A comment on the WAC code of ethics

22nd May 2014

Malcolm McKay


The proposal to make the World Archaeological Congress code of ethics binding for all AAA members is a matter of some concern, especially as the issues of intellectual freedom and limits on scientific inquiry appear to have received little thought. Prior discussing the individual conditions I would like to examine what I see as the two basic assumptions that underly the code.

The first assumption, although in the terms in which it is expressed it might well be called an exhortation, is that archaeologists cannot separate themselves from the social and political conditions which surround them. It would be a very brave scholar indeed who claimed that they were totally objective and free from extraneous influences. But because it is nearly impossible to achieve this absolute detachment of the intellect, it is still no excuse for not trying to be as objective as one can. To suggest that an ideologically correct awareness of the present situation of indigenous people will make our work better or more accurate is a nonsense. We are archaeologists and our subject is the past. Anything we understand of the present political condition of indigenous people, while it might give a chance to help remedy existing injustice, is of no use to our discipline. This is because all the events of the past, all the good and all the evil, and all the permutations of human behaviour that lie in between cannot be effected in any manner by us. As archaeologists our contribution lies in our ability to investigate the past though its material remains and to present these data so that others may understand them. If we wish to address current social problems then we must ensure that however righteous our anger, it is not able to cloud our understanding of the past where social conditions were probably quite different, and where present conditions are irrelevant. We carry enough unavoidable intellectual and social preconditioning with us in our work. It seems irresponsible deliberately to acquire another set of preconditions, especially those as ephemeral as current political conditions, and carry thus into our work.

*Note that an abstract was not included with this paper, and so the introductory paragraph has been included here instead of the abstract.

McKay, M.
A comment on the WAC code of ethics
December 1993
Short Report
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