Ethics in Archaeology

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Exercise ID: 2.8
Class size: Any
Level(s): I II III
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Open choice by student
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: Ethics, museums, fieldwork, archaeology, repatriation, material culture, law, regulation, legislation, guidelines, research methods
Region selection: open (student choice)
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Student chooses from entire collection
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable: Basketmaker

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Francine Barone, HRAF at Yale University

View eHRAF Workbook version

In this activity

  • Explore ethical concerns in archaeology
  • Evaluate existing ethical guidelines and laws
  • Consider the right to ownership over the material past
  • Read and interpret archaeological data

Who owns the past?

If you have ever visited a history or art museum in cities like New York, Paris, or London, you will have had the pleasure of viewing thousands of cultural artifacts from different places and times. Museums hold incredible pieces of our shared past, including artwork, pottery, tools, fossils and even the skeletons of animals and humans. They are important public institutions as well as centers for scientific research and discovery. Many museum-goers rarely consider the question, “who owns the past?”

Watch the video below to learn about how some of the world’s greatest cultural treasures arrived in Western museums. What can the history of these artifacts and their travels around the world tell us about cultural heritage and who owns the past?


Unlike the swashbuckling, treasure-hunting archaeologists depicted in TV and movies, professional archaeologists and heritage managers carefully consider the ethics of their work at every stage. Codes of conduct guide the practices of fieldwork, excavation, preservation, curation, cataloguing, display, and the ownership and/or repatriation of artifacts and remains.

Looting, war, destruction, damage, and other sources of cultural property loss have also contributed to ethical guidelines, governmental legislation, and international agreements designed to protect the past in the present. One example is the 1970 UNESCO Convention to Fight Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property.

Professional and academic archaeological organizations and societies maintain their own ethical codes. You can visit the pages below learn more about these:

eHRAF Workbook Activity: Preserving Culture

U.S. Legislation

Several key pieces of legislation in the United States have addressed cultural resource management and protection in the course of archaeological practice. These include:

  • Antiquities Act (1906)
  • National Historic Preservation Act (1966)
  • Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979)
  • Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990)

Read the following case study to learn more about some of these laws and acts. Then, answer the questions based on the reading.

Case Study: Looting

Basketmaker (NT93) – Grand Gulch, Utah

In eHRAF Archaeology, read “Section 7: The Future of the Past” in Blackburn & Williamson (1997) Cowboys & Cave Dwellers: Basketmaker Archaeology in Utah’s Grand Gulch:


  • 149-156 on the Turkey Pen Ruin
  • 159-160 on federal laws aimed at preserving and protecting archaeological sites and cultural resources
  • 164 on the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists

You may wish to read beyond the selected pages for additional context.


  • What happened at Turkey Pen Ruin?
  • Describe the site. Which archaeological tradition is this site from? What artifacts were uncovered?
  • What are some of the major threats to cultural resources, history, and the environment when digging takes place?
  • What does the author mean by “people who remove artifacts from public lands literally rob the rest of us twice” (p. 156)?
  • Which federal preservation laws or legal protections were in place at the time, and how effective were they at Turkey Pen Ruin?
  • What distinguishes NAGPRA from other federal statutes?

Workbook Activity: Advanced Search

There are unfortunately countless cases of looting and irreparable damage to artifacts and sites in the archaeological record. You can learn more about how widespread the issue of looting is and the devastating impact this has on archaeology at various sites around the world by searching in eHRAF Archaeology.

Begin searching in eHRAF Archaeology by entering the key word “looting” into a Basic Search.

Or, for more specific results, try constructing an Advanced Search as shown below.

  • To find cases of looting, use the OCM subject identifier Post depositional processes in archaeological sites (138).
  • Add the keyword loot* to include paragraph-level results that mention both looters and looting.

While exploring the data in eHRAF, consider how your findings from different countries and continents compare with the case study from Turkey Pen Ruin.

Advanced Search Looting in eHRF Archaeology

Workbook Activity: Discussion & Debate

Here are examples of recent and ongoing ethical debates and controversies in American archaeology and anthropology. Read the articles, then consider the following discussion questions with your classmates.

  1. An archaeology society hosted a talk against returning Indigenous remains (April 2021)
  2. A Mystery and a Scandal for Anthropology (April 2021)
  3. The Grim Open Secret of College Bone Collections (April 2021)
  4. An Interview with the Editor of American Anthropologist about the March 2020 Cover Controversy (June 2020)
  5. The FBI’s Repatriation of Stolen Heritage (June 2020)


  • What are some of the moral issues raised by anthropology and archaeology?
  • In your opinion, should archaeologists be obligated to respect the culture and religious beliefs of others even if it compromises their ability to conduct research and collect important data?
  • Who can legitimately claim to “own” an artifact?
  • Are archaeologists guilty of “looting” items of cultural heritage?
  • How effective are the federal laws and statutes designed to protect and manage historical sites, cultural resources, and/or human remains?
  • What more can archaeologists and lawmakers do to prevent future damage to individuals, descendent communities, and archaeological sites?



American Anthropologist. 2020. An Interview with the Editor of American Anthropologist about the March 2020 Cover Controversy. Public Anthropologies. June 29.

Ayers, E. 2021. The Grim Open Secret of College Bone Collections. Slate. April 30.

Blackburn, Fred M., and Ray A. Williamson. 1997. Cowboys & Cave Dwellers: Basketmaker Archaeology in Utah’s Grand Gulch. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press ; Distributed by the University of Washington Press.

Dance, A. 2020. The FBI’s Repatriation of Stolen Heritage. Sapiens. June 24.

Flaherty, C. 2021. A Mystery and a Scandal for Anthropology. Inside Higher Ed. April 23.

Wade, L. 2021. An archaeology society hosted a talk against returning Indigenous remains. Some want a new society. Science. April 19.