The Visual Ethics of Archaeology

Last month I presented at the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) annual conference in Philadelphia as part of the session, “End/s, ethics, and images: A roundtable discussion on visual ethics”, co-organised by Jonathan Marion and myself. This is the third consecutive year during which I’ve participated in these Society for Visual Anthropology-sponsored events on visual ethics, and I continue to find them fascinating not only because they’ve stimulated a variety of related discussions and outputs (e.g., see April 2009 issue of Anthropology News; Perry 2008), but because they bring together practitioners from across the discipline of anthropology and, in so doing, juxtapose our varying experiences in managing ethical concerns related to visualisation.

Screenshot of slide from my AAA presentation, December 2009

Since 2007, I’ve presented alongside applied anthropologists, primatologists, filmmakers, cultural anthropologists, specialists working in the private sector, and many others. Such a juxtaposition of perspectives is worth probing, not least because, as an archaeologist, perhaps the most persistent issue that’s been broached with me through these sessions is the notion that archaeology doesn’t have to deal with visual ethics in the way that cultural anthropology does. What seems to be presenting itself here is a fairly general assumption that archaeologists, in attending to matters of the past (as opposed to the ‘living present’), therefore tread ethically-neutral territory.  Such an assumption is something that I think we need to challenge. This is not a new debate, but it is clearly still in need of discussion and deconstruction, if only because of the frequency with which such claims of ethical ‘impartiality’ in archaeology appear to me to arise.

The reality is that every archaeologist deals with living people and current affairs, and, indeed, many archaeologists focus their research specifically on matters of the recent and contemporary past wherein existing populations are immediately caught up in the enquiry. More than this, however, to relegate ethics to the realm of the present, as though it has no relevance to history or prehistory, seems to me to be an incredibly problematic (not to mention misconceived) definition of the term. We produce images of people, about people, using data derived from current and past people; we display products made by people, implicating people, evoking, provoking or purposely discounting people; our visual representations, as such, have effects on people, including ourselves. A pie chart can have repercussions for human beings (as Dragga and Voss 2001 have shown in their analysis of technical illustration), as can a photograph, a map, a drawing, a table or diagram, a YouTube video, or the 3D presentation of someone’s heritage.

Recognition of these repercussions, especially in terms of the display of human remains, has led to the development of various statements of ethics in archaeology, including the World Archaeological CongressTamaki Makau-rau Accord on the Display of Human Remains and Sacred Objects, and, more recently, the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project’s Ethics Statement.

In archaeology, though, I do think we need to push this discussion of visual ethics beyond the issue of the presentation of human remains (as, indeed, I understand the Dilmun team are aiming to do), given that what’s at stake are broader concerns of accountability, responsibility, social justice, authorship, rigour, specificity, critical visual literacy, and overall skilled training in image production and circulation. These are matters common and significant to all forms and subjects of visual representation and to all who make, circulate and consume such representation.  In this respect, archaeologists and archaeological images are certainly no exception.


Dragga, S., and Voss, D. 2001. Cruel pies: The inhumanity of technical illustrations. Technical Communication 48(3):265-274.

Perry, S. 2008. Please pass the compass:  Visual anthropologists negotiate the ethical dimensions of their datasets. Anthropology News 49(8): 66.

3 thoughts on “The Visual Ethics of Archaeology

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