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The ethics of digging

Article about: Seeing the variety of threads on battlefield digs makes me wonder about the ethics of such projects. While it is fascinating to see what is recovered, I wonder what history might be lost fro

  1. #1

    Default The ethics of digging

    Seeing the variety of threads on battlefield digs makes me wonder about the ethics of such projects. While it is fascinating to see what is recovered, I wonder what history might be lost from groups of relics being broken up for individual collections and removed from their original context. I can certainly appreciate the urge to dig (make money, acquire that special missing piece in one's collection) but I wonder if digging might be robbing future historians of untouched sites that might offer perspective on the history of the Second World War. In the U.S. Midwest, digging in Indian mounds was a popular weekend outing at the turn of the century. Sadly, when there was a better understanding of the importance of the mounds and the items buried there, they were long gone.
    I'd be curious to get opinions from the community on this topic. I've been working on my Master's to become an archivist and I've been thinking about the code of ethics for that field and for ethical issues facing historians as well.

  2. #2

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    This raises one very important point in my opinion. Leave them in the ground to rot to almost nothing until someone digs them up in 100 years time OR.....dig them up now and preserve them ??? Let's face it, the amount that has been written and documented about WW1 and WW2 means that we don't need to dig relics up to learn things......we already know the full history of both wars.

    The importance of relics from world wars as a record of events is almost an irrelevance given they were fully documented. If I was digging stuff up from wars less well documented then I may tend to agree with the 'leave them be' brigade. However, as far as WW1 and WW2 items go......I am retrieving them before they disappear forever and have no issue with doing so. I am not changing the historical record or preventing others from enhancing it.


    Steve T

  3. #3

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    I've got to agree with not letting it rust any more than it already has.

  4. #4

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    Thats a tough question. How many artifacts are stored away in a college or a museum that only a select few ever get to see. Or how about items such as TR that because of todays PC views will not be displayed.Im for preserving history but who is right. If I had the chance to dig for WWII items I would. I have dug for arrow heads in the past.Did I rob future historians I dont know. I watch some TV shows about archeology. They always have local people helping them dig. The archaeologist has nice gear clothes and the poor villager looks like a rag collector. Now if he sold one piece on a fair market he could feed his family for a year. Who is right?

  5. #5

    Default Re: The ethics of digging


  6. #6

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    Tud, I think Steve T. eloquently explained collectors today with regard to WWII artifacts. The American Indians had no written language. Once their sites were dug, history was lost. The same with many societys in Europe and South and Central Americas between the 5th and 12th centurys. WWII has been well documented. Most of the artifacts are quickly deteriorating in the ground. Most historians today, due to political correctness I believe, have no interest in digging up the past atrocities that occurred on all sides during WWII. These relics will be gone soon, so why not find them now before it is too late. I am disturbed by how some of the human remains are handled when digging, but we can only hope that the people involved have enough moral fiber to do the right thing.


  7. #7

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I thought I'd respond to a couple of the points made for further discussion. I think that SteveT brings up some good points but I would argue that while WWI and II are well documented, we don't and most likely will never know the full history of both wars. Certainly, the main points of the wars are well covered, and most governments left an enormous paper trail. The wars were well documented but far from fully documented.There is however a wealth of information about smaller details that might have been missed in official dispatches or histories. I'm sure there is lots of information that we don't know that we don't know. Perhaps a specific place would be connected to an oral history of some kind. A dig might be able to corroborate that particular story and add to our understanding of an event. (This makes me wonder if diggers make detailed records of what they found, where it was found, how it was arranged etc. Context is everything in this situation).
    As to RH1941's point about museum/official collections being difficult to access, I would argue that the same problem arises with private collections. (This forum does a great job though at sharing publicly some really useful information about things that are held in private collections) Private collections also face the danger of being broken up if a collector dies, goes broke etc.

  8. #8

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    I have a question for you. Have you ever dug before and if you did was it for yourself or someone else? If it was for yourself did you keep what you found?

  9. #9

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    Hi RH1941,
    I've not dug. I live in the States. Although, I did do some high school digging in search of a Native American campsite but we did not find anything at the dig site. As a kid, I tromped all over the countryside and often kept my eyes peeled for arrowheads but I never had any luck with that either. I did spend a summer in Germany a number of years back but I was much more interested in oral histories than digging or battlefields so I spent time hunting down veterans.

  10. #10

    Default Re: The ethics of digging

    I think that the only real ethical question comes about when human remains are discovered.

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