ASOR and Archaeological Ethics

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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.

ASOR President Tim Harrison initiated an evaluation of the state of ASOR’s ethics policies early in his term. He convened a small task force to help the Board develop a single, comprehensive ethics policy to replace ASOR’s piecemeal and sometimes competing ethics policies.

Our task force reviewed the past and existing policies and found that, over the years, concerned members and editors had addressed specific problems and sometimes created policies. These now provide ASOR members with a guide for their professional conduct in domains as diverse as (1) Board members avoiding conflicts of interest, (2) plagiarism in publication and access to data, (3) first presentation of artifacts without context at the annual meeting, and (4) affiliation standards for research projects.

Do these topics sound boring or benign? Let me rewrite the same list in a different way: (1) cronyism and filling my pockets at the expense of ASOR’s dues paying members; (2) stealing someone else’s data or ideas and passing them off as my own; (3) clouding my data set with possible fakes; being the first to authenticate an object, so that buyers, sellers and looters, or I profit; (4) undermining public support for archaeology because governments and the public can’t tell me apart from a looter or a loon.

Do I want to be a member of group that has policies for or against these outcomes? If ASOR does not develop policies AGAINST them, then ASOR has a policy that ALLOWS them. As ASOR members, unless we clearly state what our values are, we wonder and argue about what they should be instead of being free to attend to the work of discovery by recovering and interpreting the remains of our shared past.

Much has been done already but there is still more to do. ASOR needs to take an important step and develop a single, comprehensive ethics policy.  We need to fill in several big holes and we need to revise existing policies so that everyone in ASOR is working from the same foundation and so that policies across ASOR aren’t conflicting.

Why does this matter? Why do ethics matter? I can tell you why they matter to me.

In business, I prefer to invest money in companies with a track record of delivering value (not only short-term profits) for their customers based on a published declaration of ethical conduct. I feel that such companies have the interests of their employees and customers in mind as they seek profits. Over the long term, such companies better avoid regulatory entanglements and benefit from greater customer loyalty and trust, and both affect the bottom line. Customers buy-in to such organizations.

I prefer to fund organizations and to write in support of laws that support democratic and humane ideals of governance. Why?  Because two democracies are less likely to go to war (strange but true) and because, if enough of us contribute to improving people’s lives instead of continuing the status quo or even supporting conditions that cause misery, eventually things change.

In my professional life, I prefer to work with scholars who tell the truth about the limits of their data and who think that ethical conduct matters…for them as well as the other person. I prefer to work with studies written by scholars who include only materials that come from established contexts because I feel secure in the dataset being truly ancient (unclouded by possible later copies or by deliberate fakes).

I prefer to pay dues to an organization that demands high standards of its leaders so that it achieves its mission without wasting my dues for frivolous uses or personal gain. I prefer to invest in a professional organization that publishes the best available research and that has guidelines to ensure that authors are reputable scholars with reliable research, clean data sets, and fresh ideas.

What about you? Do you care whether ASOR members produce and publish narratives about the past that you can trust in our journals? Do you care whether ancient objects are ignored and left to languish in storerooms because they come from a looted site? Do you care whether people rip apart ancient contexts and bodies to gather oil lamps for sale in tourist shops? Do you care whether our country’s laws are broken in the pursuit of knowledge?

These are the kinds of questions that we in ASOR should ask ourselves because these things are happening today. We stand at a crossroads. Decisions on what we value will determine ASOR’s future direction and impact.

ASOR’s sister organizations and others are asking themselves these questions, including the Archaeological Institute of America, the Society for American Archaeology, the World Archaeological Congress, the American Institute of Conservation, and the Association of American Museums. Our fellow publications, such as Archaeology Magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review and National Geographic are also public vehicles for their organizational values.

If you do care, if you have an opinion, you are welcome to express it here on the ASOR Blog. Please contribute your thoughtful statements on ASOR’s blog or in the comments area of this ANE Today. If you attend the Annual Meeting in Baltimore in November 2013, you are invited to a “speed ethics” session in which more than a dozen of ASOR’s best and brightest will present their ideas for the future of ASOR’s ethics policy in five minute papers.

But not only that, much of the session is devoted to an open, moderated conversation in which YOU are invited to express your opinion about any aspect of ASOR’s ethics policy, whether in approval or dissent. The title of this session is “The Values of ASOR: Developing a Comprehensive Ethics Policy.”

This policy is not written yet. You can contribute to the process and contribute to the changes you want to see in ASOR.

Lynn Swartz Dodd is Lecturer and Curator of the University of Southern California Archaeology Research Center. She is also ASOR Secretary and a member of the Executive Committee.


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5 Comments for : ASOR and Archaeological Ethics
  1. 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. 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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