9.6 The ethics of modern-world archaeology

The archaeology of the modern past informs understanding of the present and debate about the future. The recent past is a matter of public knowledge and interest and archaeologists interact with others in the construction, interpretation and presentation of this past. Given this, ethics is a central issue for research relating to the modern past.

This is partly a matter of researching the moral or ethical attitudes of different constituencies towards the telling of recent history and towards the material remains which have come down from the recent past. Research can provide evidenced, nuanced, considered and critical understandings of professional and public attitudes on moral and ethical matters. What explicit and implicit values and principles do archaeologists adhere to in practising their craft? What values are held by different public constituencies in relation to modern artefacts, human remains, places and landscapes, and in relation to the manner in which archaeologists and others engage with these things? Crucially, research can consider these questions in context, through in-depth case study analyses which draw out the assumptions and values which take form in particular circumstances and through considerations of the manner in which specific situations are handled.

Researchers and practitioners must engage in an ongoing process of critical reflection and action in relation to their own practice. In common with all the other ScARF panels, the Modern Panel recognises that the practice of archaeology has real consequences in the world and therefore recognises the need for appropriately reflective and ethical practice. A number of Codes of Ethics for archaeology have been drawn up in recent decades including the  World Archaeological Congress Code of Ethics, the Institute for Archaeologists Code of Conduct, the European Association of Archaeologists Code of Practice and many others. Guidelines and rules dealing with archaeological responsibilities vis-à-vis the treatment of human remains, looted artefacts or those of insecure provenance, the global antiquities trade, and professional standards and relationships with colleagues and employers are the principle areas of attention, along with a general responsibility towards safeguarding or preserving the archaeological record. In the context of the archaeology of the recent past in Scotland, some areas are likely to be more significant than others. While dealing with looted artefacts is not a major problem, the treatment of human remains is a more pressing issue, not least because public feelings are often more intense when dealing with recent-period burials. As discussed above, the recent past is also bound up with matters of self and society (identity, community, politics and so on) and archaeological practice therefore frequently enters into relationships with the interests of others. Other areas of particular concern are the current vogue for popular genetics and the participation of archaeologists in development projects which may have detrimental environmental impacts. And there are recurrent tensions, in museums and out in the field, between economic, social, cultural and spiritual uses and meanings of the archaeology of the modern past (e.g. Ambrose 1989).

There can be a tendency to equate ethical practice in such areas with adherence to codes of proscribed and prescribed behaviours, such as those listed above. However, any set of rules is unlikely to be flexible and sensitive enough to deal with the complexity and contextuality of practising modern-era archaeology. Archaeologists should be encouraged to reflect on the political and ethical contexts of their work and in that way to be alive to the interests of multiple others. Colleagues are advised to engage in ongoing discussion of ethical implications of their work, to seek consensus and in cases of genuine disagreement to work towards negotiated solutions which do not compromise their core ethical values. In all this, research can provide a sound and deep foundation for ethical reflection and action, by revealing and promoting understanding the interests which are potentially relevant in particular circumstances and by indicating and actively developing approaches to the application of ethical principles, including new collaborative modes of working.