Archaeology Issues and Ethics

There are a number of complicated ethical issues revolving around the field archaeology. Although objects of the past, archaeological materials are a non-renewable resource that are very much connected to cultures and societies of the present and future. A few of the issues related to archaeological research are addressed below.

Archaeological Tourism

People from all over the world are fascinated by archaeological ruins and artifacts. They are intrigued by the prospect of seeing and possibly touching an object that has survived hundreds or even thousands of years of history.

As a result, archaeology has become a major component of the worldwide tourism industry. But is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Archaeologists and tourism experts tend to share what you might call a love-hate relationship. No one can deny that government and public funding is critical to the pursuit of archaeological research. As a result, the field of archaeology relies in large part on the public’s interest in archaeology and government funding of the tourism industry to cater to this interest.

Despite the recognized importance of tourism to the advancement of archaeological research, many archaeologists are concerned about how tourism can negatively impact their scientific endeavors. One major concern is the effect that mass tourism can have on preservation. Many tourists can be careless and do not understand how their actions may impact the historical integrity of archaeological sites.

Another concern is how information at archaeological tourist attractions is presented their audiences. People generally don’t want to go visit an aesthetically-pleasing archaeological site only to read and listen to scientific jargon that they may find boring. Thus, in order to cater to the tastes of general audiences, the tourism industry often simplifies or even modifies the scientific findings that archaeologists have worked so hard to uncover.

Is there a way that archaeology and the tourism industry can reach a comfortable balance of interests? Only time will tell. All we can be sure of for now is that each one needs the other in order to thrive.

Human Skeletal Remains

Human skeletal remains found at archaeological sites have the potential to provide a great deal of critical information on a society, including information on health, diet, disease, death, conflict, and ancestry. The handling and study of people’s ancestors, however, is obviously not to be taken lightly. Archaeologists must take special precautions when they come across human remains, and federal and state legislation is in place to ensure that such precautions are followed.

The most well-known piece of federal legislation regarding the handling of human skeletal remains is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. Passed in 1990, this law essentially gave Native American groups ownership or control over Native American human remains found on federal or tribal land. Museums were required to create inventories of skeletal and artifact collections that are subject to NAGPRA and to notify relevant tribes of these collections. At this point, the tribes, with federal grant money, were given the opportunity to commence the repatriation process.

According to the National Park Service, as of September 30, 2009, 38,671 individuals have been returned to their respective tribes.


The world’s cultural heritage is being compromised every day by looting and the illicit antiquities market. People are fascinated by ancient artifacts, and unfortunately, some are willing to purchase them on the black market in order to possess them. Looters recognize the demand for such possessions, and will readily steal irreplaceable cultural treasures to make a buck. In order to do this, looters irreparably damage and destroy the integrity of known and unknown archaeological sites all over the world. As a result, future generations are robbed of knowing, understanding, and fully appreciating their cultural heritage.

Law makers around the world have attempted to curb the problem of looting by setting forth legislation that establishes harsh penalties for the illicit sale and purchase of antiquities. Despite these attempts, looting continues to plague the field of archaeology, as most recently confirmed by the highly-publicized destruction of archaeological sites and museums following the 2003 Iraq war.

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