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Lessons Learned from Grievance Cases

By Kay Simpson (Grievance Coordinator 2009-2011)

A look at selected reported allegations of Registrant misconduct provides lessons learned from the Register of Professional Archaeologist (the Register) grievance process. In all cases, the names of the accused and the accusers have been withheld and details tweaked, but the specifics of the complaints are maintained. The Grievance Coordinator (GC) and GC-elect (the person who becomes the next GC) often work as a team to investigate initial inquiries. In cases where a lack of evidence or lack of the means to substantiate the allegations is found, no further action is taken at the discretion of the GC. However, in other circumstances, the appointment of a formal Grievance Committee to investigate the case more fully is justified. The GC may reach out to other professionals when a case is outside their regional or technical expertise.

In reality a GC handles from zero to ten cases a year, the vast majority of which are resolved by discussion among the parties, often with the GC as mediator between parties. A few cases proceed through the steps of the Register’s Disciplinary Procedures process starting with the appointment of a Grievance Committee to investigate the complaint, and the committee can render a final disciplinary report recommending admonishment or censure with the consent of the accused RPA. In other cases, the complaint can be referred to the Register’s Standards Board for potential further disciplinary action, such as suspension or termination of registration. In the past several years, the Register has had several allegations brought forth that were either settled by the GC or withdrawn by the accuser. Three cases have resulted in the formation of a full Grievance Committee, resulting in both admonishments and vindications. No recent cases have proceeded to a hearing by the Standards Board.

The Disciplinary Procedures give the Register’s GC a great deal of flexibility to handle issues to achieve the best result for all parties. While an important part of the grievance process is confidentiality, the GC must balance the need to protect the accused from unwarranted stains on his/her reputation with the need to conduct a thorough investigation of alleged violations. The Register’s procedures give the GC and Standards Board a broad range of discretion on issues of confidentiality and on publicity regarding decisions, if any. Though the individuals involved in the following cases may recognize themselves, some cases were not used for illustrative purposes if discussion would likely reveal identities.

For further information on the Grievance Coordinator duties, click here to download former Grievance Coordinator Berle Clay’s article, originally published in the SAA Archaeological Record.

You may also click here to view the Manual for Grievance Coordinators.


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A question came from a Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA) museum employee: is it unethical to obtain through purchase a privately owned archaeological collection, and for the purposes of said acquisition should the museum archaeologist provide a monetary appraisal of the collection so that the owner has a value for a deductible donation? The collection was not originally excavated for commercial purposes and the site is on private land.

While the fact that museum purchases do contribute to the continuation of the antiquities trade, museums have codes of conduct regarding these purchases. The intent of such codes is to preserve and protect material culture. The GC decided that an organization that has curation facilities and research capabilities that purchases materials to preserve them and keep them off of the private antiquities market is in line with the overall intent of the RPA Code of Conduct.

The key variable here is whether the artifacts were originally legally acquired and not from public or tribal lands (i.e., there needs to be a legal chain of custody). The International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics on acquisitions of appraisals is helpful:

5.2 Authentication and Valuation (Appraisal)

Valuations may be made for the purposes of insurance of museum collections. Opinions on the monetary value of other objects should only be given on official request from other museums or competent legal, governmental or other responsible public authorities. However, when the museum itself may be the beneficiary, appraisal of an object or specimen must be undertaken independently.

In terms of appraisal of collections, it was recommended that the owners of the collection get their own independent appraisal to satisfy IRS requirements. The Society for American Archaeology Code of Ethics states that members should refrain from activities that enhance the value of undocumented antiquities.

Another question was posed about a state preservation agency: is it unethical to analyze private archaeological collections and provide that information back to the collector as well as place that data into state site files and technical reports? Actions related to gathering data from private collections are not in themselves a violation of the Code and often are a positive practice of transmitting data from private hands to archaeological researchers. There are some caveats, however. If artifacts have been removed from federal property and an archaeologist records information about such illegally acquired artifacts, the archaeologist can be considered in possession of a stolen item and in violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. ARPA has its own case law history, which you can access here, and RPAs are recommended to review its provisions and permitting requirements any time federal property is in question.


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A complaint was lodged about a university professor (Professor) who proposed to re-excavate an archaeological site that had been explored decades ago by another archaeologist (Archaeologist). A third party alleged that the Professor’s work did not give proper credit to the Archaeologist and that the Professor, in a grant application for further funding to explore the site, misrepresented the Archaeologist’s conclusions, especially the need for further work. The grievance was filed as a charge of falsification and plagiarism of the work of the Archaeologist and the request for additional funding for work at a site already “fully” excavated was a case of “research misconduct.” The grant had been approved, research conducted, and a book written by the Professor. Therefore the claim concerned events after the fact.

The GC read the Professor’s grant application, Professor’s report on his investigations at the site, and the Archaeologist’s original report documentation. The Grievance Committee noted that the Professor’s conclusions do not support every conclusion of the Archaeologist’s and the Archaeologist’s contributions were primarily acknowledged in a short paragraph in the introduction of the research document. The Grievance Committee found that a short discussion of previous investigations did not equate with a dismissive discussion and nowhere in any of Professor’s writings were statements derogatory of the Archaeologist. Review of all prior research documents found statements that further research along specific avenues was recommended. The Grievance Committee found that the grant application was accurate in stating the past accomplishments of work at the site and that the proposal for additional work was reasonable upon its own merits. The GC therefore concluded that there was no merit in moving forward with the grievance process.


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The GC received a complaint concerning alleged unethical practices of an anthropology student. This complaint was summarily dismissed because it was submitted by a coalition of unnamed fellow students purporting to represent their university department. The accused student was not an RPA. The Register only deals with violations under its jurisdiction, i.e., a registered archaeologist. The GC informed the university department about the event.


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More and more employers and proposals are listing Registration as a Professional Archaeologist as a requirement for archaeologist labor classifications. Several instances have been brought to the attention of the GC where an archaeologist is using “RPA” after his/her name on reports, CVs, websites, or on other documents and where the individual is not an RPA. Registration is an application process and must be maintained—or it is forfeited. It is fraudulent to put “RPA” after your name if you either have not formally been registered by RPA or if you have let your registration lapse for non-payment of fees. If a person or firm lists RPA beside a name and that person’s registration has lapsed (as verified by the Register), then a charge of falsification can be made. Failure to pay registration fees is considered to be “voluntary termination” under the RPA Bylaws.

What happens when someone not registered puts “RPA” after their name? The GC contacts the person and explains the concept of fraud. The Register sends notice of registration after confirming that the standards of registration have been met—RPA is not a society membership.


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Employers have pursued claims through the GC process to force former employees to update their professional affiliation in the Directory. When changing employment status, double check that your company affiliation has been updated with the Register as well as with other professional organizations.

Some employers have occupation titles, especially in government service, that beg explanation. That said, if your title in a cultural resource management firm is Archaeological Crew Chief, putting Project Archaeologist down as a title on your resume can result in a grievance charge. While the private sector does not have standardized titles, a resume has to have the exact position title recognized by the former employer as accurate. Annotation is perfectly acceptable to explain and clarify duties. Be especially careful of the title and authority of Principal Investigator, which may be contractually specific by degree requirements and project authority.


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A person filed a grievance against an RPA for consorting with alleged treasure hunters. Internet searches confirmed that the RPA was listed as a member of a marine salvage expedition. When contacted for an explanation, the RPA was flabbergasted to discover their name on the treasure hunter’s website. Additional investigation revealed the expedition company had appropriated the archaeologist’s information from an inquiry made long ago to join their team, which was firmly declined. The RPA confronted the company and the offending link to their name removed.

It is difficult to monitor the actions of others but it might behoove us all to occasionally Google ourselves. That said, before filing grievances, be very sure you have the correct person as most names are not unique.


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A grievance was made by a student that their advisor was cruel, yelled, and constantly belittled their work. The student asked: isn’t this a violation of the Code of Conduct’s requirement to communicate and cooperate with colleagues?

The Register rarely engages in academic disputes because the institution’s own ethical and human resources policies are better venues for such charges. It is very difficult for outsiders to get unbiased and verifiable documentation in such cases to proceed with an inquiry. However, a pattern of abusive behavior towards students that is documented by charges held up by institutional sanctions might lead to censure under the institution’s disciplinary procedures.


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An RPA asked the GC if a case could be filed against an agency archaeologist for giving his technical report to another consultant firm to conduct a peer review of the report. The other firm was a bidding rival of his firm and therefore this was felt to be unethical.

After discussion the GC felt that the inquirer was not aware of the business practice of third party review wherein an agency may employ a consultant firm to perform peer review of documents. The GC advised the inquirer to respond unemotionally to comments.


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A grievance came to a GC from a person who said he was promised continuous employment from a large cultural resource management firm, but they subsequently terminated him. The Register cannot adjudicate an employer-employee dispute. If someone feels they have been unfairly dismissed from employment, they must contact the human resources department of the institution or firm and/or their state employment commission. Most soft money positions are contingent upon contract/grant awards and renewals that are not always visible to an employee. Moreover, most private companies are covered under at-will employment provisions. Wrongful termination suits would only come under the provenience of the Register if investigations revealed a pattern of professional misconduct under the Register’s Code of Conduct or Standards of Research Performance.


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An archaeological technician on an excavation by a cultural resource management firm reportedly observed alleged instances of lack of scientific principles in techniques and research plans. Specifics were supplied regarding time required to excavate features (too fast), number of personnel to complete the job (too few), and the lack of screening of fill dirt within a pit house feature. Comparisons were made to a nearby university excavation allegedly moving slower and having better equipment. The initial response to the inquiry was that the Register cannot sanction a company or institution; the procedures are for individually registered archaeologists. The complainant then amended his inquiry to name the owner of the company and the project’s Principal Investigator.

The GC reviewed all documentation provided and discreetly acquired independent confirmation from other firms working within the same region of common budgeting practices for similar excavations. The GC found that this project’s expectations of team size and amount of soil excavated within prescribed time limits was similar to other firms’ expectations of performance. Comments were received that the description of how house fill was removed and sampling strategy appeared to be within common practices as well.

One of the problems with this inquiry that is common with complaints from non-supervisory staff was that hearsay information regarding project events and research designs was provided. The GC also notified the complainant that comparison to another project’s performance was not relevant, especially a university project which may have been a research or field school with different expectations of daily progress. The complainant also left the project early in a dispute over project pace and procedures (though not over personal performance).

The GC declined to move forward with this complaint because of a lack of information on many issues. It is often difficult to assess charges by technical staff that an investigator is not following a proper research plan because usually technicians are not privy to said plans and contract paperwork. The GC did urge the complainant to later obtain a copy of SHPO reviewer comments on the technical report and research design. The GC also noted that the complainant adjudicated his own opinion of the firm by “voting with his feet” and not staying on the project or with this firm.


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The intent of this presentation is to give Registrants a sense of the types of minor cases that come before the GC in a typical year and illustrate what the Register can and cannot adjudicate. The Register does not serve as the “Preservation Police” – it does not pursue grievances against unregistered archaeologists, CRM firms, university departments, or any agency or group. Indeed, the first step of anyone considering filing a grievance is to confirm via the online directory that the individual is a Registered Professional Archaeologist. The Register does not interfere with disputes best handled by human resource departments or law enforcement agencies, though the results of such determinations could result in the termination of registration for an individual. The Grievance process is not the venue for personal grudges or petty tiffs. Actionable misconduct of a Registered Professional Archaeologist must have evidence of a specific violation of the Register’s Code and/or Standards.

Register of Professional Archaeologists
411 East Northfield Drive, Box 9
Brownsburg, IN  46112

Phone: (317) 798-3001

Grievance Hotline: (410) 246-2150

You do not have to be an RPA/RA to file a Grievance


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