ASOR and Archaeological Ethics

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, Annual Meeting, Antiquities Market, Archaeology and Politics, ASOR, Cultural Heritage and Property
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By: Lynn Swartz Dodd

“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”
Bill McKibben

What should American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) members do if new Dead Sea Scrolls are found? What if our country’s military actions increase uncontrolled looting of ancient sites? Or if war creates a situation where people and ancient things exist under occupation? How should we deal with the remains of human beings we encounter in burials? How should ASOR members and others support international laws dealing with antiquities?

These are the questions that are driving the development of a new, comprehensive ethics policy for ASOR. This moment has arrived as a result of a decades-long process. ASOR is an organization with an impressive history and a promising future, founded in response to the shared interests, vision, and ideals of professional archaeologists, historians, epigraphers, and others. (more…)

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5 Comments for : ASOR and Archaeological Ethics
  1. Reply

    Response to L.S. Dodd, ASOR and Archaeological Ethics.

    I have noticed and appreciated those professionals whose training and discipline is apparent. I read and attend lectures promoted by the Biblical Archaeology Society, through which I have attained a free membership to ASOR. Magazines I read regularly include the BAR and N.E. Archaeology. And yes, I partake of the Great Courses series of academic lectures on history and archaeology. I am also an ancient coin collector, and it would not be beyond my ethics to purchase antiquities.

    I have also noticed many prominent professional scholars and archaeologists who go beyond the evidence to cater to perceived constituents. Appealing to constituents is just as valid as recruiting customers, if that's what your professed business is. But if one is paid to be an archaeologist, or an academic, particularly by a public institution, then I believe there is a discipline to abide by. Inspirational leaps and grudging biases are best left to the amateurs, like myself. If "peer review" can stop this poaching on amateur ground, then by all means get to it. Those scholars who stop to say, "as a professional, I cannot comment on that. But Personally….." deserve all of my admiration. If they know where that line is, I feel I can trust them. They are a tribute to the schools they went to.

    As to whether collectors are looters and the integrity of your data sets, I can only recommend that you stop attacking your biggest fans. Who do you think buys you books? Who do you think will fund your sites? The British Museum has found a way to enlist the public in the pursuit and preservation of the past. I don't think you have a choice given that the source of your funding is taxes, a bad word. Nothing makes me madder than knowing there are boxes and boxes of items that will never be adequately cataloged because the only people given access are itinerant graduate students. (Well, maybe the failure to publish makes me madder, especially when the looting word is being thrown around self righteously.)

    If in the pursuit of ethics for the professionals all you do is attack the prerogatives of amateurs (evangelists, preachers and Sunday School Teachers) nothing good will come of it. If all you do is attack collectors, there is no incentive to change. Did it occur to you that collectors may be as desperate for provenance and legitimacy (to protect their investment) as you are to protect the integrity of your data base?

    Thanks for the article and God Bless all your efforts.

  2. Reply

    This is indeed a complex subject, & you covered it very well as you have in the past. And of course I have an opinion! I do "care whether ancient objects are ignored and left to languish in storerooms because they come from a looted site" (especially if they are stamped jar handles!). I do not "care whether our country’s laws are broken in the pursuit of knowledge" because our country's laws are not necessarily God's laws. What democratic people agree to as a law/right can be amended or repealed (e.g., Amendments XVIII & XXI), so it's not necessarily a standard by which I, as a Christian, am ultimately accountable. I'm not in spiritual danger of burning in Hell for eternity if I drive 1 MPH over the speed limit on the streets of America; on the other hand, anyone who merely condones a legal, state-sanctioned abortion on an otherwise-healthy baby is. To me, "looted site" is just a dysphemism for "excavated/explored site". The standards for scientific excavations continue to evolve. To some, Bliss & Macalister looted Shephelah sites for the PEF, yet the fruit of their labor was an immensely important tome cited by excavators worldwide throughout the 20th century & now into the 21st. 22nd-century archeologists might look back with horror & view today's ASOR archeologists as looters, & today's ASOR publications so technically deficient that they're of little value.

    • Anne Swartz
    • April 20, 2013

    One point that occurs to me from reading your piece is the scholarly value of limitations. It is interesting and often quite useful now and in the future (our limitations become someone's future dissertation topic). We are always researching and studying based upon our current knowledge base, which reveals the scope of our project and, usually, the current status of the field.

    • Wayne Woodberry
    • May 3, 2013

    The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice…;

    • Tommy Hudson
    • May 18, 2013

    "Failure to publish" is the elephant in the room. I see no difference between an amateur or professional who:

    A- Excavates a site, removes artifacts and stores them from public virew.

    B- Fails to report or publish the results of said excavation.

    C- Proceeds to brag to his or her peers, through public or private presentation, about A and B mentioned above.

    They are both looters. The worst kind are the ones who hold themselves out as "professional."

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