CAP Archaeological Ethics

We love the work we do through MSU’s Campus Archaeology. While our primary purpose is to mitigate and protect the archaeological and cultural resources on MSU’s campus, CAP goes above and beyond to also engage with our public audience and local community through outreach and social media. We truly believe outreach is essential because our aim is to share the history of MSU to the entire Greater Lansing area so that we can all answer questions about its past and better understand what has shaped the development of MSU and its students. And this is a similar feeling across archaeology, as Watkins and colleagues (2000:40) argue that “the products of our research belong to the public.”

However, we must be careful in our outreach to adhere to ethical guidelines and standards. We work with historical artifacts that do not belong to us, but to those that came before us. Several laws have been enacted for this purpose (and for the preservation of archaeological sites), such as the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Messenger 2014). But, these require the active cooperation and support of archaeologists to ensure that cultural resources are properly protected and cared for in a timely manner.

We also have to be aware of potential implications of sharing artifacts with the public. One such example is that by openly sharing information about our excavation sites, we are sharing locations from which artifacts can be found and be taken out of context. We are lucky here at MSU that we work on university grounds and do not always have to worry about potential risk or looting, but this is not the case at every excavation site. When we are working with artifacts recovered outside of MSU, or outside of Michigan, we must make sure we have the permissions to share those artifacts, and if we can, we must think carefully about how to display such information.

But, what rules apply when we showcase artifacts found on MSU’s campus? This does depend on the time period of the artifact, but if they are related to college life, like the majority of our CAP collections, and they are found on MSU’s campus, we are employees of MSU and so we are able to legally showcase our artifacts to the public. Of course, this does not hold true for artifacts that are potentially Indigenous or the cultural patrimony of another entity in Michigan. In these cases, it is our responsibility to work with the appropriate governing bodies in order to ensure artifacts are maintained properly and returned. In other words, we always work to properly identify an artifact before it is used for outreach in order to ensure we are adhering to legal and ethical standards that have been clearly defined through years of practice.

In terms of sharing artifacts on social media, many debate the use of digitized artifacts, such as those that have been photographed or scanned and are freely available online, because the question of authenticity comes into play. If we are able to fully digitize a site, what does this mean for site conservation? If we are able to fully digitize an artifact, should we keep the original? And if we are digitizing artifacts, how can we ensure their security, while maintaining data transparency? And how should digital artifacts be maintained and shared with the community? Richter and colleagues (2013) bring up these questions and sources of debate in archaeology in an effort to raise awareness to these new issues and how they might impact and change the field. Technology does not mean an end to archaeology, but certain opens up new questions about how we use it for our work.

While we do digitize artifacts in CAP, we focus on historic artifacts that can clearly tell us about MSU’s past, or that of the Greater East Lansing area. Additionally, digitization of artifacts and sites are extremely useful in our case, as we work on a university campus that is ever growing and changing. Therefore, some sites were already destroyed long before CAP began in 2007 and others cannot be fully protected. In these cases, we focus on artifact curation and how digitization can play its own role in this process. In terms of outreach, we maintain data transparency by striving to use technology that is open sourced with open code in an effort to provide resources that are accessible to all. We want to use digitization of appropriate artifacts so that we can best connect with the public and we feel that this has been especially essential this past year without any face to face events.

All in all, this blog is meant to show that CAP takes its outreach and cultural resource management roles seriously. For example, all of our CAP fellows recently attended a webinar on NAGPRA and its role at MSU. And soon, we will all begin SHIPO and NPI training for work this summer so that we can maintain safety and ethical standards in all of our work. We always want to engage with our local communities, but we will continue to do so as ethically as possible so that we are able to best serve all of you.

We would like to to take this opportunity to highlight a three part discussion of archaeological ethics presented in the Society for American Archaeology March 2021 Newsletter: The discussion responds to 2020 archaeological ethics survey. Interestingly enough, this set of articles was released the same day as this blog and, as such, the blog does not mention it. However, we believe this to be an important part of ongoing discussions of ethic in archaeology and felt it would be good to share it here.


  • Fouseki, K. & Vacharopoulou, K. (2013). Digital Museum Collections and Social Media: Ethical Considerations of Ownership and Use. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, 11(1), p.Art. 5. DOI:
  • Messenger P.M. (2014) Ethics of Collecting Cultural Heritage. In: Smith C. (eds) Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer, New York, NY.
  • Richter A.M., Petrovic V., Vanoni D., Parish S.M., Kuester F., & Levy T.E. (2013) “Digital archaeological landscapes & replicated artifacts: Questions of analytical & phenomenological authenticity & ethical policies in cyberarchaeology.” In: Digital Heritage International Congress (DigitalHeritage), Marseille, France, 2013, pp. 569-572, doi: 10.1109/DigitalHeritage.2013.6744826
  • Society of American Archaeology Statement on Ethics in Professional Archaeology. Accessed at:
  • Society of Historical Archaeology. Statement on Ethics Principles. Accessed at:
  • Watkins, J., L. Goldstein, K.D. Vitelli & L. Jenkins. 2000. Accountability: responsibilities of archaeologists to other interest groups, in M. Lynott & A. Wylie (ed.) Ethics in American archaeology: 40-44. Washington (DC): Society for American Archaeology.

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