Ethics Cases and the Real World

I think every student should have a good grasp of cultural resource management (CRM) legislation, from the Antiquities Act of 1906 to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA).  It’s important to know how and why we practice archaeology in the United States, to show the effort necessary to protect the past.  Frankly, without CRM law, most American archaeologists wouldn’t have a job. As much as I want to think the best about the USA, I don’t think the government would automatically record, preserve, and protect archaeological sites without laws in place.  It’s similar to the need for the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act—without it, things would be so much worse.  Our representatives have to make sure we’re not breathing mercury.  With the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), agencies like the National Park Service or Forest Service are legally mandated to have archaeologists on staff.  Without the NHPA, sites would easily be destroyed in the name of progress.  Or pit toilets.

When studying CRM law, you’ll quickly learn there’s a lot of gray area, when ‘acting in good faith’ can mean different things.  For one archaeologist, it may mean making sure everything is surveyed and carefully recorded, sending out consultation letters and following up with stakeholders, and so on.  For others, it means doing the bare minimum, cutting corners whenever and wherever possible.  It’s important to recognize the difference, when there’s both a legal and moral imperative to do the right thing.  It’s our responsibility (both as citizens and archaeologists) to keep archaeology honest, because there are far too many who relish doing work in that gray area.   Google ‘Effigy Mounds National Monument’ and ‘NPS destroys archaeology to build trails’ and you’ll see that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  There are well-known public lands agencies that routinely ignore CRM laws, indicating not only the necessity of enforcing these laws, but also the need and value of integrity in our field.  Now that I have you thoroughly depressed and/or confused, back to the matter at hand.

Okay, CRM laws and archaeology.  There’s this lovely event at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference called ‘The Ethics Bowl’ where a bunch of graduate student teams debate ethical and legal issues in CRM—sounds thrilling, I know (I actually love this stuff).  For my Intro to Archaeology course, I have my students break up into groups and dissect a case study from one of the Ethic Bowls.   These cases describe real-world situations in archaeology, where the right answer isn’t always clear.  For example, one case from 2018 describes a new supervisory archaeologist at a company who is pressured to make her crew survey too fast a pace (miss sites), push it in over 100 degree weather (OSHA violations), not record GPS points or notes or take photographs, and purposefully miss sites.  This is a huge violation of NHPA, and beyond that, it is unethical to push a crew, even if it means not making the profit a company hoped for.  Both archaeology and archaeologists suffer in this instance.

There are a variety of Ethics Bowel cases available on the SAA website, including issues surrounding human remains, international sites, community involvement, looting and so on.  The cases are supposed to make you think.  The focus is largely on how we conduct archaeology, not how archaeologists conduct themselves.  There are definitely bad archaeologists in the field.  I’ve never really thought about ethics cases covering what can happen at universities, at field schools, in the field hotel on a CRM project, beyond the project, in an advisor’s office.  The things we—as archaeologists—all know happens, but simply don’t talk about. Sexual harassment and discrimination aren’t covered in CRM law and practice.  It isn’t something I’ve routinely covered with my students in the past.  This is where that issue of integrity comes really comes into play.  Is our field a safe space for upcoming young archaeologists to thrive?  Frankly, it depends.

There aren’t provisions in the NHPA on what to do if a crew chief consistently belittles you based on your gender.  It wasn’t covered in undergrad or graduate school what to do if your advisor at field school tries rape you.  Retaliation for reporting discrimination or refusing your advisor’s advances isn’t spelled out in any compliance law.  I am so used to only considering compliance legalities, not necessarily who is involved in that work.  It is easy to assume that all an archaeologist would have to worry about is the ethical and legal side of one’s work—not being afraid if your rapist, victimizer, assailant, would be welcome at the same events you wish to attend, like a professional meeting (i.e. SAA 2019 Conference).  An entire organization demonstrated that you can scream at the top of your lungs, but they won’t stop to listen, deciding to keep up the façade that there’s nothing wrong with our field.

While perusing the 2019 Ethics Bowl cases (yes, SAA, this looks bad), I was surprised to come across Case Seven, which describes the situation of Tim Roberts, a third-year doctoral student who feels increasingly uncomfortable by his advisor; she made advances, lewd remarks, etc.  When confronted, she threatens him with leaking his research.  When he reaches out to faculty, they dismiss his claim, state he shouldn’t talk about the accusations, and threaten dismissing him from the program.  Sadly, this is not an uncommon real-world story.  And, as the SAA demonstrated, something most organizations like to pretend isn’t happening.  CRM laws have no sway over this case, and reporting systems fail, so it’s all up to ethics and integrity.  And if that fails?  Long ago, I was taught to consider myself lucky to only have been sexually harassed in the field.  Did the organization I worked for do anything to the individual? No.  What did that teach me?  I simply wasn’t as important as my crew chief, to move on, that I was lucky, that it could’ve been worse.  The #MeToo symposium at the SAA 2019 Conference further highlighted how prevalent and well-known harassment, discrimination, and assault are in our field.  So, what should ‘Tim Roberts’ do?  I don’t know.  And that scares me.

As I wrote earlier, I think every student should have a good grasp of cultural resource management (CRM) legislation, from the Antiquities Act of 1906 to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA).   But, there needs to be more.  During my last couple of courses, I’ve tried sharing the underbelly of our work, not only unethical compliance stories.  Students should know.  I provide the harassment policies of various organizations, talk about reporting abuse, and so on.  I share social media statements, news articles, and my own observations from the SAA 2019 conference.

Students to professionals should be able to practice archaeology without fear of discrimination or retaliation for refusing to keep quiet.   Where do we go from here?  Instead of this whole debacle at the 2019 SAA conference becoming just another Ethics Bowl case, let’s hope the organization will sincerely listen to task forces (hopefully, CRM and federal agencies will follow suit), understand the social media anger, truly embrace the #MeToo movement, and make archaeology a more welcoming place.  Unless broad sweeping changes and major attitude adjustments are made, the same things will happen again and again.  Without action, valuing ethics and policies just simply isn’t enough.  We can do better.



If you attended the 2019 Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference and/or have kept up with the organization’s incredibly poor response to the Yesner situation, you then know how incredibly disappointed so many people are in the SAA.  And, others have put it far more eloquently than I ever could.

My Resignation as Chair of the SAA Media Relations Committee (Killgrove)

That Time The Society for American Archaeology Blocked Me On Twitter (Killgrove):

#SAA2019 and the Public Face of Harassment: Thoughts and Resources on #metoo and the SAA (Klembara and Markert):

Scholarly Society in ‘Crisis’: Want to know how to handle a Me Too-related incident and related public relations snafu? Don’t ask the Society for American Archaeology (Flaherty):

View Dr. Sarah Rowe’s Letter to SAA president Joe Watkins on twitter:

View new membership and establishment of the SAA Task Force on Sexual and Anti-Harassment Policies and Procedures on Twitter: @SAATFPolicies

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