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.