SHA Ethics Toolbox

See also: SHA Sexual Harassment Discrimination Policy

Ethical behavior is a goal, but like all goals, faces challenges. The following are seven tips on how to meet the SHA’s seven Ethics Principles Standards.

Principle 1. Treat your colleagues with respect and recognize and cite their research.  While you may not agree with a theory, present your disagreement in a professional, not personal, tone.

Principle 2. Always consider the long-term best interests of the site, not yourself, in your decisions.  If avoidance and site preservation is a viable option to excavation, it should be pursued.

Principle 3.  Always write as you work.  Detailed notes and summary reports are good tools to provide the building blocks for reports on projects that run multiple seasons.  We SHA recommends that a summary report be prepared for each season of fieldwork.  Also, if you change employment, you still may have an obligation to your former employer to make certain the results of your excavations are written and reported.  There is nothing more tragic in archaeology than an unreported site excavation.

Principle 4.  Archaeology is like doing detective work where you can only interview suspects one time.  Once you excavate a unit or feature, you have destroyed the information it contains.  Take detailed notes and records for the benefit of future researchers.  You also have a responsibility to make certain the collections are properly analyzed and curated so they are available to other researchers.

Principle 5.  Archaeological sites are not the possessions of archaeologists; they are part of our common heritage and may be considered sites to belong to the people whose ancestors produced them. Archaeological sites are not the possessions of archaeologists, they belong to the people whose descendants lived and produced them.  Always treat descendant communities with respect, inform them of your findings, and try to engage them in your work.

Principle 6.  Avoid assigning a monetary value to artifacts and stress that the value of artifacts comes from the information they can provide about the past.  If members of the media persist in asking you, “What is the most valuable artifact you have found?”, try answering, “People didn’t throw away gold and silver, but broken dishes and fragments of bottles tell me about their lives, which is what I value in an artifact.”  However, in situations where a commercial value is required for legal or regulatory actions, such as an ARPA violation, it is appropriate to assign a value.

Principle 7.  We all have an obligation to let the public know what we are doing and the value of archaeology.  If you are on a compliance project where there is no budget for public outreach, you should still make timefind a way for to answer questions from the public.  One option is to make signs that describe what you are doing and why so the public can still be informed if your schedule and budget don’t allow time to answer questions.


A good way to think and work ethically is to consider the ethical standards used by other professional associations.  The Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) promotes the professional and ethical conduct of archaeologists and offers both a Code of Conduct and Standards of Research Performance.  The SHA is a partner organization of the RPA and all members are encouraged to comply with RPA’s standards (

Sharon Stoeger’s page, Ethics in Anthropology, provides links to ethics statements and reports from the American Anthropological Association, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the American Cultural Resources Association, the American Folklore Society, the Archaeological Institute of America, the European Association of Archaeologists, the International Council of Museums, the National Association for the Practices of Anthropology, the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Applied Anthropology, the SHA, and the World Archaeological Congress, as well as others, and is a great resource.  (

For best practices and ethics that relate to underwater resources, please visit the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (, and the ACUA Underwater Archaeology Ethics Press kit (, The Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (, and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage Annex ( .

For the treatment of artifacts and collections, please visit the American Association of Museums (