Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

Question ethics and professional behaviour

Ehthics in archaeology: what is right or wrong?

Disturbing archaeological sites without approval is vandalism.

Heritage sites like historic buildings, shipwrecks and relics are protected by laws. These laws are there to make sure people respect their age and values.

They make sure that:

  • anything that will disturb a site, like an archaeological excavation, is carefully planned
  • people cannot excavate a site without a good research reason
  • or without expert trained people on their team
  • an archaeologist is able to write up his/her results and care for any artefacts they recover
  • the information be available for all to share in, through reports, books, signs, displays and exhibitions. This is also true where developments, such as the building of roads, an office tower or marina, might impact on an archaeological site.

Historians and other scientists must also have proper training before their work is recognised and approved.

Who owns the past?

The information obtained by these experts is for all to share. The stories of the past that they uncover are part of our story - the history of our area, our country and our world.

However, sometimes others own the sites that archaeologists investigate, such as buried remains and shipwrecks. This is most common where a site is located on someone's private land, or that they still retain title or ownership rights to.

Here it is important that the archaeologist, landowner or local resident groups work together in the proper care of these rare and fragile sites.

It is also important to respect the country and local people if you are working on an overseas archaeological project. The remains are also part of their history and culture.

Sometimes the work of an archaeologist can cause conflict.

This is especially so if human remains are uncovered in their work. Archaeologists and others are very careful to respect human remains and various guides have been written to make sure that any disturbance is justified, follows local laws and does not disrespect local customs and beliefs.

It is important to contact next of kin (family or descendants) and to ensure that all recording and analysis of the remains is conducted with respect.

To find out more about what archaeologists consider being good standards of behaviour, you can look at their Codes of Practice (AIMACodeofEthics.pdf, 19KB).

Page last updated: 31 August 2012