Manataka American Indian Council






Look Who's Digging Up 

Grandma's Bones

By Lee Standing Bear Moore and Takatoka


A survey by the Center of Archaeology in the Public Interest at the University of Indiana reveals some interesting attitudes and shocking revelations about the people who call themselves ethical and professional archaeologists. 

The survey entitled, "A Survey of Attitudes and Values in Archaeological Practice" polled members of four professional archaeologist organizations and was conducted by the Ethics and Values Studies of the National Science Foundation, the Center for Archaeology in the Public Interest at Indiana University.  747 members of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), and Society of Professional Archaeologists (SOPA) were surveyed.

The purpose of the survey was to gather information about attitudes toward preservation and relationships between archaeologists and the communities where they do fieldwork.  The authors of the university survey were interested to find out what positive ideals and values archaeologists practice.  The surveyors said the return rate of questionnaire was "phenomenally high" indicating that archaeologists are eager to express their opinions.

Surveyors said 42.5% of the respondents "live in an area" with a substantial and visible Native American, Alaskan Native, or Native Hawaiian population.  However, the 1994 survey does not ask how many "work in an area" with a substantially indigenous population. That question was omitted maybe because the vast majority do not work with anything but indigenous artifacts and diggings.

More than half the respondents have dug in places like Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Belize, Ecuador and Honduras.  38% had conducted field research on lands still belonging to native peoples in North America.  48% had worked to draft or enforce laws concerning archaeological or cultural property protection, and 42% had been directly involved in repatriation or reburial of human remains or artifacts.  We will talk more about these statistics later.

A long series of questions were asked about the actions they should take in their research and their relationship with host communities.  Responses were ranked on a 5-point scale with the following values: obligatory, recommended, optional, unnecessary, to be avoided or discouraged, and no judgment.  

What they don't know won't hurt them...

Archaeologists were asked if they should locate and consult with the "cultural descendants" of those [American Indians] who created a site about how they want it treated.  Nearly a third said this practice was unnecessary or optional.

Local oversight is another important part of host relationships that archaeologists do not appear to be keen about.  50% of archaeologists surveyed said asking permission from communities " before" seeking a permit is optional or  unnecessary, to be avoided, or they had no judgment on the issue.

Respondents were asked if archaeologists should allow on-site monitoring of excavation proceedings by representatives of the descendants of those who created the site being excavated?"  Only 20% found this practice obligatory.  37% found it optional or unnecessary.  The pollsters did not report how the other 43% felt about allowing American Indians to watch what they are doing.  

Authors of the survey said archaeologists felt there is a problem of establishing the legitimacy of "cultural descendants" or "representatives of descendants."  We suppose archaeologists would have a problem with this when only small percentage of them feel they are obligated to respect the concerns of descendents.  

This same attitude was further defined when archaeologists were asked if they should make certain a site is not "sacred" to any group in advance of excavation.  A full 40% saw it as optional, unnecessary or it should be avoided or discouraged.

Wonder how their attitudes would change if it were their grandma's bones being dug up?


What law breakers?...We don't see any law breakers!

53% of the archaeologists surveyed felt reporting violations of permit or antiquities laws by local people to appropriate authorities was not obligatory or unnecessary.  The survey also reported that 74% belong to or advise nonacademic local or amateur archaeological groups.  


Does this mean that archaeologists make it a practice to have local groups do their dirty work and then turn their heads when the groups of which they are members break the law?  Sure seems like it.


What money?... We don't see any money!

When the survey staff asked if archaeologists should make the financial records of their field projects a matter of public record, the response was an overwhelming no.  Only 4% said it was obligatory and 80% said it was unnecessary or to be avoided.  


According to the surveyors, "Given that a great deal of research is done with public money, this reluctance to disclose financial accounts may have serious implications." 


What sex?... We don't see any sex!

Survey takers were interested to find out the opinions of archaeologists on the issue of how should archaeological crews conduct themselves in the field.  

This raises the touchy question of who should define acceptable conduct. People were generally unwilling to judge whether archaeologists should forbid students and staff to have sexual liaisons with members of the local community.  Only 31% thought forbidding sex with local community members should be recommended or required.  A scant 6% thought that such a prohibition should not be made. 

However, 69% said that discussing local culture and local moral standards with students and staff before a field project begins should be obligatory and 20% felt it was obligatory to do the reverse -- to discuss the permissible conduct of project members with local leaders in advance.

It seems to us if archaeologists were concerned about respecting local standards they would rely on the community to make this decision.  But, when 50% of archaeologists surveyed do not ask permission from communities before seeking a permit, how can they understand and respect local spiritual and cultural values?


What artifacts?... We don't see any artifacts!

When asked if archaeologists should verify the authenticity of artifacts housed in a reputable museum, 42% said this practice was optional or unnecessary.  At the same time, a whopping 86% said the practice of placing a value on artifacts held by museums for insurance purposes  was unnecessary or something they would avoid .  


"This difference raises some interesting questions about the intimate relationship between the value of artifacts and their authenticity,"  the authors of the survey said.   


A majority of archaeologists say they are not responsible to verify the authenticity of artifacts they presumably have dug up and they are not responsible for determining the value of them either.   Wow!  Wouldn't it be nice if we could all get paid to work in a vacuum.  Or is it not a vacuum but a tightly controlled market in American Indian artifacts?  


It is interesting to note that a 92% of archaeologists overwhelmingly disapproved of the practice of buying artifacts that are uniquely important specimens essential for study.   Why is this is so important to them?  You be the judge.


What exactly is the relationship between archaeologists, museums, and collectors? Archaeologists and their employers, usually the federal government and universities, are at the top of the 'supply side' of the unquenchable thirst of museums and collectors for new artifacts.  

Other interesting points of the survey:


48% found it optional or unnecessary that archaeologists should spend 20% of their professional time on public outreach and education.  Only 8% said it should be obligatory. 

Only 16% of archaeologist said the project director's name should be listed as coauthor on every publication that results directly from a field project.  University researchers correctly point out that  "...This indicates that more discussion of the ethics of authorship may be warranted within the profession."

One survey question asked if archaeologists should accept sponsorship for excavation from a major corporation that has a poor reputation for treatment of workers and the environment.  A majority of 60% either recommended accepting such sponsorship or felt it was optional or unnecessary. 

The survey report points out that archaeologists are often employers of unskilled laborers and they asked archaeologists how should they deal with their workers.  Should they  negotiate formal contracts or labor agreements with workers?  31% said formal contracts and labor agreements was optional or unnecessary.  Moreover, 42% said it was optional or unnecessary for them to preferentially hire people from local communities as laborers.


Indiana university researchers began the summary of their report by saying that "In general, stewardship is a strongly embedded value among those who responded to this questionnaire."  We ask stewardship to what?  The dominant academic culture? Or to the economics of trade in American Indian artifacts?    

To their credit, researchers point out, "...there was a clear divergence of opinions on other aspects of community involvement in archaeology. The most controversial issues include whether archaeologists should consult with groups that have a cultural affinity to a site, report violations of permit or antiquities laws by local people, use formal contracts when hiring local workers, give preference to local archaeologists when hiring or seeking collaborators, monitor the crews' sexual behavior, or publish reports when local entities object to the contents..." 

We could not agree with authors of the survey more when they say, "... [The] preliminary results nicely portray the profession as a whole... Archaeology is in an obvious state of change..."   

Powerful and rich archaeology interests have successfully lobbied Congress for years to keep enforcement of the American Indian Grave Preservation and Repatriation Act to a minimum.  Budgets have been cut year after year and loop-holes created.  Nothing has changed since the time early settlers began robbing the graves of our grandmothers and grandfathers.  Except now these same types now have a fancy name for their profession and they have become very sophisticated and politically astute.  

The implications of this survey is a slap in the face of every American Indian.  This should serve as a wake up call -- we have now seen the whites of their eyes and we have looked into their hearts by their own words.  Tribal leaders and all American Indians should no longer be fooled by the fast-talking, so-called ethical and professional archaeologists.  

A few bad apples can spoil the barrel.  It seems to us this barrel is getting very rotten. 

Yes, we are grateful for those archaeologists who do present themselves in a respectful way. We thank those who feel it is mandatory to consult with indigenous people before digging and allow the descendants of those who created the site or their representatives to monitor the site of a digging.  We are especially gratified by those archaeologists who first consider the 'sacred' nature of not only grave sites, but other spiritually energized areas of our Earth Mother that need protection and not exploitation. 

Unlike the dominant culture of today who have no sacred sites on this continent, American Indian sacred places are numerous -- some kept secret for hundreds of years.  We ask archaeologists not to seek out these places, but to satisfy yourselves with all that you do have now.   We beg you to leave the bones of grandma alone.  Please.  



Julie Zimmer, Richard Wilk, and Anne Pyburn are with the Center for Archaeology in the Public Interest at Indiana University.



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