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ASOR Policy on Preservation and Protection of Archaeological Resources

by Joe D. Seger, past ASOR President

The degradation of archaeological resources through the looting of sites, theft of artifacts, and illicit international trade in antiquities has become an increasing concern worldwide among archaeological professionals and their friends since the 1970s. In 1983 the United States ratified the UNESCO Convention of the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, joining an international effort to discourage artifact theft and looting. In 1987 the ASOR Board of Trustees recorded a resolution in general support of the UNESCO accord.

However, events during the Gulf War in 1991 generated increased awareness of the vulnerability of Middle Eastern archaeological resources. At that time ASOR's Board of Trustees asked its Committee on Archaeological Policy (CAP) to undertake a more thorough review of its policy position with respect to this matter. Under the leadership of Dr. Ellen Herscher, a subcommittee of CAP labored for three years in the study of the issues involved. In the fall of 1994 the subcommittee presented CAP with a draft of a new and more deliberate policy statement. Comments on this draft were solicited from the ASOR constituency via the Winter 1994 ASOR Newsletter (Vol. 44, 4: 3-4). Though comments in response were very limited, the subcommittee gave all those it received considered attention. In its subsequent meeting, on 16 November 1995, CAP approved the draft of the policy statement as previously presented and moved to recommend it to the ASOR Board. The statement was made the official policy of ASOR by unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees at its meeting 18 November 1995. With this action ASOR more fully joined ranks with the other major American societies of professional archaeologists, including the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), each of which had previously published a similar detailed policy position statement on these matters.

Along with its recommendation of the statement to the ASOR Board, CAP advised its prompt and wide circulation. While CAP itself has subsequently included it with the statement of standards and other information regularly distributed to all ASOR-affiliated excavations and publication projects, presentation of the statement here represents its first formal publication as official ASOR policy. We believe that the statement represents a fair and balanced approach to what are complex matters of ethical, cultural, and economic practice relating to the protection and preservation of archaeological resources. It sets forth minimum expectations for standards that should be observed by all those professionally involved or otherwise seriously concerned with proper treatment of archaeological sites and related cultural resources.

We hope that it will also increase awareness among the general public with respect to the cultural liabilities incurred by improper treatment of the archaeological heritage. We urge everyone to give the statement a careful reading and encourage thoughtful consideration of the issues and concerns involved.


View/print policy in pdf format

Statement of ASOR Policy on
Preservation and Protection of
Archaeological Resources

As passed by the ASOR Board of Trustees
18 Nov. 1995; revised 22 Nov. 2003 (sentences in italics added)

I. Preamble

  • A. ASOR's policy is based upon and derived from the principle that its primary responsibility is one of stewardship of the archaeological record Stewards act as both caretakers and advocates. The archaeological record consists of archaeological sites, archaeological collections, records, and reports. It should be used for the benefit of all people, and not be treated as a commodity to be exploited for private enjoyment or profit. ASOR and its members work for the perpetual preservation and protection of the archaeological record, and actively promote public understanding and support for these goals.

  • B. In furthering these goals, ASOR works in close cooperation with other archaeological and related groups that share these principles.

II. Preservation of Sites

Archaeological sites are a nonrenewable resource, each containing unique information about the human past. The loss of sites presents part of the world's cultural heritage that can never be recovered.

  • A. There is an urgent need worldwide to document the endangered archaeological record before it is lost forever. ASOR supports and encourages its members to undertake efforts to document the archaeological record through surveys, inventories, and other means.

  • B. Directors of excavations should plan for appropriate post-excavation site protection in their initial research designs. Such plans must take into account the natural conditions affecting the site and the demands of multiple uses.

  • C. Unplanned development poses a threat to archaeological sites worldwide

  • ASOR encourages a partnership among governments, archaeologists and developers to make and execute proper plans to preserve the archaeological record. ASOR urges the United States government, UNESCO, and the United Nations to play a leadership role in efforts to protect the world's cultural heritage from unnecessary destruction through development.

  • D. Warfare threatens the archaeological record in many parts of the world. ASOR urges all governments to adhere to the terms of the "Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict" (the "Hague Convention," 1954) and its Protocol.
  • It further urges that the United States ratify this Convention at the earliest possible opportunity. ASOR members should take every precaution to insure that parts of the archaeological record for which they are responsible are fully documented and, to the extent possible, protected from the eventuality of warfare.

III. Trade in Antiquities

Trade in antiquities, especially illicit trade, encourages the looting of archaeological sites and thus is a direct cause of the destruction of sites and the loss of the information they contain. ASOR supports all efforts--that are in accordance with international law--to prohibit and prevent the looting of archaeological sites and to disrupt the illicit trade of antiquities.

  • A. ASOR members should not participate, directly or indirectly, in the buying and selling of artifacts illegally excavated or exported from the country of origin after 1970, the date of the adoption of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

  • B. ASOR members should refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such artifacts and thus contribute indirectly to the illicit market, for example, publication, authentication, or exhibition. ASOR publications and its annual meeting will not be used for presentations of such illicit material.

  • C. ASOR urges all governments, including the United States, to establish and enforce a legal framework effective for deterring the illicit trade in antiquities.

  • D. ASOR will continue to explore innovative strategies and support legislation designed to eliminate the illicit trade of antiquities and enhance the protection of the world's archaeological and cultural heritage.

IV. Excavation Standards

Archaeological excavation is, by nature, a destructive procedure. ASOR seeks to insure, through the review process of its Committee on Archaeological Policy and any other means available, that excavations are conducted according to the highest possible professional standards. Such standards demand that all individuals participating in the excavation are fully qualified to carry out their responsibilities, that final publication of the results is prompt and complete, and that the resulting collections and records are properly curated.

V. Responsibility to the Public

As stewards of the archaeological record, ASOR and its members have a responsibility to communicate with and act for the benefit of the public, while recognizing that the public is a diverse one.

  • A. ASOR and its members are active in educating the general public regarding archaeological interpretations of the past and the methods used in archaeology to understand human behavior and culture. They should also actively enlist public support for the preservation and scientific study of the archaeological record.

  • B. ASOR and its members will at all times show sensitivity toward and respect for groups affected by their research, and make every effort to act cooperatively with them.