Unwritten Rules in Professional Archaeology – Part 1

Here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, we have been giving some serious thought to the subject of unwritten rules in human culture.  Some limited research has revealed to us that nearly every aspect of human culture has at least some small set of unwritten rules associated with it, and these rules often vary from one culture to another.  For example, one of the most famous sets of unwritten rules in American culture is focused on the establishment and maintenance of personal space between one person and another during a conversation.  We Americans like to keep varying degrees of personal space between ourselves and other people, depending on the specific social context in which a conversation occurs.  You can read a few syllables about it here:


It occurred to us that similar sets of unwritten rules are probably operative on a conscious or unconscious level in the world of professional archaeology.  These are rules that no one has written down on paper and said, “See this!!!  It’s a rule!!!  You must abide by it stringently at all times.”  Nonetheless, just from working in the discipline of professional archaeology for many decades, archaeologists have picked up on or sensed that such unwritten rules are nonetheless there, and many archaeologists expect other archaeologists to know what those unwritten rules are and to abide by them.  While these unwritten rules may exist, some archaeologists might not be aware of them, some might not subscribe to all of them, and their application may vary somewhat with regard to particular social and situational circumstances.  Moreover, the unwritten rules may change with the passage of time.  The content and context of an unwritten rule may change over time.  Old unwritten rules may disappear.  New unwritten rules may be added.

Here is just one example.  Back in the early 1970s, when contract archaeology as we think of it today was in its infancy, it always seemed to us that there was a strong unwritten rule that the conduct of archaeology must be geographically and politically bounded in the southeastern United States.  While not 100 percent unthinkable, it was generally understood that contract archaeologists based in Kentucky should keep their butts out of Tennessee, and contract archaeologists based in Tennessee should keep their noses and trowels this side of the Kentucky state line.  (We just picked those two states at random but could have picked any two other states.)  Of course, that unwritten rule pretty much disappeared as cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology expanded and evolved over time—and space.  Today, no one thinks much about it or feels any deep animosity when a Georgia CRM firm does work in Tennessee or vice-versa.

We are wondering what the unwritten rules are in professional archaeology today?  In the next few days, we are going to be writing private messages to various archaeological friends and acquaintances and asking them to submit to us a list of of current-day unwritten rules in professional archaeology.  If you are one of the many valued readers who visit this blog and would like to submit your own list of unwritten rules in professional archaeology, you may send it by e-mail to the following address:

In addition, we here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog will add some unwritten rules of our own to the list, just in case others might fail to put them on their lists.  We will compile a comprehensive list of the unwritten rules that are submitted and present them in Part 2 of this post.  Please write down your rules as simple, concise, and meaningful one, two, or three sentence statements such as the following:

1)  Members of the public may visit our excavations at the site any time on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Professional archaeologists we do not already know and love need to call first and make an appointment because it makes us damned nervous when such colleagues show up suddenly and unannounced.

The names of the individuals who submit their lists of unwritten rules will not be published on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog (if that is what you wish), and they will remain confidential here at the blog.  If you submit unwritten rules on your own blog via “pingbacks” or you otherwise wish to have your name associated with the rules you list, then that is fine.  In keeping with Blog Policy, all submitted unwritten rules will be subject to editing prior to publication in Part 2 of this blog post.

This should be both fun and interesting, so please participate.  What’s that you say?  The word “professional” in professional archaeology reflects a level of seriousness and “face presentation” to the general public that is incompatible with the word “fun.”  We smell an unwritten rule.  Can you put it into words?

5 thoughts on “Unwritten Rules in Professional Archaeology – Part 1

  1. Pingback: 4 Unwritten Rules of Professional Archaeology | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Mel Edgar

    One I wish supervisors would followed is: if you’re going to make your archaeologists wear hard hats and visibility vests on site, make sure that you also wear them.

  3. Mel Edgar

    Or…or: If your company has you working 12 hour days, make sure the toilet facilities are located at least 20-30 minutes walking distance away to ensure that all employees are able to secure properly restful break times.

  4. Pingback: 10 more unwritten rules of professional archaeology | Succinct Research

  5. Pingback: Unwritten Rules of Archaeology – A Blognanza! « seacunderground

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