The Ethics of Archaeology

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   December 20, 2018

It has always seemed puzzling to me that in some situations we have great respect for the dead, while in others we couldn’t care less. In general, the determining factor seems to be time. The more recently dead you are, the more you can expect to be handled with care, and referred to with some consideration for your feelings, even if you no longer have any. Archeologists (if you will pardon the expression) seem to make no bones about digging up people who in many cases were obviously buried with great care by grieving loved ones. They often put on public display not only the skeletal remains of the deceased but the objects which were lovingly placed in their graves – a child’s toys, a man’s tools, a woman’s looking-glass. Particularly touching to me are the small lachrymal containers which held some tears of the mourners.

And of course, the most elaborate tombs, whether in Egypt or Mexico, Cambodia or China, have been diminished, or if you like, elevated, to the status of major tourist attractions.

But is this right? What justification have we for disturbing the dead, even in the name of Science? And how much has legitimate Science really advanced thereby anyway? Modern cemeteries are sacrosanct. Any interference with their grounds or markers or inhabitants is considered desecration – even if the remains have been reduced to a few ashes in an urn. Even Robert Ballard, who exhumed, so to speak, the corpse of the Titanic, which sank only a century ago, seems to have had some twinges of conscience about profaning a maritime sepulcher of such recent vintage.

And where does religion fit into all this? Every culture has its funerary rites, and, as is well known, the ancient Egyptians, among many other peoples, believed in a very real after-life, for which they might be provided with well-stocked tombs (thereby ensuring a livelihood for whole generations of grave-robbers).

And then there is the curious custom of making wills – by which the dead attempt to influence the living, and the living, with remarkable concurrence, feel bound to honor the wishes of the dead. To lawyers, this makes a great deal of sense (and dollars) – but in purely practical terms, there is no reason why what was once referred to as the “Dead Hand” of those now permanently absent should in any way control the activities of the living. This may be one reason for the biblical tradition of observing a regular cyclical period (in the Bible, it was 50 years) at the end of which, the year of “Jubilee,” all debts would be forgiven, and all slaves and prisoners freed. In effect, it meant a starting afresh – or what we might now call a “re-set.” This at least put a limit on the extent to which the Past could maintain a strangle-hold on the Present.

However, for better or worse, in our culture of today we hallow no such sensible system, even though, in what is still our most popular prayer, we ask the Lord to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Of course, if this were taken literally, the whole structure of Capitalism would collapse.

But, getting back to Archaeology, the chief ethical concern that it seems to generate in our world is not the question of whether or not antiquity should be dug up, but of who can claim it, and what should be done with it, once it does re-emerge. The salvaging of shipwrecks loaded with treasure has been a notoriously fertile field for such controversies, sometimes involving states and governments which didn’t even exist at the time the ship was lost. How, for example, can modern Spain claim any rights to the contents of Spanish galleons which may have gone down in the 16th century, and which were discovered and salvaged by enterprising maritime treasure-hunters with no Hispanic connection whatsoever?

Nevertheless, let me not, in closing, appear to have been making light of the profoundly mysterious relationship between those conditions we call “Life” and “Non-life.” There are those who still take very seriously the idea that this world (if not the next) will still exist when they are gone.

And the epitaph on Shakespeare’s grave (whoever wrote it) is still worth bearing in mind, when we consider the ethics of archaeology:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.


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