A really great guy

SCIENTISTS' professional lives are conducted on the principle that the rest of us pledge only on the witness stand: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Scientists are human, of course, and subject to human frailties; they snitch others' results, fudge data, sometimes fake it completely.

In theory, procedures are in place to enforce the scientific code of conduct. Other scientists are supposed to be ever on the alert for malfeasance, and unmasked malefactors are censured, sanctioned, sometimes even drummed out of the science game entirely.

In theory. In practice, as a case right here in the Puget Sound area shows, bringing an offender to account—getting an accounting of any kind in fact—can be as hard as getting a responsive answer from an Enron executive.

The basic facts of the case in question are clear and undisputed by any of the parties. In late July 1999, an archaeologist hired to oversee digging a foundation for a sewage plant near the Canadian border town of Blaine, Wash., loaded between 25 and 30 sets of human remains discovered during a week of excavations into paper bags and cardboard boxes. He put them in the back of a pickup, and drove truck and contents 1,500 miles to his company's home office in Denver, Colo.

Apart from the informality of their packaging, the remains were apparently not interfered with in any way; but by taking them from the discovery site without proper notice, the archaeologist, Gordon C. Tucker Jr., failed to follow the clear provisions of his contract with the city of Blaine and possibly violated federal, state, and county rules for the handling of such discoveries.

The revelation of the mishandled bones pulled the plug on the $7.5 million construction project, leaving a lot of public agencies out of pocket and looking for someone to sue, so it's not surprising that most interested parties kept their lips well buttoned while lawyers exchanged sizzling e-mails.

Meanwhile, out of the legal limelight, some of Gordon Tucker's professional colleagues here were waiting for an explanation of his conduct. Tucker himself, back in Colorado, wasn't talking. Neither were his bosses at Golder Associates, a multinational environmental consulting firm to the construction industry. But Tucker was a member of the Registry of Professional Archaeologists (RPA), the closest thing the bones-and-artifact business has to a professional licensing organization. So the Association for Washington Archaeology (AWA) contacted the RPA's grievance office and waited for a reply.

They're still waiting. On Feb. 13, out of patience, AWA president Linda Naoi Goetz appealed to her members to call, write, or e-mail officers of the RPA to complain of the group's failure to act and to demand that it institute an inquiry in the matter.

The AWA's action isn't purely disinterested. The casual treatment of the Semiahmoo burials infuriated members of the nearby Lummi Nation (the most likely descendants of the people buried there 2,500 to 4,000 years ago). American archaeologists must work harmoniously with Native Americans if they're going to work at all. And in the Northwest, relations with the tribes had already reached a new low point due to a white scientist's handling of the 9,000-year-old skeleton of "Kennewick Man," discovered in the Columbia River in summer 1996.

Roused by the latest round of angry letters, new RPA president Michael Glassow of U.C. Santa Barbara disclaimed any knowledge of past failures but promised action. Within days he, too, was complaining that he couldn't get answers from his own organization's grievance officer and promising to appoint a sort of special prosecutor to look into the matter if he couldn't get action through regular channels.

While Washington archaeologists were waiting for a response from the RPA, their counterparts in the Colorado Council of Professional Archaeologists were conducting business as usual, electing officers for the new year. Among those elected, as president: Gordy Tucker, now employed by the multinational environmental consulting firm the URS Corporation, based in San Francisco.

That "Gordy" says a lot. Appalled AWA members heard it a lot when they called friends in Colorado asking why an archaeologist under suspicion of a serious violation of professional ethics would be chosen to lead the state organization. I heard it myself when I asked another officer the same question. "We felt a little funny about it, but Gordy had already been asked to serve when the trouble started, and some of us hinted that maybe he should step down, but he didn't want to. And nobody wanted to . . . I mean, Gordy is a really great guy."

Everybody seems to agree that Gordy Tucker is a really great guy. Archaeology has long been a guy's game, and being a great guy has long been all it took to shield a brother from inconvenient questions from outsiders, especially Native American outsiders. The AWA's demand that, great guy or not, Gordy be asked to account for his actions to his professional brothers and sisters is something like a first in the annals of American archaeology.


Roger Downey's science column appears every other week.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow