The Case of the Over Eager Collaborator


An archaeologist working in Arizona is doing research on a site that might help provide evidence for a local Native American group to apply for land claims under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The researcher has to go through a slow process to get landowners to agree to let her dig holes on their land. When a land owner asks her to give her opinion on a number of older-looking pots that he swears he did not dig out of his land, she becomes suspicious.


Part 1

Millie is an archaeologist conducting research in Arizona.  The area where she works contains a number of interesting and under-researched archaeological sites that have the potential to “bridge the gap” between the pre-contact and post-contact past.  As a result, many Native American groups in the area are greatly interested in the outcome of her research, as it has the potential to provide supporting evidence for land claims and cultural affiliation studies important for NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act1).

Millie is doing a broad survey of sites in the area, which includes mapping and conducting test excavations in trash mounds at each site.  The sites are located in a variety of jurisdictions—some on national forest, some on Arizona State Trust Lands, one on Arizona Game and Fish property, and several on private land.  Millie has gone through the appropriate channels to obtain permits to conduct her research on public lands, and must obtain permission from each landowner to conduct research on private lands.  This is a difficult and sometimes painfully slow process, as Millie must convince each landowner of the validity of her research, as well as why they should allow her to dig holes in their site and donate the artifacts that she collects to the state repository.

Millie is unsure of how best to convince landowners to let her excavate on their property.  She realizes that it is crucial to lay out her perspective on archaeological research early on in her relationship with landowners in order to make it clear what can be expected from their relationship.  Millie plans to state clearly that the landowners are legally not obligated to allow her on their property, but doing so would contribute greatly to the understanding of the past in this area.  Millie also wants to highlight the difference between professional archaeological research and pothunting, which appears to be a common activity in the area.  Pothunting irreparably destroys archaeological sites and retains no records of artifacts or their context, and these unauthorized excavations are illegal on public lands under state and federal laws.  While it might be best to hold a large meeting with landowners to explain her research, its importance to the area, and the laws surrounding archaeology and excavations in state and federal contexts, Millie fears that she will not be able to convey fully the excitement she has for her research in such a setting.  Furthermore, meeting with landowners individually rather than as a group would help her make personal connections with each of the landowners and may ultimately speed the process of obtaining permission to excavate from each landowner.


  1. Who are the communities that have an interest and stake in the past?  How do you define these stakeholders in archaeological research?  In this case, are the private landowners the only stakeholders?
  2. Who are the stakeholders that Millie should meet with in preparation for conducting her research?  What steps should Millie take to ensure that both she and the stakeholders get what they expect from their relationship?
  3. How should Millie deal with conflicting viewpoints about the value (or lack thereof) of archaeological research?
  4. In order to get permission to conduct archaeological excavations on private land, should Millie meet with landowners individually or hold a group meeting, or both? Why? What are the benefits of doing it each way?
  5. What can Millie do to prevent illegal excavations at archaeological sites in this area?  What are the benefits of preventing such excavations to her research?  To the archaeological resources?  To her relationship with the community?

Part 2

Early in the research process, one of the landowners that Millie spoke with was very welcoming and granted her permission to conduct excavations and agreed to donate the future collections from his site to the state repository almost immediately after meeting Millie.  Over the course of her research in the area, Millie and the landowner developed a very collegial rapport and Millie utilized the landowner’s connections with the community to gain access to a number of other privately owned sites.  In the interest of maintaining this friendly relationship, Millie kept her relationship with this landowner very simple and flexible, and did not immediately pursue obtaining signed forms allowing her research to take place or specifying that the artifacts she collected would be donated. 

At the end of her first year of fieldwork in the area, Millie went to visit the landowner at his request.  Upon her arrival at his house, the landowner pulled several large whole pottery vessels from his shed to show Millie; he stated he was interested in learning more about the vessels and the information they held about the past.  They had clearly been excavated very recently, as they still had fresh dirt clinging to the sides of the vessels.  When Millie asked the landowner if they had come from the site on his property, he became very evasive and would only tell her that they came from a site in the area.

Based on the late style of the vessels, Millie suspected that they could have only come from one site in the area, which is on national forest land.  A quick inspection of this site revealed several fresh pothunters holes in the trash mound surrounding the site that had not been there the weekend before when she visited.  Furthermore, the location of the pothunters holes and the fact that these vessels were completely intact suggested that they had come from burials, which violated both NAGPRA and the state burial law.  If this was true, the landowner had violated several laws in pothunting these vessels, and destroyed any evidence of their context.

As an archaeologist, Millie felt it was her duty to reinforce her view to the local community that pothunting destroys archaeological sites, even though she had already discussed this in her initial meetings with landowners.  Moreover, if any of the Native American groups in the area, with whom she collaborated on the burial agreement required for her excavations, found out that she had not taken action, she knew she would have difficulty obtaining permission to conduct excavations in the region ever again.  However, taking a stand against her friend, the landowner, would undoubtedly end their friendship, and likely turn most of the community against her and any future archaeologists that wanted to conduct research in the area.


  1. Should Millie have been able to anticipate this situation? Why or why not?
  2. The Society for American Archaeology’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics state that “Whenever possible they [archaeologists] should discourage, and should themselves avoid, activities that enhance the commercial value of archaeological objects, especially objects that are not curated in public institutions, or readily available for scientific study, public interpretation, and display.”  Did Millie do as much as she could to avoid the commercialization of objects from the sites in her study area?
  3. Should Millie take the information she has about the landowner to the state and federal authorities?  If so, how
  4. Should she confront the landowner?  Why or why not?
  5. Should she ignore the situation to preserve her relationship with the local community?  Why or why not?
  6. What are the consequences of these scenarios?  What should Millie’s course of action be?

1NAGPRA is a piece of recent legislation that allows federally recognized Native American tribes to request from museums that sacred objects, funerary objects, and objects of cultural patrimony be given back to them, as long as they can prove cultural affiliation to these items.  Proving cultural affiliation is therefore important to Native American tribes as it gives them increased control over their cultural heritage.

It has only been recently that those who study the past have formally acknowledged that living peoples (other than professionals, and a somewhat general responsibility to “the public,” see Green 1984) have a stake in this research, for example, with the passage in 1990 of NAGPRA.  However, uniform formal guidelines do not exist for negotiating with most of these stakeholders, nor for weighing conflicting interests of various stakeholders. Determining the most appropriate path is often difficult, as was discovered in this case.  Although professional societies, such as the Society of American Archaeology, have formalized codes of ethics, they provide little guidance in ranking the responsibilities of the archaeologist to particular stakeholders (in fact, the SAA code simply urges archaeologists to consult with “affected group(s),” Society of American Archaeology, 2005). However, the ethical code of the American Association of Anthropologists (whose membership includes archaeologists) does state that “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work. These obligations can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge” (American Anthropological Association, 2005).  Note that the code suggests these obligations ‘can’, not ‘must’ supersede the scientific goals.

In the situation presented, responsibility to stakeholders appear to conflict. At first glance, responsibility to local Native American groups require that pot hunting be discouraged and reported, as does responsibility to the conservation of the scientific value of the artifacts, but responsibility to the land owner may include maintaining the friendship as well as providing information regarding the importance of the pots (e.g. to assess their commercial value or to educate himself). However, one could flip these responsibilities entirely, and look at the situation in reverse.  If the landowner doesn’t yet understand the legal consequences of pot hunting, is it not in his best interest to be made aware of them?  However, if the relationship with the landowners is compromised, it may reduce both future access (and thus scientific knowledge) as well as compliance with anti-looting laws (and thus impact Native Americans negatively).

Ideally, preventing the illegal pot-hunting in the first place would have avoided this dilemma. But Millie is not alone in facing difficulties in educating the public. Archaeologists in general have had a difficult time explaining to the public why “context” of recovered artifacts is so important to their interpretation.  This endeavor is further complicated by the fact that, historically, archaeologists and museums themselves have worked with, and purchased, privately collected artifacts even when archaeological context was unclear, and some continue to do so despite multiple codes of ethics that “forbid” it (e.g. see Herscher 2001).  It has been argued that eliminating the market for illegally dug artifacts would eliminate the problem, but this is much easier said than done.  Perhaps more effective is enforcing the laws that punish those who pot hunt (e.g. see Davis 2001). In that light, reporting the pot-hunting in this case may be the more responsible course. It may, of course, reduce the willingness of local land-owners to cooperate with archaeologists for a time, but if the next generation can be educated to recognize the value of scientifically excavated materials then at least the artifacts will still be there for study.  In some cases, leaving material in the ground may be the best course of action, at least temporarily.

There is an additional ethical responsibility that is briefly discussed in this case, regarding the local Native American interest in evidence to support land claims and cultural affiliation. It should be noted that there is evidence of significant movement of Native American populations in prehistory (e.g. Fagan 2005; Malhi et al 2001, 2004), and thus these studies may provide evidence not of continuity, but of change.  In that case, they would not support land claims or cultural affiliation.  In addition, they would presumably contradict the local tribes’ concept of their own history, potentially causing friction between tribal members and between the tribe and archaeologists. Although scientists are supposed to approach their hypothesis testing in an unbiased way, the hypothesis was created to account for existing data and thus must represent the researcher’s best explanation.  Therefore, the tendency to play down alternative conclusions will inevitably exist.  But for truly informed decision making all stakeholders must be made aware of alternative hypotheses.


  • American Anthropological Association. 2005 Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, (accessed Sept. 25, 2005).
  • Davis, Hester A. 2001. “Facing the Crisis of Looting in the United States.” In Neil Asher Silberman and Ernest S. Frerichs (eds), Archaeology and Society in the 21st Century: The Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Case Studies. Israel Exploration Society, Jerusalem. Pg. 155-159.
  • Fagan, Brian M. 2005. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, 4th edit. Thames and Hudson, London.
  • Green, Ernestine L., ed. 1984. Ethics and Values in Archaeology. The Free Press, New York.
  • Herscher, Ellen. 2001. “Destroying the Past in Order to ‘Save’ It: Collecting Antiquities from Cyprus.” In Silberman and Frerichs (eds), Archaeology and Society in the 21st Century. Pg. 138-154.
  • Malhi, Ripan S., Beth A. Schultz Beth A., and David G. Smith. “2001.Distribution of Mitochondrial DNA Lineages among Native American Tribes of Northeastern North America,” Human Biology 73(1):17-55.
  • Malhi, Ripan S., Katherine E. Breece, Beth AS Shook, Frederika A. Kaestle, James C. Chatters, Steven Hackenberger, David G. Smith. 2004. “Patterns of mtDNA Diversity in Northwestern North America.” Human Biology 76(1):33-54.
  • Society for American Archaeology. 2005. Principles of Archaeological Ethics, (accessed Sept. 25, 2005).

Archaeology differs from most social and behavioral sciences in that living peoples are often not the direct subjects of archaeological research, particularly when dealing with the past in North America before European contact.  However, as recent research in the field and this case both demonstrate, archaeologists often must negotiate between several groups of living peoples in order to complete their research in what is becoming an increasingly complex political landscape. Substantial research has gone into exploring the relationship between archaeologists and Native Americans who are the living descendants of the people archaeologists study (Dongoske et al., eds. 2000; Swidler et al., eds. 1997).  While this relationship plays a role in this case study, the main focus is the broader relationship between archaeologists and other groups that have an interest in the past, also called stakeholders in archaeological research.

Every archaeological project has to deal with multiple stakeholders who have varying levels of power and authority over the research itself.  A typical project run by a professor at an American university may have several stakeholders, including the granting agency that provided the funding for the project, the land managing agency or landowner who owns the land upon which the research will be conducted, the university the professor works for, the facility in which the artifacts, notes, and reports from the project will be curated, the Native American groups who claim cultural affiliation with the area of study, the communities local to the area of study, and the archaeologist who is conducting the research.  Some of the relationships between these stakeholders and the archaeological research are codified in law; for example, land managing agencies will only allow research after legally required permits are obtained.  Other relationships are not quite as formalized, such as the relationship between archaeologists and the archaeological record.  While archaeologists do have some legal responsibilities to the archaeological record under state and federal permitting requirements, archaeologists are mostly guided by several codes of ethics developed by professional societies in the discipline (American Anthropological Association 2005; Register of Professional Archaeologists 2005; Society for American Archaeology 2005; World Archaeological Congress 2005).  For the most part, these codes of ethics do not explicitly prohibit specific actions, but instead attempt to encourage archaeologists to think and act responsibly towards the archaeological record.

The Society for American Archaeology’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics is probably referred to the most often when dealing with ethical dilemmas in archaeological research.  However, one of the main pitfalls of the Principles of Archaeological Ethics is the assumption that the scientific value of archaeological research takes precedence over all other ways in which the archaeological record can be valued.  In the case presented here, this system that values archaeological research for its scientific value, under which the protagonist, Millie, operates is pitted directly against other value systems that emphasize the commercial value of artifacts and the less tangible connections that landowners and communities feel to the past through the archaeological record.  Most if not all archaeologists would argue that the scientific value of the archaeological record far outweighs the commercial value, but archaeologists often falter when trying to explain why this is the case to other stakeholders, especially in a way that resonates with the general public.

The situation presented in this case is challenging, as all potential courses of action have negative consequences.  Clearly, Millie initiated her research alongside an effort to educate the local community and the owners of archaeological sites about why archaeologists value the scientific research potential of the archaeological record in order to prevent pothunting from occurring on the archaeological sites in her study area.  However, it is less clear whether Millie adequately took into account other ways that people, specifically landowners, value archaeology.  The landowner in this case had an obvious interest in learning more about the archaeological record, but may have felt that the best way for him to learn was to have a tangible link to the past through artifacts from a site.  Situations like this one are not uncommon in archaeological research, and archaeologists should carefully consider their actions and try to effectively take preventative measures to avoid such value conflicts in their own research.


  • American Anthropological Association 2005 Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association. American Anthropological Association. (accessed July 27, 2005).
  • Dongoske, Kurt E., Mark Aldenderfer, and Karen Doehner, eds. 2000. Working Together: Native Americans and Archaeologists.  The Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C.
  • Register of Professional Archaeologists 2005 Code of Conduct and Standards of Research Performance. Register of Professional Archaeologists, http:// (accessed July 27, 2005).
  • Society for American Archaeology 2005 Principle of Archaeological Ethics. Society for American Archaeology, (accessed July 27, 2005).
  • Swidler, Nina, Kurt E. Dongoske, Roger Anyon, and Alan S. Downer, eds. 1997. Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground.  AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek.
  • World Archaeological Congress 2005 World Archaeological Congress First Code of Ethics, World Archaeological Congress, (accessed July 27, 2005).