ARCHAEOLOGISTS ON CONSERVATION: HOW CODES OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL ETHICS AND PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TREAT CONSERVATION
SUSAN I. ROTROFF
Codes of ethics and standards are now de rigueur for professional societies, and over the past decades conservators, archaeologists, anthropologists, and museum professionals have devoted considerable attention to the creation and refinement of such documents.1 No society is an island, however, and often the codes of one set of professionals have important implications for members of another. Such is the case with conservators and archaeologists. Conservators have their own ethical guidelines and standards of practice (Sease 1998), but they work within a variety of frameworks, and the standards of those frameworks inevitably have an impact on how effectively conservators can practice their profession. This article reviews the status of conservation within the codes of six archaeological organizations, with particular focus on how these codes govern the practice of conservators within the context of archaeological excavation. The full texts of most of these codes are available on the Internet (see References). The codes of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) are also published in Vitelli (1996, 253–66).
A brief discussion of the processes that led to the development of the codes can help to put them in context. The archaeological profession has changed dramatically over the past few decades (Patterson 1995). Until fairly recently it was a pastime reserved for the wealthy. Academic salaries were low, and outside sources of funding were few. Until well beyond the middle of the 20th century, field directors were most often well-to-do individuals with academic appointments at one of a handful of prestigious institutions. The high social status of these individuals served as a guarantee of their expertise, and their power was such that no one was likely to question the conduct of their excavations, in terms of either procedures or personnel. While a good deal of this old system remains in place, there has also been significant change. University teaching now pays a living wage, and funding sources have expanded, so that those without personal fortunes can both teach and raise funds for archaeological projects. In the United States, increasing amounts of archaeological work take place outside the academic setting through contract archaeology and through local, state, and federal agencies (Zeder 1997). Technological advances require that more staff members, with a wider variety of skills, be involved in excavation, and the participation of students, whether as volunteers or as members of field schools, has become routine. At the same time, the fast pace of development threatens archaeological sites worldwide; and the antiquities market continues to take its toll on the archaeological record (Vitelli 1996). The interests of indigenous peoples in archaeological sites and materials have raised thorny ethical issues, as have the claims of nations whose archaeological heritage has been exploited by foreign archaeologists and collectors in the past (Vitelli 1996). All these factors have contributed to a heightened awareness of the need to codify professional standards of behavior and practice in all areas of archaeological work. While some archaeological organizations have had such standards in place since their inception, most American organizations have put their codes in place or revised them within the last decade, in response to the pressures just enumerated.
Archaeologists can be found all over the academic map, working or trained in departments of anthropology, art history, classics, history, and biblical or Near Eastern studies. They practice archaeology all over the globe, and, because their research focuses on widely different times and places, it is not surprising that several professional societies have arisen. When it comes to ethical issues and professional standards, however, a fair degree of unanimity has emerged. While it is excavation and spectacular discoveries that attract attention and funding and confer status in both academia and society at large, it is the preservation of the archaeological record that every organization highlights in its codes and standards. All agree in seeing archaeologists as “stewards” of that record, with all the duties to protect and conserve that the term implies. While few codes give specific direction in the area of object conservation, this shared concern with stewardship implies a strong support for the work of the archaeological conservator.