Ethics of Archaeology: Where is the Line Drawn?

Is maintaining the dignity of the deceased worth withholding a scientific breakthrough? Which ethical framework do we use when working with human remains from different locales (the archaeologists’ or the deceased’s)? These are among the endless questions archaeologists must wrestle with when carrying out their research. When we tell the story of the dead (be it through the food they ate, what religious ceremonies they performed, their recreational activities, etc.) we personify them, and, by consequence, “Those past people should not be regarded as dead or static but, as social beings, capable of being affected by action or discourse in the present,” (Tarlow 2006, 202). It is misguided to treat the dead as means to our archaeological end, rather, we must think of ourselves as their spokesperson in the modern era. 

The past of archaeology is far from a pretty one. Thus, it is important to emphasize ethics in our archeological discussions. Historically, the practice has been one riddled with looting and cultural insensitivities. For example, archaeologists disregard to Native American populations. In one case, the Chumash refused entirely to let archaeological research continue on bones thought to be descendents due to the reprehensible treatment of their ancestors’ skeletons in the past (Renfrew 2018, 307). Strides have been made to rectify this and return artifacts to their rightful owners via acts, like the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation act (Renfrew 2018, 307), but archaeology is not immune to making similar mistakes. Even now, archaeologists must make ethically conscious choices regarding where they excavate, what they remove, where they put it, and more. 

In another example, the iconic “bog-people” (Figure 1 and 2) have been the subject of much conversation, regardless of archaeological experience. “Bog bodies” are remains that have been preserved remarkably well due to their waterlogged state (Renfrew 2018, 59). Their museum displays have amassed much interest and drawn many visitors. But is it ethical or respectful to display human remains as a spectacle? Is it out of scientific and educational intrigue, or is it “out of cheap sensationalism or morbid curiosity,” (Bahn 1984, 222). The dilemmas that archaeology introduces only become more complicated when considering the diverse cultural practices concerning the dead. 

Figure 1: The remains of the Lindow man, exhumed from Lindow Moss Bog. Displayed at the British Museum. (Photograph provided by the Trustees of the British Museum, Asset 126565003, the British Museum).

Figure 2: The ‘Red Franz,’ another “bog body” discovered in Northern Europe. (Photograph by Robert Clark, Red Franz, Archaeology Magazine, 2015).

It is important to note that respect as a concept is culturally situated. Most of archeology’s ethical practices are predicated upon the western cultural milieux. In some cultures, displacing the body from its burial ground is a regular, often ceremonial practice. Elsewhere, this practice would be insulting. How do archaeologists navigate these ethical frameworks? 

Many archaeological organizations (for example, SAA) have codified their set of ethics, but, in all truth, it is impossible for archaeologists to determine an all-encompassing set of ethics that will command our research. It is more realistic to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, although there are times when a concrete ethical framework can be effective (Tarlow 2006, 216). Archaeologists not only have an obligation to the present and future, but also to the past it seeks to represent. Archaeologists must find a balance between their scientific endeavors and culturally informed ethical decisions made with knowledge of the indigenous cultural framework.


Further Readings:


Alex, Bridget. “When is it OK For Archaeologists to Dig Up the Dead?” Discover. 7 September 2018.


Alberti, Samuel et al. “Should we display the dead?.” Museum and Society, 7.3 (2009): 133-149. 10 Sep. 2022.


Calugay, Sophia. “Bodies in museums: The moral standing and displaying of the dead. The Post Hole. December 2015.



Bahn, Paul. “Do Not Disturb? Archaeology and the Rights of the Dead.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 1, no. 2, 213–25. 1984.

“Bog body; arm-band; garrote.” The British Museum.

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories/Methods/Practices. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., Fourth Edition, 2018.

Society for American Archaeology. “Ethics in Professional Archaeology.” SAA: Society for American Archaeology. 2016.

Tarlow, Sarah. “Archaeological Ethics and the People of the Past.” Chapter. In The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, edited by Chris Scarre and Geoffrey Scarre, 199–216. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511817656.012.

2 thoughts on “Ethics of Archaeology: Where is the Line Drawn?

    • I believe archaeology needs to expand beyond the Western cultural framework of ethics and embrace the practices/expectations of the community and ancestors they are working with. There is no one set of rules to follow, ethics must be approached on a case-by-case basis. The case of ‘bog bodies’ displayed in museums is particularly complicated because it toes the line of educational content and purely spectacle. Is the visitor’s morbid fascination exploitative? It’s difficult to discern. I feel like bog bodies can serve to connect people across time and provoke curiosity, but there is still the overarching ethical dilemma that is impossible to ignore. It’s also narrow-minded to ignore that a lot of the public interest in archaeology comes from seeing human remains (they’re usually not as excited about pottery shards or lithics). Unfortunately, there is no right answer to the quandary, and I’m certainly not sure of one myself. Right now the best we can do is to challenge the unethical practices of the archaeology’s past and accommodate for the wants of deceased individual’s ancestors. Laws like NAGPRA are a step in the right direction, and I hope we continue to follow along that path, but I doubt that we will ever reach a consensus on archaeological ethics.

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