So You Want to Be an Archaeologist?

Popular media has taught us that anyone can be an archaeologist. It’s easy, right? All you need is a shovel, a couple buckets, and maybe a cool whip to fight off some Nazis, and you’re all set to discover some nifty caves and make a ton of money off golden idols! Right?

Time for an archaeological dig!

Well, not so fast. What Indiana Jones doesn’t show us are the years of study, fieldwork, and tedious lab work that go into archaeological study. And it definitely doesn’t show that if you want to be a respected archaeologist, you need to join a professional archaeological society and agree to abide by its standards of ethics.

That’s ridiculous, you say; the archaeological record is available to everyone and shouldn’t be restricted to a bunch of snooty professionals. I should be able to dig up whatever I please, you say, because history belongs to everyone!

Thing is, that’s not really true. There are a number of groups with specific cultural ownership of archaeological remains, and archaeologists have to respect that ownership and act accordingly.

First and foremost, the descendants of the group or culture being studied have a right to their history. This means a number of things for archaeologists. Firstly, graves should not be excavated without the permission of the descendant community, no matter how much information could be gained from the excavation. The pillaging of sacred Native American graves by white North American archaeologists in the past caused a great deal of backlash, resulting in legislation like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. This also means that archaeologists need to maintain open and respectful communication with the descendant communities that they are working with, when both planning an archaeological project and interpreting its results.

Don’t be this guy. Bald eagles will get really mad at you.

Apart from descendant communities, the public has a right to the archaeological record. You can’t just dig stuff up, put it on a shelf, and not tell anyone about it; you could be hiding away new information that might change the way history is taught or help us think about some of the challenges facing the modern world. In its Principles of Archaeological Ethics, the Society for American Archaeology lists just a few of the possible audiences for archaeology, which include students, politicians, journalists, and many more. Archaeology should be a tool to promote learning and come to new understandings about the past and the present, not just to add to your collection.

Whoever put together this arrowhead collection was not complying with archaeological standards of ethics. These are artifacts, not wall décor!

Finally, future archaeologists have a right to the archaeological record, too. That’s why stewardship is the first principle in the SAA’s list; archaeologists are obligated to preserve sites so that future archaeologists with better technology and different perspectives can also learn from them.

So the next time you’re tempted to start digging for treasure, remember that the archaeological record doesn’t just belong to you, and put that shovel away.


Further Reading:


On the Society for American Archaeology’s ethical standards:


Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

National NAGPRA. National Park Service, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.

“Principles of Archaeological Ethics.” Society for American Archaeology. SAA, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.

Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc. 2008. Print. 

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1 thought on “So You Want to Be an Archaeologist?

  1. One way of respecting the needs of certain indigenous groups is “catch and release” archaeology. This practice, also known as repatriation, entails the reburial of artifacts after they are studied, in lieu of curating them in a museum. Sara Gonzalez, a former Vassar professor who now teaches at the University of Washington, has co-authored a paper on this topic, called “Archaeology for the Seventh Generation.” Gonzalez is part of a UC Berkeley team that studies Fort Ross, a Russian colony on California’s Sonoma Coast. Her team collaborates closely with the Kashaya Pomo, a local native Californian tribe. In order to honor the wishes of the tribe, these archaeologists carefully map the exact location where an artifact is excavated, and rebury it in that same spot after it has been analyzed. Gonzalez and her colleagues stress the importance of collaboration with indigenous groups as an ethical imperative; repatriation is just one expression of a larger responsibility to give back to the tribe. As she explains, “A decolonizing archaeology, then, cannot simply be a practice in writing or excavating the histories of ‘others’…it is not enough to simply repatriate the products of this research back to a community.” She argues that giving back historical knowledge, while important, is not sufficient; giving back archaeological material, though, enables the tribe to control their own heritage.
    Her paper also discusses plans for an interpretive trail as another way to privilege the narrative of Native Californians at Fort Ross. Read the paper here:

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