Ethical Archaeologies: The Politics of Social Justice
‘Ethics’ is an entanglement of intent and practice usually presented as having a foundation of moral absolutes. Archaeology works across time, space and culture constructively and materially to question parts of this foundation and to suggest alternative best praxis. The field is no longer an imperial and androcentric pastime practiced by European dilettantes with shared, if questionable ‘values’. Indeed, the discipline has never been more diverse in terms of practitioners and communities impacted by archaeological work. But ‘values’ are not stable entities and are often used to justify and naturalise specific social orders and inequalities. Archaeology is now at a point where it can collectively look back on its history and provide a timely critique of itself. Looking forward, it can make steps to atone for its colonial and practice-wise complicity by setting up key dialogues and inquiries between people, places, objects and events. For example, is ‘looting’ ancient artefacts in order to feed one’s family ethical? How is excavation – a destructive technique – ever justified? Is modern Indigenous re-use of artefacts, places and symbols best understood as cultural appropriation or cultural continuation?
Responses to such questions are seldom absolute, but neither need they be debilitatingly relativistic. By adopting a global coverage that pairs cutting-edge theory with detailed case studies to highlight successful archaeologies as well as lacunae and failed but instructive projects, brings to light the ethical best practices. Archaeologists have multiple, concatenated social responsibilities to people past, present and future, as well as material responsibilities to the archaeological ‘record’ and the institutions that govern that record. Ethical Archaeologies would draw from established and emergent expertise and experience in southern and northern hemispheres to constitute a pre-eminent locus for the discussion and dissemination of past and contemporary thought on ethics in the practice of archaeology and related fields such as anthropology, museology, indigenous studies, law, education, heritage management and tourism.
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