In This Chapter

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Chapter Summary

  • The past has different meanings for different people, and often personal identity is defined by the past. Increasingly archaeology is playing a role in the definition of national identity where the past is used to legitimize the present by reinforcing a sense of national greatness. Ethnicity, which is just as strong a force today as in earlier times, relies upon the past for legitimization as well, sometimes with destructive consequences.
  • Ethics is the science of what is right and wrong, or morality, and most branches of archaeology are seen to have an ethical dimension. Until recent decades archaeologists gave little thought to such questions as "who owns the past?" Now every archaeological decision should take ethical concerns into account.
  • We cannot simply dismiss the alternative theories of fringe archaeology as farcical, because they have been so widely believed. Anyone who has read this book, and who understands how archaeology proceeds, will already see why such writings are a delusion. The real antidote is a kind of healthy skepticism: to ask "where is the evidence?" Knowledge advances by asking questions—that is the central theme of this book, and there is no better way to disperse the lunatic fringe than by asking difficult questions, and looking skeptically at the answers.
  • The archaeology of every land has its own contribution to make to the understanding of human diversity and hence of the human condition. Although earlier scholars behaved with flagrant disregard for the feelings and beliefs of native peoples, interest in these matters today is not an attempt further to appropriate the native past.
  • Perhaps the saddest type of archaeological destruction comes from the looting of sites. Through this act, all information is destroyed in the search for highly salable artifacts. Museums and collectors bear some of the responsibility for this. Museums are also under increasing pressure to return antiquities to their lands of origin. Police now consider the theft and smuggling of art and antiquities to be second in scale only to the drug trade in the world of international crime.

Key Concepts

The Archaeology of Identity

Identity, p.549

Archaeological Ethics

Ethics, p.551

Popular Archaeology versus Pseudoarchaeology

Pseudoarchaeology, p.554
Piltdown Man, p.554
Atlantis, pp.554–55
Archaeological fraud, p.555

Who Owns the Past?

The Elgin Marbles, pp.556–57
Repatriation, pp.557–59
NAGPRA, p.558
Kennewick Man, p.558

Underwater Heritage

Protecting underwater cultural heritage, pp.559–60

The Responsibility of Collectors and Museums

Illegal antiquities, p.560
Looters, p.560