground.  Terrestrial archaeologists and conservators find themselves in agreement that the commercialization of cultural heritage is not only wrong but unethical.  To me, this signifies great hope and proof that over the last 51 years the ACUA has provided a voice for the underwater field, and continues to remain relevant today.

If ethics are the rules we follow in our professional lives, then we must continue to refine our code of ethics must to address new challenges to the profession, while also remaining truthful to the principles and objectives expressed by our professional peers.  The ACUA is working to ensure that we remain the voice of our underwater colleagues, and the bulwark against those who seek to destroy archaeological sites and commercially exploit cultural heritage.  It is my hope as we go forward that you will share your thoughts and concerns with us so that we can continue to support your work.  It is our job as archaeologists to advocate for one another, and the protection of all cultural heritage whether on land or underwater.

Kim Faulk
Chair, Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology

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