The sacred cave: archaeology and ethics

Today’s blog post is probably going to be less interesting to the lay person, largely because I’m omitting photographs out of respect.

I haven’t yet talked explicitly about ethics in archaeology. It’s a very large topic, and even amongst archaeologists there is dissension about what is and is not ethical. The bar for measuring ethics has also shifted higher in recent decades as a result of more indigenous groups’ activism and involvement in managing their own heritage, and archaeology actively recognizing that it’s a product of white colonialism and trying to distance itself from that legacy. Many an archaeologist has written and spoken and rallied for this very topic, and I can’t do justice to the depth and breadth of those conversations.

For some background on the state of ethics and community involvement in archaeological research, consider looking up articles and books by Atalay, Battle-Baptiste, check out the Society for American Archaeology’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics, or this convenient Wikipedia article on Indigenous Archaeology.

TL;DR – you should talk to the people whose ancestors you’re digging up because that’s only polite. #GoldenRule.

This brings us to a sacred cave. I’m going to try to avoid Indiana-Jones-ing this, but it was a pretty epic limestone cave formation at the top of a karst hill a few hours outside of Bula, the town that we stopped in when we first arrived in Seram.

Since we were attempting to answer how climate changes may have affected both coastal and inland sites, we truly needed to find a well-preserved site with lots of time-depth (ie., deep soil that hasn’t been disturbed). Caves make really great inland sites because they are often sheltered from harsh weather, making it possible for centuries and millenia (in same cases epochs) of archaeological history to build up on the cave floor. Caves are also rarely visited, as most people (especially in this area and the time period that we are studying) use caves almost solely for religious purposes or to collect bird nests to sell on the Chinese market.

Our local colleagues had informed us about this sacred cave, so we planned on attempting to take to auger holes from the cave floor as we were leaving Seram to return to Jakarta by way of Ambon. Because we try to be ethical, this required that we speak with the local leaders and important people in the community before even setting foot on the karst hill.

We ended up getting permission and were able to take a number of auger holes from the cave. The cave itself is geological and environmentally fascinating – it has several chambers of caves 10 to 100+feet in height with enormous entrances. Swarms of bats and swallows call the cave system their home. There are wooden ladders set up all over the cave system to collect old swallow’s nest, which are hot commodities in China as an ingredient in birds’ nest soup.

The auger holes turned up a few artifacts and some evidence of human occupation, which was satisfying. And although we were literally covered in bird and bat guano after this trip, it was an immensely beautiful site. The point of this post is, however, is to drive home the fact that had we not received permission from the local leaders, we would have walked away from the site and left Seram without having identified a good inland site. And that would have been okay.

Archaeology is the study of humans and how they lived in the past. Part of our responsibility is empathizing and respecting the people that live in the present. If we can’t do that, we aren’t worth much as a field. An ethical archaeologist accepts that sometimes she’ll have to walk away from a great site if excavation is not ok with the local community. Respecting the present as well as the past, and respecting fellow humans is important, possibly now, post-US Presidential Election, more than ever.


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