Do archaeologists know best?

As an aspiring archaeologist, I have often considered the ethical dilemmas my field faces: repatriation, historical preservation, and ethnographies to name a few. Our field work is the study of past populations yet we are constantly engaged with living people. Sometimes, the archaeology gods will bless you with cooperative peers who see the value in what you do and will do what they can to help your work be a success. Sometimes, you’ll come across people who think we are a mass of meddlesome snobs who simply want to wave our fancy degrees in their faces whist telling them that “we know best.” Others find our work interesting yet, understandably, they are more concerned with their families, traditions, and their livelihood. I always think back to my excavations last year, when an ancient canal was destroyed so the locals could build a newer canal. There were certainly other ways around the problem, but the locals didn’t see any reason to explore any alternatives because they were primarily concerned with providing water to the village. Similarly, the locals practice slash-and-burn farming, and the fires would frequently burn and destroy some of the site. Though infuriated and upset, I can see the rational: why would you care about some tomb when you need to feed your family? Wealthy countries are lucky in that they have expendable resources allotted to museums, sites, and cultural preservation. Recently, however, I find myself confronted with an unusual situation.

Last spring I ventured into the wilderness for a week-long excavation on a plateau region in the southeast. It was many of the students’ spring break, and I couldn’t help but be impressed that they decided to dig out in the rain and snow instead of joining many of their classmates in Mexico. We were excavating a rock shelter that had lithics from the Woodland (1000 BC – 900 AD) all the way back to the early Archaic (8000 – 1000 BC) and potentially the Paleo period (12,000-8000 BC). That type of time-depth is incredible to me…and apparently intriguing to many of the locals. Looting in a common practice in this area, in fact, the project’s director explained to me that it is considered a rite of passage to “find” your first arrowhead. Yes, I am aware that I put “find” in quotations (twice now), because a week ago, I believed there was certainly a difference between stumbling upon an arrowhead on the ground in your backyard verses seeking out a tomb or rock shelter on someone’s private land so you can pocket an artifact.

But after contemplating the practice for a few days, I believe my initial reaction was a tad ethnocentric. Granted, the whole anthropological debate of cultural relativism grants people the ability to justify some moral “grey areas” and I do have my qualms with it; but, it is a helpful term as an introduction to what is means to be an anthropologist: to provide an unbiased and truthful account of your observations independent of your judgment and opinions. Look at the canal and tomb examples I provided earlier. It is ethnocentric of me to say that the farmers were ignorant for burning the tombs, but I become the ignorant one for not understanding that these people are trying to provide their families with food. To demonstrate the importance of preserving that tomb, I need to find a way to satisfy the farmer’s (and my) agenda. I could be more successful if I taught the famer that slash-and-burn farming isn’t good for the land, because the soil he burns annually will only be farmable for three or four years. If he tried another mode of farming that does not involve burning, he will have better crops. That directly benefits the farmer. Of course, that situation is slightly idealized: the farmer might not take my advice because I’m a 23-year-old gringa who is telling him what to do.</span>

So can I apply cultural relativism to looting on the plateau? I personally despise looters; even the looters who are stealing out of desperation to provide food to their families. According to my personal creed as an archaeologist, I believe that stealing an object that can teach researchers and the public about human history is unacceptable. It should be accessible to the public, or at the very least, to researchers who want to study it. If I didn’t have this creed, I wouldn’t go to such lengths to prevent looting. Of course, there are many debates on cultural objects that have been looted in the past and ended up in some imperialist power’s museum (like how half of the Parthenon is in the British Museum and Yale had tons of artifacts from Machu Picchu). And yes, those objects belong to to home-country; but I can understand how these objects may be safer in the UK or US compared to other volatile counties. Look what happened in 2011 in Egypt, people were looting from the museum in Cairo! I do believe a piece of my soul died that day.

Anyway, I digress. Looting on the plateau is a problem, but it is also embedded into the local culture. In fact, it’s slightly romantic. It is a rite of passage that establishes, negotiates, and solidifies community identity. Imagine yourself at the age of 15 as a rebellious youth. You sneak onto cranky McIver’s farm at midnight; you sneak over to the tomb, and pick up the first tool you see. On the way back to the main road and your get-away van, you dodge a disgruntled bull and an ever more disgruntled Mr. McIver wielding his shot gun. The adventure concludes and you are accepted and recognized as an adult by your peers. You keep that artifact on your mantle, and someday, you show your son/daughter the arrowhead and reminisce about the time you realized you were an adult. It is an initiation ceremony of sorts and is a method to publicly declare your adulthood. It is understandable the act has become embedded in the culture. As archaeologists, we can try to educate people to not loot the tombs. But if you are 15 and have a choice to either impress the know-it-all archaeologist or your friends; it is obvious who you will choose.

Maybe I have accidentally stumbled upon a new ethical dilemma outside the realm of looting and who owns the past. It is possible that archaeology become unethical when it attempts to end cultural practices that construct identity? I can already hear my Kantian ethics and categorical imperatives echoing in my head; i.e. What if everyone looted, claiming the practice was a part of their cultural identity? Then there would be no cultural artifacts left in context and excavated, cultural artifacts could not be studied, then there would be no record of culture, cultural pasts would not exist, and there would be no need to enact rites to establish association to culture; thus, the result is illogical and the act is therefore not ethical (whoa, that was an incredibly long bunny trail).

It is during times like this when I am most thankful and annoyed for taking my ethics in anthropology class during undergrad. On the one hand, I cultivated the ability to make astute observations and informed decisions. But I’ve unfortunately gained an uncanny ability to irritate those around me and my own brain.


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