The world would be a better place if everyone studied archaeology.
That’s the feeling one gets upon meeting the group of archaeology undergraduate students who unexpectedly won the Society for Historical Archaeology’s Ethics Bowl at the organization’s annual conference in New Orleans, La., last month.
The group, comprised of students Maryssa Barras, Christine Conlan, Chanelle Zaphiropoulos, Mallory Champagne and Jazpyn Osmond (all in their final year) beat out five other teams largely comprised of graduate students from American universities.
‘The Memorial students were outstanding’
The competition challenges students to debate possible solutions to real-world ethical issues that archaeologists may face in their careers. The competing teams are scored on the clarity, depth, focus and judgment of their responses.
“To be frank, the Memorial students were outstanding,” said Dr. Mark Warner, president, Society for Historical Archaeology. “I have been involved in this organization for approximately 25 years and this was one of the most satisfying things I have seen at that conference.”
The students, who met in Dr. Barry Gaulton’s Archaeology 4994: Advanced Research and Writing class, prepared for the competition over a period of two months by examining case studies used in previous competitions.
In the social sciences, ethics are complex.
From an academic standpoint, the goal of ethics is to determine what is the best course of action when facing a challenge that has no clear or simple answer, and for which no laws, codes or standards exist.
When facing an ethical challenge, the adapted protocol will arise from collective discussion; all participants must take full responsibility regarding their decision. In archaeology, there are unique complications when it comes to determining the best ethical position to take.
“We can look at sites with over 600 years of occupation by 10 or more different cultural groups,” said Ms. Zaphiropoulos.
“Any descendants of these groups, the current land-owner, the person who might have initially found the artifacts, and even the government, all want a say in how it’s interpreted or handled. We have to juggle all of that.”
One scenario the group was asked to address concerned the discovery of evidence of slavery on a dig site and how data sharing should be negotiated with a community of Afro-descendants.
“In so many of these ethical challenges, we see how studying the past can influence and is influencing our contemporary societies,” said Dr. Catherine Losier, assistant professor, and the group’s mentor.
‘By the people, for the people’
The students attribute their success in the competition to their diverse backgrounds in archaeology, their connection as a team and their collective decision to take a united and strong stance on ethical issues.
“[Ethics] is up to the individual and their moral compass.”
These principles include absolute transparency and sharing as much knowledge as possible — what the team calls “archaeology by the people for the people.”
“With ethics there is no right answer,” said student Chanelle Zaphiropoulos.
Ms. Zaphiropoulos’ teammate, Maryssa Barras, agrees.
“It’s up to the individual and their moral compass. It’s ultimately what allows you to sleep at night and be at peace with your decisions.”
Hallmark of an arts degree
Dr. Jennifer Simpson, dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, says the students’ performance was an “outstanding achievement.”
“They have demonstrated their ability to apply their intellectual capacity to real-life situations, one of the hallmarks in a humanities and social sciences education,” she said.
“In our rapidly changing world, understanding complex ethical considerations is more important than ever.”
Their travel costs were covered by a combination of funding from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences dean’s office, the Office of the Vice-President (Academic) and the Department of Archaeology. Additional funds were secured by the team’s own fundraising efforts.