JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 137 to 146)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 137 to 146)

ARCHAEOLOGISTS ON CONSERVATION: HOW CODES OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL ETHICS AND PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TREAT CONSERVATION

SUSAN I. ROTROFF



2 PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is the oldest professional organization of archaeologists in the United States. Its stated purpose at the time of its founding in 1879 was to foster archaeological research worldwide. In practice, however, the greatest emphasis has always been on the archaeology of the Old World and particularly of the Mediterranean region. As is commonly the case with archaeological societies, its membership includes both professional archaeologists and lay people. In fact, nonprofessionals are in the majority, and much of the activity of the institute is aimed at fostering interest in archaeology among the general public. It is sometimes a tricky business balancing the interests of those two groups—professional and amateur—which do not always coincide neatly. The institute has therefore created two documents. One is a short Code of Ethics (AIA 1991), less than half a page long, adopted in 1990 and envisioned as appropriate to both lay and professional members. It does not mention conservation, although it does affirm the institute's dedication to “the protection and preservation of the world's archaeological resources.” Four years later, in 1994, the institute adopted a second and lengthier document, the Code of Professional Standards (AIA 1995), aimed at “those members … who play an active, professional role in the recovery, care, study, or publication of archaeological material.” By including the word “care” in the first sentence of its preamble, the code puts curation and conservation on a par with excavation and publication as primary concerns of the professional archaeologist. The preamble further describes archaeologists as the “primary stewards of the archaeological record” and enjoins them to “work actively to preserve that record in all its dimensions and for the long term,” telegraphing a central concern for conservation.

The code is divided into three sections, outlining responsibilities to the archaeological record, to the public, and to colleagues. The fourth guideline under the first rubric states: “Archaeologists should anticipate and provide for adequate and accessible long-term storage and curatorial facilities for all archaeological materials.” This guideline already expresses a concern with conservation, since adequate long-term curation must of necessity include appropriate conservation. But the sixth guideline goes further, specifying that “all research projects should contain specific plans for conservation … from the very outset, and funds should be secured for such purposes.”This guideline is particularly significant, for lack of funds is one of the main reasons for inadequate object conservation. Even the most ardent field archaeologist would probably not hesitate to support the principle that objects should receive proper treatment; but when the choice is between another week of excavation and enhanced conservation, the objects are likely to lose out. Earmarking funds for conservation at the outset is an important step.

The Society for American Archaeology is also an old institution, founded in 1934 to support the study of the archaeology of the Americas. Of all American archaeological organizations, the SAA has shown the greatest awareness of the need for professional guidelines. In 1961 the organization issued “Four Statements for Archaeology” (Champe et al. 1961), which dealt with some of the same issues the current codes address. The SAA has continued to refine its professional codes over the years, most recently, in 1996, publishing its Principles of Archaeological Ethics (SAA 1996). It has also left a rich paper trail chronicling the creation of that document (Lynott 1997). It is worth summarizing this process, for it shows that the document is not a statement ex cathedra but rather represents a broad consensus within the field of American archaeology.

Although the SAA had always taken a lively interest in maintaining its professional codes, it was the growing trade in illicit antiquities that most recently brought ethical issues to the forefront. Prompted by concern about that trade and the impact of archaeological publication upon it, the editors of American Antiquity and Latin American Antiquity (both publications of the SAA) announced in 1992 that those journals would not serve as the first place of publication of illicitly excavated objects (Latin American Antiquity 1992, 261). At about the same time (in 1991), realizing that illicit excavation was only one of a host of ethical issues that the organization needed to address, the SAA created a task force on ethics in archaeology. Instead of attempting to draft a document in committee, the co-chairs opened up the procedure by organizing a three-day workshop with 18 participants from a wide variety of backgrounds. At this workshop, which took place in 1993, the participants outlined six “principles,” as they termed them. Each of these principles was then presented in a position paper at the annual SAA meeting in the following year, and these papers were published in 1995 (Lynott and Wylie 1995). The task force spared no effort in eliciting response; more papers were given at regional conferences, there were discussion sessions at the 1995 annual meeting, and comments were invited through the SAA Bulletin, all of which led to modification of the six original principles and the addition of two more. The revised Principles were adopted by the society's Executive Board in 1996 (for the full text, see SAA 1996).

From the beginning, the framers of the document sought to define “ethical ideals or goals” rather than to mandate specific behavior. Archaeologists should not feel that they are fulfilling their professional obligations by complying with minimal requirements, but rather they should aim for the best practice possible (Lynott and Wylie 1995 foreword; Wylie 1996, 186). Of interest in the present context is that the paramount goal, enunciated as the first principle and the principle from which all others flow, is stewardship. “It is the responsibility of all archaeologists,” the document reads,“to work for the long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record.” Given that these are statements of principle, not rules and regulations, no specific guidelines for how that is to be done are included, but the principle of stewardship appears repeatedly throughout the document. Thus, under Principle 4 (Public Education and Outreach), archaeologists are encouraged to “enlist public support for the stewardship of the archaeological record.” Under Principle 7 (Records and Preservation), they are enjoined to “work actively for the preservation of, and long term access to, archaeological collections, records, and reports.” And finally, under Principle 8 (Training and Resources), the need for “adequate training, experience, facilities, and other support” is emphasized. Thus, while the involvement of archaeological conservators on-site is not specifically mentioned, the principles expressed require such involvement.

The Society for Historical Archaeology was founded in 1967 as a scholarly organization devoted to the study of the archaeology of the modern world, from about 1400 to the present. The society incorporates its ethical position in Article VII of its bylaws (SHA 1992), a short and fairly general statement but one that specifically mentions conservation: “The Society supports the conservation, preservation, and research of archaeological resources.” The SHA has also prepared a lengthy document outlining standards for the curation of archaeological collections, and here object conservation plays a large part (SHA 1993). This document covers the cleaning, conservation, labeling, documentation, and storage of artifacts in some detail and characterizes conservation and proper curation as a “professional obligation” and “ethical responsibility” of the field archaeologist. Treatment appropriate to the material and condition of the object, supervision by professional conservators, and full documentation are stressed as necessities. Instructions for appropriate storage containers and guidelines for accessibility, security, and control of humidity, temperature, and light in the curation facility are also included, making this a useful practical guide as well.

An earlier attempt of the Society for American Archaeology to deal with professional standards had resulted, in 1976, in the creation of the Society of Professional Archaeologists (SOPA), which has recently metamorphosed into the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) (McGimsey et al. 1995). The RPA is sponsored by the three organizations whose codes were outlined above (AIA, SAA, and SHA), but, unlike them, it is not a scholarly society. Its sole purpose is “the promotion and maintenance of professional standards in archaeology and the registration of qualified archaeologists.” Its website describes the register as “a listing of archaeologists who have agreed to abide by an explicit code of conduct and standards of research performance.” ItsCode of Conduct and Standards of Research Performance (RPA 1991), formulated when SOPA was first constituted in 1976, thus play a central role.

Those documents present a striking contrast to the Principles promulgated by the SAA, as they offer a specific list of rules rather than a series of goals. They follow the “Ten Commandments” model, with each section prefaced by the phrase “An archaeologist shall,” or “An archaeologist shall not.” This formula might lead one to expect more explicit direction on archaeological conservation, but the documents are disappointing on that score. The code outlines responsibilities in three areas: to the public; to colleagues, employees, and students; and to employers and clients. Responsibilities to the archaeological record itself are not explicitly addressed. The word “conservation” occurs only once, in Section I (The Archaeologist's Responsibility to the Public): “An archeologist shall … actively support conservation of the archeological resource base.” More guidance is offered in the second document, the Standards of Research Performance, but, even here, the standards seem to pass the conservation buck. Archaeologists are enjoined to “ensure the availability of … adequate curatorial facilities for specimens and records,” an injunction that ought to include conservation but that is maddeningly vague. The code furthermore requires that “specimens … resulting from a project must be deposited at an institution with permanent curatorial facilities, unless otherwise required by law.”


Copyright 2001 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works