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Monday, November 17, 2014

Contract Archaeology versus Plumbing

The other day, I was asked for a phone interview about “the origins of CRM” – that is, “cultural resource management.”  Always happy to expound on such obscure topics, I readily agreed.  I assumed that the conversation would be about how “CRM” – an ill-defined set of practices ostensibly aimed at “managing cultural resources” (whatever those are) got started back in the 1970s. 

That was how the conversation started, but it soon became apparent that what my interlocutor was really interested in – indeed, seemingly, what he defined as CRM – was the practice of contract archaeology by for-profit private firms.  What did I know about how this now-prevalent practice got started, and what did I think of efforts to regulate its quality through the licensing of archaeologists by (now) the Registry of Professional Archaeologists (ROPA) and (formerly) the Society of Professional Archaeologists (SOPA)?

I couldn’t quite figure out what any of this had to do with the origins of CRM, but I could and did cooperate by providing some facts and opinions about how for-profit contract archaeology got started and about the origins and sad history of SOPA, in which I was involved. 

This led to a question of opinion – what did I think about the efforts of some practitioners – employees of some of the contract firms, apparently – to formalize and presumably improve the SOPA/ROPA-type registration systems, in order to improve wages and working conditions?

My answer, in the unlikely event anyone has paid attention, probably outraged those seeking to reform and strengthen the registration systems.  I said I really didn’t give a damn.  Granting that it’s important to those seeking or holding employment as shovelbums, I simply don’t see it as an interesting public policy issue.

Then came the inevitable rhetorical question:  if plumbers have to be certified, why don’t archaeologists?

Because, I said, society needs plumbers, and quality plumbers at that.  It does not particularly need quality contract archaeologists.

The interview ended at that point.  Had it gone on, I might have added the caveats that in my opinion society does need quality cultural resource managers – as I define that hypothetical field but not, apparently, as my interlocutor did.  Cultural resources, broadly defined, are important parts of the environment; they’re obviously meaningful to people.  Impacts on them ought to be carefully predicted and managed in the interests of equity and social harmony.  I might also have said that I don’t deny the social, cultural, and entertainment value of archaeology. 

But that’s as far as the caveats would have gone.  Contract archaeologists simply aren’t like contract plumbers.  Without good plumbing, people and communities would be seriously inconvenienced and in some cases endangered.  Without good, bad, or indifferent archaeology done by “CRM” firms in advance of development projects – well, I suspect we’d survive.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Just for clarification, what exactly do you mean by “CRM”? Why do you refer to it as a “hypothetical field”?

Also, I think most Indigenous people would disagree with your assertion that “[c]ontract archaeologists simply aren’t like contract plumbers. Without good plumbing, people and communities would be seriously inconvenienced and in some cases endangered. Without good, bad, or indifferent archaeology done by ‘CRM’ firms in advance of development projects—well, I suspect we’d survive”.

Here is why your claim troubles me: the destruction of Indigenous heritage—typically at the permission of state-sanctioned CRM/CHM/ARM “experts”—endangers native cultures and peoples and threatens their survival. Like climate change, another development-driven threat, I consider CRM/CHM/ARM to be a “potential culture killer”. Indeed, I link “indifferent archaeology” to ethnocide and genocide, as well as solastalgia—a form of distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change. For me, these points undermine your “contract archaeologist versus plumber” comparison.

What do you think?


Rich Hutchings

Tom King said...

Rich -- I could be coy and say "read my books," but I'll make it easy. Here's how I defined "CRM" in my 2011 edited "Companion to Cultural Resource Management" (Wiley-Blackwell):

“'Cultural resources' are all the aspects of the physical and supra-physical environment that human beings and their societies value for reasons having to do with culture. Included are culturally valued sites, buildings, and other places, plants and animals, atmospheric phenomena, sights and sounds, artifacts and other objects, documents, traditions, arts, crafts, ways of life, means of expression and systems of belief. “Cultural Resource Management” means actions undertaken to manage such phenomena, or – importantly – to identify and manage the ways in which change affects or may affect them."

That describes a hypothetical field because nobody actually practices it; most supposed CRMers just do archaeology. I entirely agree that the destruction of indigenous (and other) heritage endangers cultures and peoples and threatens their survival. I just don't think that doing good (or other) contract archaeology, or certifying people as able to do so, often has anything to do with avoiding such destruction. Indeed, I think most contract archaeologists, most of the time, contribute to it, precisely because they think of themselves as archaeologists first and foremost.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your great response!

I think our views on the matters-at-hand are in most regards simpatico. For example, I have read and generally agree with your book Our Unprotected Heritage: Whitewashing the Destruction of Our Natural and Cultural Heritage. I do, however, have a follow-up question.

Have you read the book Taking Archaeology Out of Heritage? The premise is that “[a]rchaeology has, on the whole, tended to dominate the development of public policies and practices applicable to what is often referred to as ‘heritage’”. Some authors in this book suggest that archaeology be removed, in part or in whole, from the practice of CRM/CHM.

My question is this: why does no such movement/discussion exist in North America today?

Is this due in part to the linguistic confusion surrounding “CRM” and “ARM” (and “CRM” and “CHM”, and “EIA” and “SIA”, and “EPA” and “SEPA,” etc.)? In short, do we have a branding problem? Or a philosophical one?



Tom King said...

Thanks, Rich. I haven't read "Taking Archaeology Out of Heritage," but will, as soon as I can scrape up the US$60 that Amazon demands for it. From the title and description, though, it looks to me like it expresses a typical European postmodern attitude -- nattering about being inclusive and out-reaching but doing so very strictly from an insider perspective, with the sort of maddening rhetoric that's so popular with postmodernists.

There is, of course, no mechanism for "taking archaeology out of heritage," which makes the matter a safe one for disgruntled archaeologists to natter about. What I think we really need to do is ACTUALLY be open to non-archaeological, and indeed non-"heritage" perspectives, and develop a profession that works with the whole cultural environment. We won't do this by taking things out of things; we'll do it by letting things IN.

As for the situation in North America, I think it's simply a matter of archaeologists having gotten organized earlier and better than practitioners of other disciplines when the environmental laws got enacted in the late '60s and early '70s; we glommed onto "culture" and used it to advance our own narrow interests. I apologized for my role in this practice-grab as it happened in California, in my paper "Mea Culpa for Archaeobias in California," which is on But apologies are cheap; doing something about the matter is tricky. One thing I'm sure of, though; dealing with it involves broadening our own practice, not narrowing the definition of "heritage."

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

I hate to be the carrier of “bad” news, but I think you are a postmodernist! Or at least a dead ringer for one. Your critique (cultural criticism) of the modern institution of CRM (that is, how it is practiced in mainstream society today) and your call for a return to a an idealistic (“hypothetical”) premodern form of heritage stewardship (that is, your holisitic, postdisciplinary vision of CRM) are dead giveaways. So is your focus on bureaucracy.

In my mind, these are all admirable qualities. In light of your comments about “nattering postmodernists” in your previous statement, what do you think?


Rich Hutchings

Tom King said...

I may occasionally think like a postmodernist, Rich, but I hope to god I never write like one. I'll post -- on -- a review I did a few years ago of a book by Laurajane Smith, that articulates my grumpy distaste for postmodern rhetoric -- and the postmodern tendency to blather about being inclusive while focusing relentlessly on one's own navel.

John P. McCarthy, RPA said...

No one, generally speaking, can be killed if a consultant working in CRM makes a mistake, if a plumber (or an architect or an engineer) makes a serious enough mistake people get sick or can die. That's why archaeologists' professional liability insurance is so cheap!


Shawn Deny said...

I said I really didn’t give a damn. Granting that it’s important to those seeking or holding employment as shovelbums, I simply don’t see it as an interesting public policy issue.
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