Human Subjects Review and Digital Archaeology

On Wednesday I’m spending part of the class time giving a lecture on media licensing (heavy on the Creative Commons) and Human Subjects Review/IRB/ethics issues within digital media and archaeology. While the former has been a regular feature of the class, the latter will be a new feature. The University of California, Berkeley is a tier one research institution and integrating methodological procedures into lectures is an important aspect of our teaching mission. While archaeology generally avoids many of the issues raised by Human Subjects Boards (one of the few times it’s actually helpful to have dead informants), our projects do effect living humans and digital documentation of archaeological research sometimes features descendant communities or stakeholders who are potentially at risk.

The history of Human Subjects Review stems from revelations during the Nuremburg Trials of the medical experimentation performed by Nazi doctors during World War II. This biomedical research code was expanded several times during the 1960s, finally leading to firmer legislation in the 1970s, this time fueled not by war crimes in foreign lands, but our own government’s 30-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study, during which rural black men diagnosed with syphilis went untreated even after effective treatments became available.  The Belmont Report, created in 1979, outlined these three general principles for biomedical and behavioral research:

Beneficence: To maximize benefits for science, humanity, and research participants and to avoid or minimize risk or harm.

Respect: To protect the autonomy and privacy rights of participants

Justice: To ensure the fair distribution among persons and groups of the costs and benefits of research.

So what implications does this have for archaeological research?  Jeffrey Bendremer and Kenneth Richman discuss their research with Native American communities and note that while archaeology “does not satisfy the Common Rule definition of human subject” (Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains either data or identifiable private information), applying the codes employed by the Human Subjects Review or forming other independent research advisory counsels would be beneficial to ethical archaeological research. While I am not convinced that such counsels are necessary, archaeology has taken on an increasingly ethnographic bent, and for those of us who are interested in digital documentation, representation, and public outreach, an explicit ethics statement can be very useful in conducting our research.

For example, at Catalhoyuk in 2008 I shot a very short film about one of the kitchen staff (whom we rarely see outside of the context of the dig house) coming up to the tell to see one of the major finds of that season, a bench with intact bull buchrania in a burned building. Then she jumped in the trench that I was working in and started digging with us. I grabbed my video camera and captured some footage, which I later turned into a short film that we showed on community day. She was very happy with the film and I made her a DVD that she could show at home. This was a perfect example for my dissertation of digital documentation being performed in the trench, by excavators, and I asked her permission to put it online so that I could show it to larger audiences. She said no. Her reason? She didn’t want her husband to see her acting in a way that he might feel as inappropriate.

As Bendremer and Richman cite in their paper, the AAA professional code of conduct states: “Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities.” The World Archaeological Congress is more specific in their application of ethics to the visual medium, stating in the Tamaki Makau-rau Accord that the display of human remains and sacred objects is “recognized as a sensitive issue” and that “display means the presentation in any media or form of human remains and sacred objects, whether on a single occasion or on an ongoing basis, including conference presentations or publications.”

So how do we surmount these ethical concerns and get on with our research? Helpfully, the Tamaki Makau-rau expands:

1)    Permission should be obtained from the affected community or communities.

2)    Should permission be refused that decision is final and should be respected.

3)    Should permission be granted, any conditions to which that permission is subject should be complied with in full.

4)    All display should be culturally appropriate.

5)    Permission can be withdrawn or amended at any stage and such decisions should be respected.

6)    Regular consultation with the affected community should ensure that the display remains culturally appropriate.

The upswing to all of this is that the long arm of Human Subjects Review is getting longer, and if we are actually interested in incorporating live people into our research, we should take these points into consideration. I’ve made a boiler-plate media permissions release for use on site, and we are in the process of getting it translated into Arabic for the coming field season.

Here is the boilerplate_media_release, I would appreciate feedback, if you have some to offer!

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

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