Ethics of Commercial Archaeology: USA

  • Thomas F. KingEmail author
Living reference work entry


Once upon a time, most archaeologists were employed by academic institutions and museums. Today in the United States and other countries, most archaeologists – and many historians, architectural historians, historical architects, and a few cultural anthropologists and geographers – are employed by profit-making commercial companies engaged in work on behalf of government agencies and private development interests. Working in this context can present ethical challenges for which many archaeologists (among others) are ill prepared.


As used here, “commercial archaeology” means archaeology conducted by profit-making commercial entities such as consulting firms. Some such firms are purely archaeological in character; others work more broadly with “heritage” or “cultural resources,” variously defined. Others are more generalized still, engaging in broad-scoped environmental impact assessment (EIA). Many are architect/engineer firms organized to support the design, construction, and operation of dams and reservoirs, pipelines, energy production schemes, irrigation and agriculture programs, mineral extraction, logging, protected area management, housing schemes, urban development, military base management, and other rearrangements of the earth’s surface to accommodate perceived modern human needs. A few specialize in the recovery of commercially valuable objects from shipwrecks and similar contexts.

“Ethics” as used here refers to the moral principles governing or guiding an individual or group – in this case archaeologists who practice in commercial contexts.

Key Issues/Current Debates

Although there have been commercial aspects to archaeology since the field’s inception (see, e.g., the wheeling and dealing in early Egyptology documented by Noel Hume (2011)), the development of a self-consciously commercial archaeology sector began in the 1970s, at least in the United States. This sector arose in response to the enactment of laws requiring EIA (notably the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969) and providing for special attention to be paid to historic places including archaeological sites (notably Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966). Agencies of the US government, and by extension those seeking financial assistance or permits from such agencies, now (in theory) had to ascertain what impacts their planned actions might have on archaeological sites, among other aspects of the environment, and they often had to do things – like excavation of such sites – to avoid, reduce, or otherwise mitigate project impacts. These requirements created a market for archaeological survey and excavation that quickly became too big for the universities and museums to satisfy. Moreover, agency planning schedules could not easily accommodate the leisurely pace of academic-/museum-based archaeological research and often required that attention be paid to places and research problems in which academic- and museum-based archaeologists had little interest. As a result, the traditional archaeological institutions tended (and tend) to disdain commercial work. The commercial archaeology sector arose to fill the gap.

In 1979, a debate between James Fitting and Albert Goodyear in the Journal of Field Archaeology highlighted the central ethical issue that confronts commercial archaeologists: Whose interests are they to serve? Fitting, an early lion in the field, argued that the commercial archaeologist’s primary obligations are to his or her client. Commercial archaeology, he said, must be “client oriented” and is incompatible with the academic model of archaeology as knowledge production. Goodyear, based in an academic research institute, warned that client-oriented archaeology tempts archaeologists to “write off” sites that lie in the way of a client’s project, as “a profit- maximizing strategy that minimizes the costs of field work, analysis, and writing, and.. can engender a good business relationship with clients” (Fitting and Goodyear 1979: 355).

It should be noted that neither Fitting nor Goodyear expressed interest or concern for the value an archaeological site (or other piece of “heritage”) may have for purposes other than archaeological research. This was characteristic of the times.

As commercial archaeology has developed, Fitting’s model has been implicitly accepted by virtually everyone. Like it or not, commercial archaeology is not directed toward learning about the past for its own sake, for the sake of scientific and humanistic research, for sustaining a community’s heritage, or even for the sake of enlightening and entertaining the public. Rather, it is directed toward compliance with laws and regulations that government agencies enforce with widely varying degrees of rigor and intelligence and that clients typically regard as costly nuisances. Archaeologists and their historical, architectural, anthropological, and geographic colleagues must perforce orient their work with reference to – though not necessarily in sympathy with – their clients’ interests and needs.

This results in a range of common ethical dilemmas. For instance, what is the ethical course of action for an archaeologist in each of the following cases?
  1. 1.

    The client’s project will destroy a number of archaeological sites. The archaeologist is charged with evaluating them. If she evaluates them as significant, it will be costly for the client, who will be expected by government regulators to protect them or subject them to expensive, time-consuming excavation. The client may well fire the archaeologist and hire another who will say the sites are not significant. How should she evaluate the sites?

  2. 2.

    The client needs for surveys of potentially threatened sites to be done quickly, in order to meet project planning and financing schedules. The client also wants the work to be done as inexpensively as possible. The archaeologist thinks that the nature of the area and its sites demand more time-consuming and costly studies. The archaeologist stands to gain financially from conducting such studies. What should he propose and how?

  3. 3.

    The client’s project will destroy places – maybe archaeological sites but perhaps simply natural landscapes (such as mountains or rivers) or landscape features like rock outcroppings or groves of trees – to which a local community may ascribe cultural or spiritual significance. The community is not skilled in interpreting the environmental and historic preservation laws. The client feels no obligation to attend to the community’s interests and expects the r archaeologist to concern herself only with places that she, the archaeologist, thinks have research value. What should the archaeologist do?

  4. 4.

    The client’s project will destroy places – maybe archaeological sites, maybe indigenous spiritual places, and maybe historic buildings, landscapes, or whole communities – in whose evaluation and management the archaeologist has no expertise. The client expects the archaeologist, as their cultural heritage expert, to help them solve whatever problems these places present for the project, despite the archaeologist’s lack of qualifications to do so. How should the archaeologist respond?

  5. 5.

    The client’s project will destroy archaeological sites that could be preserved in place for perpetuity, but excavating them will simplify the client’s development. The client is willing to pay well for the excavation, which itself will destroy the sites. Should the archaeologist agree to excavate the sites or argue for their preservation?

  6. 6.

    The client funds an expensive excavation that produces a large collection of objects and records. No nearby institution is equipped to care for this collection in perpetuity. The client plans to sell the collection after analysis and reportage is complete. Assume that no law forbids this. How should the archaeologist respond to the client’s plan?

  7. 7.

    Or the client negotiates an arrangement with the putative descendants of a 4000-year-old site’s residents to rebury everything excavated, without analysis and reportage. Again, assume that no law forbids this. Should the archaeologist, who will be paid well to do so, excavate the site?


These are only a few simplified examples of the ethical conundrums that commercial archaeologists routinely face; there are many others and many permutations on each. There are often no obviously right or wrong answers.

Many such conundrums result simply from the economic relationship between the client and the commercial archaeologist. As long as clients hire, and hence can fire, commercial archaeologists, it will be difficult if not impossible for archaeologists to adhere to ethical standards that do not very powerfully take the client’s priorities into account. Some (like Fitting) argue that the commercial archaeologist is ethically obligated to accept and seek to advance the client’s interests, as a member of the client’s team. Others (like Goodyear) propose that the commercial archaeologist’s core ethical obligation is to archaeological resources themselves – to sites, to their contents, and to the information they contain. Still others hold that one’s primary obligation is to descendant or putatively descendant communities, where they exist, or more generally to the public interest, which may have many facets and internal contradictions. Ethical codes promulgated by archaeological organizations (cf. Register of Professional Archaeologists n.d.) provide only generalized guidance and affect only archaeologists willing to accept them; they have no effect on clients. In the end, they who pay the piper call the tune, and in commercial archaeology, it is the client who pays the piper. Some question whether this is a good model for archaeological – or more broadly for cultural or environmental – resource management (cf. King 2009), but as of 2017, it is the model with which commercial archaeologists work.



  1. Fitting, J.E., and A.C. Goodyear. 1979. Client-oriented archaeology: An exchange of views. Journal of Field Archaeology 6: 352–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. King, T.F. 2009. Our unprotected heritage: Whitewashing destruction of our natural and cultural environment. Walnut Creek: Left Coast.Google Scholar
  3. Noel-Hume, I. 2011. Belzoni: The giant archaeologists love to hate. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.Google Scholar
  4. Register of Professional Archaeologists. n.d. Codes and standards. Available at: Accessed 1 Apr 2017.

Further Reading

  1. Garrow, P.H. 1993. Ethics and contract archaeology. Practicing Anthropology 15 (3): 10–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. King, T.F. 1983. Professional responsibility in public archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 12: 143–164. Available at: Accessed 1 Apr 2017.
  3. Stapp, D.C., and J. Longnecker. 2009. Avoiding archaeological disasters: Risk management for heritage professionals. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
  4. U.S. National Park Service. n.d. Archeology law and ethics. Available at: Accessed 1 Apr 2017.

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Silver SpringUSA