The fusion of law and ethics in cultural heritage management: The 21st century confronts archaeology

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The fusion of law and ethics in cultural heritage management: The 21st century confronts archaeology

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Journal of Field Archaeology


Soderland, Hilary A. and Lilley, Ian A.

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Taylor and Francis Online




Abstract: Archaeologists around the world face complex ethical dilemmas that defy easy solutions. Ethics and law entwine, yet jurisprudence endures as the global praxis for guidance and result. Global legal norms articulate ‘legal rights’ and obligations while codes of professional conduct articulate ‘ethical rights’ and obligations. This article underscores how a rights discourse has shaped the 20th century discipline and practice of archaeology across the globe, including in the design and execution of projects like those discussed in the Journal of Field Archaeology. It illustrates how both law and ethics have been, and still are, viewed as two distinct solution-driven approaches that, even when out of sync, are the predominant frameworks that affect archaeologists in the field and more generally. While both law and ethics are influenced by social mores, public policy, and political objectives, each too often in cultural heritage debates has been considered a separate remedy. For archaeology, there remains the tendency to turn to law for a definite response when ethical solutions prove elusive.

As contemporary society becomes increasingly interconnected and the geo-political reality of the 21st century poses new threats to protecting archaeological sites and the integrity of the archaeological record during armed conflict and insurgency, law has fallen short or has lacked necessary enforcement mechanisms to address on-the-ground realities. A changing global order shaped by human rights, Indigenous heritage, legal pluralism, neo-colonialism, development, diplomacy, and emerging non-State actors directs the 21st century policies that shape laws and ethics. Archaeologists in the field today work within a nexus of domestic and international laws and regulations and must navigate increasingly complex ethical situations. Thus, a critical challenge is to realign approaches to current dilemmas facing archaeology in a way that unifies the ‘legal’ and the ‘ethical’ with a focus on human rights and principles of equity and justice. With examples from around the world, this article considers how law and ethics affect professional practice and demonstrates how engagement with law and awareness of ethics are pivotal to archaeologists in the field.


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