Towards an Ethical Archaeology

Post by Courtney Eastman, PSU undergraduate and Archaeology Lab Intern

This winter quarter I worked with another lab intern to begin cataloging and digging through archaeological collections in the sub-basement of the university. The majority of these collections were excavated between 1960 and 1980, and contain no inventory lists, no site information, and little or no provenience information. While doing a preliminary survey, we discovered boxes of material from the Oregon coast, Ecuadorian baskets, and a singular box of medieval roman artifacts.  We did a thorough inventory of seven boxes from Tillamook County and found amazing projectile points, stone tools, faunal remains, massive salmon vertebrae,  cores, micro-cores, worked artifacts, a preponderance of land and sea snail shells, canning jar lids, medicine bottles (for cholera!), a bear claw, an almost complete elk skull, and a variety of other materials.

Historic artifacts (Photo by Courtney Eastman)

Historic artifacts (Photo by Courtney Eastman)

Medicine Bottle (Photo by Courtney Eastman)

Medicine Bottle (Photo by Courtney Eastman)

It was incredibly exciting to find all of these different items, but also very sad because much of the information about where they were found, the context, and associated materials is lost. Without that information, all we found are bits of items, rather than a complex history of the peoples who had lived and used the items.

Removing something from it’s context, without recording it, reduces the item to a commodity and archaeologists should not be in the field of reducing the past to commodities.  Our responsibility as archaeologists is to continue to inspire love for the past through sharing our work, and careful curation of the things that we do dig up.


Research on these collections by PSU students continues.  In the spring, we were able to reconnect some collections with site locations and in several cases, reports.  This work will continue in the fall in hopes of restoring additional provenience information to some of these old collections.

More about this project here.

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