Bridging the Disconnect between Dreams and Reality in Cultural Resource Management 1

How do we fix the connection error between the dream of archaeology and the reality of CRM?If you’re reading this blog, there’s a strong chance you are, or want to become, an archaeologist. If this is the case, think back to the day you decided this was what you were going to do.

There was probably an event that sparked your interest in becoming an archaeologist. You saw a movie or rad exhibit at a museum as a young child. Maybe you had a teacher in middle or high school that was really interested in history and taught your class about archaeology. Perhaps an archaeologist made a special presentation at your school and you decided you wanted to be just like her.

While most of us make the decision to “go archaeo” at an early age, you might have been someone who had a riveting anthropology professor in college. Her lectures and course content was so interesting that you decided to change your major and follow your dreams (FYI: This is every archaeology professor’s dream so if you took this path please send an email to that professor and tell her or him how important they were to your future career path.)

Regardless of what caused you to learn the “Way of the Trowel,” it probably took years before you actually started getting paid to do archaeology. If you decided to go archaeo in college, it was probably two to four years before you got hired to do archaeology. If you’re like me and made the decision when you were five-years-old, you probably waited more than 15 years before you got your first archaeo job.

FIFTEEN YEARS! More than a decade of dreaming and scheming and planning and working and studying and networking and digging and cataloging artifacts and writing essays, resumes, and grant proposals. Fifteen years of convincing your parents that this is what you want to do. Fifteen years of telling yourself that it will all work out. You will get a job in archaeology. You’ll prove everybody wrong. And, when you get there, it will all be worth it.

Then it happens. You’re an archaeologist! You’ve achieved your dream. Now you work for a cultural resource management company, museum, or non-profit doing archaeological work. Doesn’t it feel great to achieve the dream of a lifetime?

But, then, the reality of working in CRM sinks in….

Sometimes Dreams Don’t Turn Out the Way We Imagined

Doing CRM isn’t what you thought it would be. Fieldwork doesn’t happen the way you think it should. You never find a single Moundbuilder village in Tennessee. In fact, most of your shovel probes don’t even have any artifacts in them. Living in a hotel room for 20-days each month isn’t as fun as you thought. Your clients and (sometimes) your supervisors don’t care about archaeology the same way you do. It seems like they’re only in this for the money (Disgusting, right?) Your co-workers don’t have the same enthusiasm as you do. They never feel like they’re getting paid enough. Complaints over wages, health insurance, sick time, vacation (or lack thereof) and other benefits are frequent workplace topics. Those envelopes from your student loan lender seem to come faster than your paychecks. Over time, your enthusiasm could wane.

Cultural resource management archaeology wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be like what your professors told you in college—Huge Hohokam platform mound villages bristling with artifacts and pithouses. You were supposed to find Paleoindian stuff that pushed back human presence in North America by a few thousand years. Clients were supposed to be willing to dig the first African American house in Pierce County, Washington simply because we don’t know anything about black people in that part of the country. Right?

You were supposed to be doing something interesting; something important. Not this. Not shovel probes by the state highway. Not sitting in health and safety meetings. Not handing some of your per diem back to your supervisor because you came home early. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

And, the heart of the matter is your paycheck. It’s too small. Your salary barely covers the bases. It’s not steady enough for you to buy a house, a new Tesla, or care for a child. To top it all off, you saw that your company charges clients $105.00/hour for your field tech services, but they’re only paying you $18.50. That means they’re pocketing about $86.50 for themselves. What greed! That’s why they just bought a new Tesla and you’re gonna have to keep wringing the miles out of your 2001 Corolla.

All of this is enough to make you second-guess your dream.

The Disconnect between Dreams and Reality

The chasm between the reality of doing CRM archaeology and our expectations going into the field is yawning. Few of us have ever been told what to expect from a career in CRM. My professors, few of whom had done CRM, talked about archaeology like it was always an action-packed voyage of discovery. They focused on all the cool things archaeos had found around the world and how that increased human understandings of the past. Their projects also sounded amazing. Working in exotic locales around the world, making discoveries and learning things long forgotten. What’s not to like about that?

I wasn’t even told cultural resource management existed until AFTER I’d graduated with my BA. Four and a half years of college passed and six months of after college work before anybody even told me CRM was how more than 90% of all American archaeology is done!

Once I learned about CRM, I fell in love with it. I’m one of those crazy people who didn’t mind digging in sleet or sleeping in campgrounds for weeks at a time. Initially, I liked traveling around the Pacific Northwest doing projects in off-the-beaten-path towns, living out of a suitcase, subsisting on Busch Light and gas station burritos. It was fun. Sometimes we even found sites.

I started in CRM before the Great Recession when work was comparatively abundant just like it is now (2017). In my first year as a field supervisor, I wrote about 20 technical reports myself, some data recovery reports, and some excavation research designs. I also worked on other co-worker’s projects. My wages weren’t amazing but they were enough for my then girlfriend (now wife) and I to live frugally in Seattle solely from my income while we saved her entire salary. We had health insurance through my company. I had a retirement account. This is how my career started.

But, of course, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to move up in the CRM hierarchy to become a project manager. My girlfriend and I wanted to buy a house. Sadly, my parents passed away so we had to take care of my preteenage sister. My future wife and I also wanted to have children of our own. None of this was going to be easy in Seattle so I landed a job in Tucson, a city affordable enough for all of this to happen.

I kept doing CRM for a larger company with offices across the American West. We bought a house. My sister started high school. My wife and I had a child. Life was good.

Then, the Great Recession happened. Work at my company dried up. We stopped getting projects. The crew and I started complaining. Our bosses kept increasing overhead and laying off field techs but they also hired some of their old friend as principal investigators. My boss stopped listening to my recommendations on Scopes of Work and kept building “pork barrel” budgets bloated with hours for employees in other offices. We never won any of these projects because the budgets were way too large.

Eventually, I got laid off. I hustled to find a new job in Tucson but it took a lot of work to get even a temporary position. I was able to land another field director position but it paid about 15% less than my previous job. Money was coming in but not as much as before.

After spending eight years in CRM, I’d learned a lot about how the industry works. I figured out that:

  • CRM is a job and archaeology is a passion. Sometimes the job intersects with the passion. That’s when CRM is fun, fulfilling, and amazing. Sometimes the job and passion are far apart. Most of the time you’ll be somewhere in between.
  • No job is permanent. You have to constantly be preparing for the inevitable: Unemployment. It will happen, so don’t get bitter. Just get another job.
  • Most importantly, economic forces are driving down the wages for all service employees including CRM archaeologists. From an industry perspective, cultural resource management is a service. Many of our clients believe what we do is just another business expense like paying a mechanic to fix the corporate jet, paying the office cleaning company, and paying a lawyer to review contracts. Unlike their own employees, most clients do not feel beholden to CRMers and other consultants because these specialists do not directly affect positive cash flow. Instead, service providers only suck revenue out of their pockets.

In order to make money, our clients must to keep their expenses low. This means they have a lot of incentive to keep the budget for services like CRM as small as possible. Keeping costs down is also true for government agencies who’s budgets are constantly scrutinized by those looking to gain politically by cutting “waste.” As a result, our clients want adequate services that will keep them from getting sued for as cheap as possible.

Cultural resource management companies must meet the needs of their clients and affordability is one of those needs. Unfortunately, there are some CRM companies that believe lowballing and issuing change orders for underbid projects is a good way to get projects. This is not a successful business strategy but underbidding happens, which drives down our prices and adds to the proliferation of shoddy work. It also drives down wages for all CRMers.

In addition to affordability bidding on projects, CRM companies also have to keep their expenses low. Salaries and benefits are the most expensive part of running a CRM company so they have incentive to keep down wages. CRM companies are caught in a tough place because they need to pay wages high enough to attract quality talent but low enough to make their services affordable. Some companies try to keep the same core staff, only hiring techs sparingly, while other companies simply grind through staff, relying on the constant flow of college grads to replenish labor stock.

The emphasis on maintaining competitive wages and bids is only part of the problem. Universities are busy graduating aspiring archaeologists with anthropology degrees as fast as possible. Undergraduate enrollments in university anthro departments across the country are diminishing, but the flow of graduate students has remained steady. These college grads are entering a market where, for now, there is work but that work is low-wage when compared to recent grads in technology, medicine, and engineering.

Simultaneously, universities are raising tuition to make up for budgetary shortfalls coming from state legislatures. Students are forced to take on the burden of cost-cutting politicians, most of whom already have college degrees and can afford to put their own kids through college. Anthro grads are finishing saddled with debt and hoping to enter an industry that struggles to pay wages high enough to keep its employees in the middle class.

If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking that the situation seems hopeless. I’m an optimist and where others see misfortune I see opportunity. Here’s how we can turn the situation around.

Labor unions are only part of the solutionIt Doesn’t Have to Be this Way

The employment situation for CRMers mirrors what is happening across the country. Wages are stagnant while corporate profits are sky high and the cost of living keeps increasing. It’s like we’re living in a new Gilded Age.

We’ve been here before. Children born in the wake of the Panic of 1890 and the Progressive Era were well aware of what industrialists would and could do to their families if they kept on accepting turn-of-the-twentieth century workplace conditions. They formed unions, organized strikes, and faced death at the hand of Pinkerton Thugs. Many workers were killed.

Following World War II, American workers continued to push for better work conditions and they got them because there was a lot of work to be done rebuilding countries damaged in the war and because their parents and grandparents had pioneered the cause of protesting for livable wages. By the 1950s, corporations were aware of what workers could do if they were not placated. As long as they were making money, the corporations went along with the game but industrialists could never shake the all-powerful motivation to maintain profits by cutting wages and benefits or outsourcing the work all together.

Since the heyday of unionization, we workers have gotten more complacent and the American employment situation has changed dramatically. Unions have traditionally been bolstered by manufacturing workers. Today, only one in 10 Americans works in manufacturing. Employment in service industries— a large, amorphous sector that includes people working in fast food, hospitality, medical services, and, I’d argue, cultural resource management— has skyrocketed. The ratio of service to manufacturing jobs is now 9.9-to-1. Most of these service workers have internalized the idea that unions are bad.

The reasons for our shift away from manufacturing to service industries is beyond what I could explain in a blog post. Nevertheless, this is the world in which we live and its unlikely America will go back to manufacturing. In this new world, service workers will have to figure out how they can improve conditions in their respective industries.

The #1 problem with working in a service industry that requires a college degree like CRM is the wages don’t always justify the education. If all the anthro students today switched to one of the degree fields advertised in the U.S. News and World Report as “the Best College Degrees,” it still would be unlikely that wages in CRM would increase due to the scarcity of CRMers. This is because, as mentioned above, both clients and CRM companies are constantly under budgetary constraints and there is no system to punish underbidders.

There are no easy answers to our current situation, but I do believe we should remember that what is happening in CRM is happening in other service industries across the country, industries we could partner with for collective action.

Here are some things I believe can improve many of the issues with CRM in the United States:

1) More stringent qualifications at the state level: CRM has a number of stated and unstated qualifications that most firms adhere to. Having at least one college degree isn’t a requirement for all positions but firms are reluctant to hire archaeos who don’t have a degree. The Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Archaeology, which mandate a graduate degree and experience, are another level of standards. Our professional organizations like the Register of Professional Archaeologists also have standards for membership.

The problem is not that archaeologists must meet a variety of standards. The problem is that these standards are not local enough. All you need to do a CRM project on private property in most states is a business license, a truck, and a laptop. The result? Underbid projects, shoddy work, and more fuel for our race to the bottom. That’s what needs to stop.

I believe the State of Arizona has the right idea. Permitting for projects on public lands are controlled by the Arizona State Museum (ASM). The standards for getting a ASM survey permit, which is necessary for all publicly funded projects or projects on public land, is extremely high. We’re talking a PhD, significant Arizona experience, AND evidence of completing a data recovery or large-scale survey from research design to report submittal. There are few archaeologists in the country that meet those standards so there are few individuals permitted to do the work in Arizona. You can work on private property but not on public or tribal land, which comprises about 81.8 percent of the state’s area.

Finally, archaeologists in AZ are provincial. Firms pretty are reluctant to hire archaeologists from out of state because they don’t know enough about Arizona archaeology (and probably couldn’t physically handle the fieldwork [Sorry, Flatlanders. jk]). It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD and 10 years’ worth of experience in Minnesota, you aren’t getting work in Arizona because you’ve never worked in Arizona. That PhD scholar would be lucky to be a field tech in this state.

All of this stringency results in comparatively high quality work completed by competent, intelligent archaeologists. It also results in higher wages than most other regions of the country.

All business is local. Historic preservation, the umbrella philosophy that includes CRM archaeology, is also local. CRM qualifications should be local.

2) Peer-reviewed archaeology reports and projects: There are few ombudsmen policing the Arizona system. The SHPO has some say over reports and qualifications but they are always overworked. The pressure to produce quality work comes from the CRM archaeology community. There are companies that were started in Arizona that have largely been ran out of the state for doing shoddy, lowballed work. Those companies now work in other states where the local archaeologists do not censure those in their midst.

Work in Arizona is informally peer-reviewed, but I’d love to see this process formalized. I would like to see the research designs and technical reports for larger projects be anonymously reviewed by other CRMers and university professors familiar with doing work near the project area. They don’t have to see the budget or rates, just the research design and/or draft report. The identity of the archaeologists who completed the report should be redacted. Only the agency, regulatory context, and part of the state would be known. I understand this would not mean complete anonymity because we all know which firms bid on the contracts, who landed the project, and which archaeologists wrote the report, but this could be a nod to anonymity.

Peer-review would also help equal the playing field because it would make lowballers and out-of-staters think twice about doing less than the standard for a given state. If you know your report might get bounced back from SHPO for methodological flaws and fieldwork errors, you’ll second guess a decision to skimp on the research design and field effort. You’d also be more likely to hire skilled crew with local experience because it would help make the project run more smoothly. Peer review might also help archaeological methods progress evenly throughout the state, possibly the region, because each company and interested university professors would be more familiar with what’s being done elsewhere in the state.

3) Improved archaeology education in universities: The fact students weren’t graduating with the skills and experiences necessary to work in CRM is why I started blogging, podcasting, writing eBooks and teaching for the Center for Digital Archaeology (CODA). I had no idea what CRM was after finishing college. This is a fate I’d like to save all current and future college students.

Universities are starting to heed the call started by CRM elders like James Hester (1963), L. Mark Raab and Timothy C. Klinger (1977), Robert Elston (1992), Charles R. McGimsey III, Bill Lipe, and Donna Siefert (1995) and all the others who have pushed for professionalism in CRM archaeology (See the SAA Bulletin 13(3), and American Antiquity 42(4):629—634 if you want to follow this issue further). To some of these archaeologists, professionalism starts in college. The growth of Applied Anthropology, Historic Preservation, and Cultural Resource Management graduate programs is a form of evidence of Academia’s realization that universities should do more to bridge the gap between college and the workplace.

We could still do more. CRMers talk about how the RPA has no teeth. They say it’s a rubber stamp. Well, it only is because there aren’t enough of us spending our invaluable free time to make that organization better. I’ve spoken to the RPA’s administration and they are fully aware that they could do more but are lacking the manpower and experience to influence the Millennial generation.

For what it’s worth, the RPA is our professional organization in the United States. The RPA could be something we use to improve conditions in the industry and force the production of quality work. Professionalizing CRM in order to improve the quality of our work is why the RPA was started ( If the RPA is not serving its members it is because archaeologists are not turning it into the organization they wish it to be.

4) Collective action among CRMers: Unionization is frequently discussed as a solution to the wage problem in CRM. My friend Doug Rocks-MacQueen has more adequately and frequently described why unionization alone will not solve our ails:




While unionization alone is not the cure, it could be part of the cure. It’s also painfully difficult to do in an industry like CRM archaeology. There is probably no one more familiar with trying to unionize archaeologists than David Connolly of the British Archaeological Jobs Resource (BAJR). We Americanos have and and these organizations have greatly helped prospective archaeologists land work, but BAJR takes it to a whole new level. Trainings, resources, industry news, and a job posting directory— BAJR is what CRMers need in the United States.

I’ve never met Connolly but I’ve seen him frequently on social media forums. He is continuing the fight for archaeology unionization but has been only moderately successful for many of the reasons pointed out by Doug Rocks-MacQueen.

There have also been attempts to unionize in the United States. Back in the 1990s, the United Archaeological Field Technicians (UAFT) was created ( to address, “…the advancement of labor concerns within the Cultural Resource Management Industry.” The union was launched in Palouse, Washington but soon moved to Weirton, West Virginia. According to the website; “The UAFT is a Union that represents people working in a skilled trade. Traditional skilled trade Unions include Masons and Concrete Workers, Carpenters and Joiners, Plumbers, Communications Workers, Electricians and many other trades primarily in the construction industry. Many of these Unions have been around for a hundred years and are very well established with many thousands of members.” It was obviously hoped that the UAFT would follow in the footsteps of these other organizations.

Their website focused on wage grievances and violations, but it looks like an early attempt to get archaeological field techs to organize to force employers to pay wages in accordance with the Department of Labor’s classifications for an archaeological technician ( The UAFT urged field techs to report violations.

I am still unclear what happened to the UAFT. Most likely it succumbed to the diverse, dispersed reality of CRM archaeology where field techs are sparsely spread across the country, making collective action difficult. In an industry as dispersed as CRM archaeology, it doesn’t make sense for archaeologists to stand on their own. Instead, I suggest CRMers join the SEIU.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) ( is an amalgamation of nearly two million workers in over 100 industries. They have over 150 local branches and are major supporters of the Affordable Care Act, increased minimum wages, and the Fight for $15.

When I worked as a janitor at the University of Idaho I was a member of the National Association of Government Employees which is partnered with the SEIU. I was paid a livable wage for Moscow, Idaho to clean floors, toilets, and empty garbage cans. I also had health benefits and a retirement, things the temporary-hire, non-unionized janitors at the University of Arizona enjoy. It took a long time to get hired to this position but the university would have had to take extensive measures to fire me because I was part of the union. No snap layoffs for me. It is true that I had to pay union dues but I believe the benefits more than outweigh the cost because we had the ability to take collective action if the university didn’t take care of us.

Did being a unionized janitor make people respect me more? No. I was still a janitor. But, unionization made this job more livable.

Will unionization make other CRMers respect field techs more? No. Will it make clients like working with unionized CRM companies? Maybe if union membership came with an associated skill/experience requirement that guarantees a certain level of work like it does in masonry or welding. Will unionization eliminate all of our wage woes? Probably not, but it wouldn’t hurt given the way things currently are.

The Choice is Yours

Cultural resource management archaeology has been around since the 1930s. It took its current form after 1966. Fifty years in, we’re still having many of the same discussions.

The field has changed drastically since it was first conceived but many of the business-related issues—bidding, qualifications, wages, ect.— remain today. None of these things are going to change if we just sit back and do nothing.

You don’t have to take on all four of those issues I mentioned but I encourage you to tackle one of these or something else you’ve noticed with the industry. I have personally decided to focus on improving the education of early and mid-career CRMers because simply finding a job can be the hardest part. You need experience in order to get experience. You need the right qualifications and know the right people in order to get your first experiences. While that’s the niche I’ve decided to address, I support any and all CRMers willing to jump on the other issues.

What you do is up to you. But, never forget, things will not change unless you do something.

None of this is going to be easy. You will have to draw upon the passion that initially brought you into the industry, that passion that sustained your dream for all those years until you became a professional archaeologist. Cultural resource management archaeologists are doing what they love. Now, CRMers need you to help bring that dream closer to the reality of the industry.

What do you think? How can we remedy the longstanding issues with wages in cultural resource management archaeology? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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One thought on “Bridging the Disconnect between Dreams and Reality in Cultural Resource Management

  • David Connolly

    I think you have said it all. and really, as you rightly point out, I have tried several times to unionise the UK workforce, with little success… some… but little. I am looking at teh chipping away approach, which should mean, that in the year 2365 we should achieve full unionisation 😉

    It is still worth doing, and although we managed to standerdise rates of pay and start pushing them up, although the skills passport scheme is allowing for training and focused career progression, all these things and more… I would love to see a unionised field worker being a norm, not an aberration . That said, the Irish did it, but were still defeated by the companies. HOWEVER… they feel empowered. Unionisation does not mean a land of milk and honey, it means a protection, and a collective voice.

    Good luck there… and thank you for the kind BAJR words… Uncle Badger thanks you kindly

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