Table of contents
Unit 2

Ethics in Archaeology

In a cave, three people sit around a large square dirt pit with clear string oriented above it in parallel lines. Various tools including a hammer, metal bucket, and small plastic bags are scattered around them.

Archaeological discussions about ethics are reshaping the discipline both in theory and in practice. This unit provides a general introduction to some major ethical principles and presents examples of ethics in action and ongoing challenges.

Professor Talking Points
  • Ethics determine the decisions we make about how to act.
  • Ethical thought helps us decide where to focus our inquiries and how to structure our approaches to work.
  • Ethics in archaeology involve theory and practice.
  • They help guide the principles of study and research on material culture, and they help lay the foundation for guidelines on how to interact with those whose lives and ancestors are the focus of study with respect, honesty, and professionalism.
  • Discussions around ethical practices are often based on the process of recognizing histories of inequality that stem from colonialism and imperialism.
  • Ethics help reshape the field to correct past wrongs, where possible, and develop practices that allow for work in partnership with communities that is mutually beneficial and that does not cause harm.
Academic Articles
  1. Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, Jennifer J. Hollwell, and Dru McGill. 2008. “Thinking Through Ethics.” In Ethics in Action: Case Studies in Archaeological Dilemmas, edited by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Jennifer J. Hollwell, and Dru McGill, 29–52. Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology Press.

  2. Soderland, Hilary A., and Ian A. Lilley. 2015. “The Fusion of Law and Ethics in Cultural Heritage Management: The 21st Century Confronts Archaeology.” Journal of Field Archaeology 40 (5): 508–522.

  3. Watkins, Joe. 2005. “Though Wary Eyes: Indigenous Perspectives on Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 429–449.

Student Discussion Questions
  1. List the ethical principles addressed by the five readings. What previous actions and approaches might have led to the creation of these new standards for archaeological work?
  2. What are the sources of the tensions between Indigenous populations and archaeologists, and the field of archaeology, specifically?
  3. In general terms, what is the legacy of colonialism in archaeology, and which ethical concepts try to address those issues?
  4. What went wrong in the case covered by the 2017 SAPIENS article by Michael Balter? What aspects of source community agreements should be considered in cases like these moving forward?
  5. Why is so much emphasis put on listening to Indigenous voices? Why is it important for Indigenous communities to be involved in archaeological projects?
Additional Resources
  1. Article: Undark’s “In the Study of Ancient DNA, a Call for Collaboration

  2. List: Register of Professional Archaeologists & the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists’ Codes of Ethics and Professional Standards

  3. Podcast: Otherwise?’s “Kenya’s Cultural Heritage

  4. TEDx Talk: Chip Colwell’s “Why Museums Are Returning Cultural Treasures

Unit By

Eshe Lewis (2020)

Unit 3


A wide shot features a collection of artifacts on tables with four additional floors towering overhead. A crowd of people gathers in a line in the background.