Are cultural resource management companies just drab grey suits? 2

Are cultural resource management archaeologists just like Wall Street bankers?Do we cultural resource management archaeologists do the same things? Are historic preservationists just following the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties? After decades of historic preservation and cultural resource management guidelines, are we all just going through the motions—just checking the boxes for our clients? Are we just like Wall Street bankers in drab grey suits?


This post was inspired by a story I heard on NPR’s Marketplace about how conformity is forced upon Wall Street bankers. (“Young Wall Street Bankers Turn to Custom Suits” [2/27/2014]) (listen here: The story explains that bankers are forced to comply with a nearly uniform dress code that makes sure none of them stick out from the crowd. Evidentially, this bluntly enforced dress code pretty much forces bankers to wear grey or black suits. The suits can be expensive, but bankers are never allowed to wear anything but drab black or grey. Nothing flashy. In order to buck this trend, young bankers are starting to turn to custom suits with designer liners. The liners can come in a variety of colors and are frequently festooned with brilliant Wall Street quotes like, “Money never sleeps.” These custom liners are becoming increasingly popular with young bankers because they can have some modicum of creativity while also conforming to traditional Wall Street fashion.

I’m not the most experienced CRMer in the United States, but I have worked for a number of different companies in a variety of capacities. As a project manager/field director, I’ve been in charge of writing reports and filling out site forms. With some slight variations, CRM reports are almost universally the same. Now, I know you’re thinking, “We’re just following the guidelines established by the state. We’ve gotta do these projects and write-ups along the established guidelines otherwise our reports will get bounced back by the SHPO.” Or, “That historic building’s gotta be rehabbed in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards otherwise it won’t be an ‘official’ rehabilitation. Our client won’t get their tax break.

Those points are true. We do have to follow the playbook. Our work has to be up to the state/national standard otherwise we’re letting ourselves, our communities, and our clients down. However, we do have some freedoms. I don’t know about preservationists, but archaeologists definitely have latitude in how we accomplish our compliance projects. I also understand most clients don’t give a damn about our research interests or furthering the field of archaeology. Some vehemently hate seeing any form of in-depth analysis and synthesis. But, they like being compliant and if they like our work I’m sure they won’t mind us sneaking in a little creativity here and there.

I’ve mentioned before that we can most easily express our creativity through our research designs and the analysis/synthesis sections of our reports. The state has certain stipulations on how our surveys must be conducted and they control the elements we have to put into a data recovery or site recording, but there are a number of differing theoretical approaches to these commonplace activities that we can test in the field. I know we’ve gotta walk transects “no more than 20–30m apart” in order to be conducting what is considered 100% coverage. Shovel probes must also be spaced the same 20–30m apart as well and excavated down to sterile.

We can consider these guidelines as the standards we must work within while also trying to do more. Doing the basics—going through the motions—simply isn’t enough anymore. There’s too many of us out there. Check out a couple CRM company websites. I guarantee you won’t see very much variety. There’s always a page with “customer solutions” or “services.” You can go there and see a bunch of statements like, ”We provide high-quality cultural resource management solutions for our clients.” “Our staff has a combined total of 500 years of experience in archaeological data recovery, cultural resources survey, mitigation, and impact assessments.” “Customer service is our priority and we offer innovative solutions to their cultural resource compliance needs.So. What. So does every other company. We all offer “cultural resource management services.” That’s why we’re in the cultural resource management industry.

How are you doing anything different than the other 200 CRM companies out there? Have you developed a streamlined strategy that saves clients 20% when compared with other CRM companies? Do you have an innovative digital site recording system that helps you complete projects faster while preserving data in an easily accessible, digital format? Do you have innovative building rehabilitation skills that saves your clients money while increasing the value of the resulting property 10% more than other companies? Do you have case studies? Why would a client work with you? How have you helped further your craft more than your competitors?

As far as fieldwork, I know we all have to follow governmental guidelines, but can we do some sort of analysis of isolated occurrences (IOs) (i.e. single artifacts or small artifact clusters that don’t meet the state’s criteria of an archaeological site)? Is there some sort of rhyme or reason to these IOs? What do all those negative shovel probes tell you about soils and geomorphology in the project area? Does it conform with the USDA maps or is it different? Can you quickly create a surfer file for all those negatives and make some sort of conclusions about the recent geological history of the area?

The synthesis/analysis section is the part of our reports where this can most easily be conveyed. There is a huge variety of ways you can do some sort of analysis, even if it’s just a simple, “Does this conform with what we already know about the area? Yes/no?” Experienced CRMers and PIs are typically the ones that come up with these “innovations”, but there’s nothing that keeps a crew chief or tech from thinking beyond the next shovel probe.

Are we more creative than Wall Street bankers? I know we’d like to think so, but the reality is we’re not much better than they are. Buy cheap, sell high can only be done so many ways, however Wall Street keeps finding ways to expand upon that philosophy. Several of our most dear concepts in archaeology and preservation are also pretty basic, but we seem to keep on doing the same ol’ thing with little variation.

It’s time to break outta this mold. If young Wall Streeters can find their silver lining, we ought to do the same as well. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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2 thoughts on “Are cultural resource management companies just drab grey suits?

  • archaeofieldtech

    Regarding the main question in your title: No. I do not think CRM firms can be equated to the suits on Wall Street. This is from a CRMer who is also a New Yorker.

    Your contention here is that all CRM reports are the same, and none of them go above and beyond in the research and analysis department. I seriously don’t agree with this. There certainly are a large number of reports that are very similar. My experience with these is that they are small surveys with negative findings, or a lack of NRHP eligible findings. There’s not much you can say about a lot of these ineligible sites, small can and glass scatters dating to the 1920s. There are thousands of these. They are not very interesting, and there is not much that they can tell us. Despite that, I have seen published articles by CRM techs entirely about trash scatters. I’m thinking of one article in particular, “Behavior Patterning: Dumping in the Desert” by Kyle Guerrero and Susan Bupp of Tetra Tech (SCA Proceedings). The reason why more CRM firms don’t do this kind of work is simple: lack of funds. As I said, these kinds of sites are not very interesting. They are not NRHP eligible, and everyone is frankly too busy to do much with them (including the SHPO). Why would a client fund research that the SHPO does not require? If the client isn’t providing funds, then how is the CRM firm going to pay for the work? Especially in this economy. CRM firms can barely keep their regular employees working on the projects that are paid for.

    Despite the general lack of time and money, many firms do manage to produce original research and analysis. More and more projects these days have a publication requirement. This requirement is stipulated by the land management agency in accordance with the SHPO. There is a lot of creativity that occurs when this is the case.

    Finally, the nail in the coffin for the CRMers as Wall Street bankers notion is that CRM archaeologists care about their work. They are passionate about archaeology and our shared cultural heritage. They are passionate about protecting our cultural resources. The laws provide a framework, but archaeologists are constantly trying to push the limits of the framework, require more from the client to do more analysis and research. At least that has been my experience. My experience with Wall Street bankers is that they don’t care about much at all except for the profit margin and maybe about where the next party is.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and write a response. Also, thanks for your erudite explanation of why CRM companies/archaeologists are not like Wall Street bankers. And, thanks for the heads up on that dumping behavior presentation. As a historical archaeologist working in Arizona, I’ve gotta get my hands on that. The blog post title was intended to be titillating, but it also spoke to the cut-n-paste, by-the-book way we go about our business most of the time. As you pointed out, small projects don’t leave us much budget or leeway. We also can’t be too creative when we don’t find stuff.

      The bigger projects provide us a chance to differentiate ourselves and actually use some of the stuff we learned in grad school. Sadly, the big projects are often sucked up by huge, complete services environmental outfits that don’t always deploy the most creative research designs. It also seems like the really big budget projects are going to become even more scarce. However, I do think there’s a way CRM companies can afford to do some quality research while still providing affordable client service– gleaning info from projects of all sizes. Of course, this strategy means: 1) the company is actually making money, 2) the PI and owner caste has to care about improving archaeology, 3) field techs, crew chiefs, and project managers also have to care, and, most importantly 4) you have to find stuff (or care about writing about not finding stuff).

      As I mentioned, the synthesis/project summary section of our technical reports (the part right after the methods/results section and before the recommendation section) usually provides us a few paragraphs/ pages to put the project within a larger context. Rather than boilerplating that part, we could actually incorporate the project results into some aspect of archaeology that interests us or someone else at our company. This doesn’t have to be much writing, just a few words. You could also play to the research interests of some of your co-workers that might be willing to regularly write a short something about how this small site/scatter/building/road ect. relates to broader trends in archaeology. The idea is to build upon the strengths of your experts (geomorphs, architectural historians, historical archs, lithic analysts, ect.) and company in an accretive way so that, throughout dozens of projects, your company can actually create an article/presentation/specialty that furthers the field.

      In addition to letting employees present select research findings at conferences, companies can pay to turn some of these analyses into journal articles. CRMers presenting at conferences is pretty common, but working that paper into a academic journal article is very rare. I’ve heard of publishing bonuses but I’ve yet to meet a PI or company owner that regularly encourages employees to publish. Simply offering a $1k bounty for a published article is a start, but there needs to be a company culture that encourages folks to turn project data into something more. A publishing reward isn’t going to convince most CRMers to skip that Game of Thrones marathon, and put a couple hours of “free time” into writing a journal article even if the task was made easier because 70% of the article was actually already written in a series of reports. Creating a company-wide writing group would be even better (NOTICE TO ALL Field techs, crew chiefs, and field directors: Creating a writing group with some of your peers is a great idea. Getting articles published is even more important in this age of fierce industry competition, endless streams of CRM newbies with grad degrees, and the ever present feast or famine industry environment [Interested, grab a copy of “Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks” by Wendy Belcher]). Writing groups would also create instill more accountability and give you someone to commiserate with. In the end, the company employees would be more marketable because, in addition to CRM reports, they’d also have a few journal articles or book chapters on their CV.

      I’m not a CRM company owner….yet, but I plan on setting aside a certain percentage of the revenue towards research, with priority given to research that can provide additional revenue to the company or cut down on expenses (ex. research that involves refining our field survey methods, enabling in-field artifact analysis, streamlining paperwork, improving upon project/site/artifact databases, improving building documentation, improving desktop report publishing). I will continue to strongly urge employees of all levels to publish your data. That’s the only way anyone will ever know what we’ve done since selling project reports hasn’t done much to spread knowledge (although, self-publishing eBooks and pricing them at realistic, non-academic press prices could remedy this problem).

      Imagine what would happen to the field of archaeology if companies set aside 1% of their revenue for research. Based on the oft-quoted statement “CRM is a billion dollar industry,” that would translate into $10 mil of new research funding for archaeology, historic preservation, conservation, and curation. Even if we just followed the “1% doctrine” on a local level the result would still be significant.

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