Crisis in CRM archaeology is actually a changing of a generation, Part I


…CRM, the most industrious part of American archaeology, is an aged industry that has worn out its welcome. American society values historic preservation, but is also increasingly resistant to standardized federal compliance.” Lawrence E. Moore, CRM: Beyond its Peak (SAA Archaeological Record 6[1]:30–33).

I love it when I read something about CRM archaeology that initially makes me mad, then, makes me think.

I came across a series of articles written by Lawrence E. Moore in the SAA Archaeological Record in 2005 and 2006 about the changes we’re facing in American archaeology. This series was timely, as it was published just before the Great Recession, and it attempts to speculate upon the near future (5 to 30 years) of contemporary archaeology in the United States.

While I don’t, agree with everything Mr. Moore wrote, the article series got me thinking about my career path and where it may be headed. I’ve been working in CRM archaeology for almost 10 years now and plan on working in CRM for many decades to come. The thought that the industry may some day become obsolete is shocking to say the least. Fortunately, changes in the world economy and society during the last decade lead me to believe that Mr. Moore, who has also been a financial planner, is simply reading trends and making statements that are unlikely to become true.

Overall, I applaud Mr. Moore for putting such an intriguing topic before the archaeological community. The overarching question behind these articles (what is going to happen in American archaeology?) is extremely important for CRM mid-careerist and those of us breaking into the field.

This post is the first of a 3-part series that will discuss the three particular articles in the SAA Archaeological Record written by Mr. Moore. Here are the citations in case you wanted to read the originals. They’re all available on the SAA website and you can download them for free.

Moore, Lawrence E.

2005    A Forecast for American Archaeology. SAA Archaeological Record 5(4):13–17.

2006a  CRM: Beyond its Peak. SAA Archaeological Record 6(1):30–33.

2006b  Going Public: Customization and American Archaeology. SAA Archaeological Record 6(3):16–19.

Is Demography a Harbinger of Future Disaster

The economic changes that will be brought about from the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation (1946–1964) is central to Moore’s predictions that CRM is going to collapse. In his 2005 article A Forecast for American Archaeology, Moore starts off by illustrating how the purchasing power of Baby Boomers will initiate a deflationary depression that cannot be reversed by Generation Xers (1965–1978) or the Millennials (1979–1986). Using interpretations initially created by Harry S. Dent (1994, 2004), Moore explains that this depression will begin around 2010 and will continue until about 2022.

The decreased spending capacity of the Boomers will create a feedback loop that looks like this: PEOPLE BUY LESS-> COMPANIES MAKE LESS-> TAX REVENUE DECREASES-> GOVERNMENTS RE-PRIORITIZE SPENDING AND RAISE TAXES-> THIS EXACERBATES THE PROBLEM AND THE CYCLE CONTINUES.

Moore reassures us that one way we can, somehow, adjust to the ensuing 15% unemployment is by creating a Civilian Conservation Corps-esque bureaucracy that will actually be good for archaeology. With the ranks of the unemployed swollen beyond recent memory, “labor-intensive industries that used simple tools and machinery,” such as archaeology, will be well suited to benefit from the legions of unemployed willing to do our digging for us.

I’m trying to envision the numerous teams of qualified archaeologists supervising huge crews of human backhoes that shovel scrape entire sites. Tons of sites across the country “discovered” through archaeology and sheer backbone. CRM companies falling into the trash can in the face of massive “Grapes of Wrath-style” armadas of unemployed laborers chomping at the bit to get a chance to dig archaeology sites. I just don’t see that happening.

While this economic situation actually (kinda) happened since Moore wrote his article, there are several obstacles standing in the way of this return to Depression-style archaeology:

Americans don’t do hard labor– It doesn’t take a demographic specialist to see that most Americans haven’t done manual labor in a couple generations. Most of us haven’t gotten blisters from work unless it was while doing some intensive gardening. There are more triathletes, marathoners, and extreme obstacle course race survivors than ever before. I almost dare these guys to do a single 10-day session in the Sonoran Desert with me. Many of the young archaeologists I’ve worked with start complaining once the temperature tops 90 degrees or we have to stay a few minutes late to finish that last excavation unit. That’s from the ones that WANT to do archaeology. Do you think the average cube farm veteran is going to grab a shovel and dig at least one cubic meter of dirt a day?

During the Great Depression, a large percentage of Americans were used to working on farms or doing manual labor. In a quick Google search, I learned that farmers in Ventura County, California had to import farm workers (http://www.scpr.org/news/2013/04/29/36996/ventura-county-farmers-face-labor-shortages/). Why? Farmer Leslie Leavens explains that, “we are dependent on a foreign-born work force…This is not the kind of work that people raised here want to do.” Rather than suffering from a surplus of laborers, American companies are likely to look towards Mexico to provide laborers (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/10/mexico-immigrants-labor_n_3055336.html). Evidentially, when the Baby Boomers retire (and they’re in no rush), we will need both skilled and unskilled workers. There won’t be enough people to do the work. Also, it might not just be that we’re lazy either. We might not be physically capable of survey or archaeological excavation. Over 35 percent of Americans are obese (http://www.mndaily.com/opinion/letters-editor/2013/04/29/american-obesity-epidemic). That could make it hard to dig.

We dig less these days– In 2012, I dug as part of just three projects. I worked at least 48 weeks in that year, which is about 240 8-hour work days or 1920 man-hours. Excavation was a total of 360 of those man-hours or about 19 percent of my time. Because I’m a field director that was working with archaeological technicians, I didn’t actually dig for all of those hours. They did most of the digging while I filled out paperwork, mapped, took GIS points, and did the photos. So, I was within close proximity of archaeological excavation for about 360 man-hours.

Conversely, I spent nearly half of my year surveying (about 880 man-hours or 46 percent). The rest of the time was spent writing.

I’m no industrial hygienist, but spending 19 percent of my time excavating is actually a high number for many mid-level CRMers. I’ve spent longer periods doing excavation (like in 2011 when I dug for 40-hours a week for about 7 months of the year), but I’ve also spent less time digging. What I’m trying to say is excavation is a smaller portion of what we do. Most of the time we’re surveying or writing.

Archaeological excavation is expensive and frequently goes over budget. It also takes costly curation agreements, licenses, permits, research designs, and qualified archaeological professionals. Clients know this. So do government agencies. They try to avoid impacts to sites whenever possible, which makes it unlikely that the government or any other client is going to fund huge archaeological excavations in the 2010s.

Where will we put all the artifacts?– If we dig hundreds of sites across the country, where will we put all the artifacts, paperwork, and digital data? Curation facilities are already overflowing from the fact that there are few provisions for deacessioning or culling archaeological assemblages. Curation fees are skyrocketing across the nation as state governments struggle to stay alive in the face of relentless budget cuts. Governments appear to be unwilling to build new facilities, so the cost to store stuff at the existing ones will only continue to increase. This makes another CCC-style “dig-a-thon” nearly impossible in today’s climate.

The legislative willpower does not exist– During the Great Depression, steeled government representatives forced concessions from the business community and increased government spending in order to address the historic unemployment level. It was a tough sell to many and the wealthy across the United States were generally against helping out the poor through government programs. But, somehow, our grandparents rose to the occasion and did what was right– helped those that needed it.

That kind of willpower doesn’t exist in Washington D.C. anymore. The Baby Boomers have nothing close to the fortitude that their parents did. During the Great Recession, conservative officials, especially the Boomers, stymied almost every attempt aimed at helping the unemployed. Practically the only thing that got through was the Stimulus Package and that mainly helped the rich get richer.

With unemployment hovering around 10 percent at the height of the Recession in late 2009, the government didn’t even attempt to create any CCC-style programs. They were barely willing to extend unemployment benefits. In the meantime, many of the archaeologists I know lost their jobs, saw no raises or promotions, or were furloughed. The Great Recession is nothing like the Great Depression, but I didn’t see the government bat an eye at our needs or sufferings.

Public archaeology is the way in the future customized economy

Here is one of the few things I agree with Moore about. Providing customized CRM solutions is one key to surviving the future economic environment. I also agree that public archaeology will become central to CRM firms of the future.

Towards the end of the article, Moore states that the United States economy is becoming oriented towards customization (i.e. individualized, localized products geared toward specific, targeted markets). For archaeologists, this means we will have to fine-tune our work toward the individual needs of local governments, clients, and constituencies. It will be difficult for us to continue using a “one-size-fits-all” approach to satisfy the needs of the different clients. For example, we have to approach large mining conglomerates, with their myriad regulations, safety requirements, and business objectives, in a different manner than we work with military bases that have completely different goals and desired outcomes. Each project will have to take the client’s desired outcome into account (check out my post on the stated and unstated goals of every CRM project). The most successful firms already understand this.

Public CRM archaeology is also an outgrowth of this archaeological customization. CRM archaeologists will need to identify the local constituencies that are willing and interested in our work. We will also have to devise ways to reach out to these communities for assistance, guidance, and funding. The best thing about public CRM, aside from proactive archaeological study and more robust historic preservation/ heritage conservation, is it will actually be cheaper than the current CRM business model. By employing online resources, social media, tablet-aided in-field data recordation, and oral histories, we CRMers can provide better services than ever before with smaller budgets.

Just imagine if this was how CRM projects happened. First, we used the fruits of our online background research to conduct and record an oral history interview on our iPhone with long-time local resident minutes before we documented the historical buildings in a survey corridor with our iPads. As we drove back to the office, we finished filling out the site forms for any historic structures and completed the methods and results section of the report. After writing the rest of the report, we uploaded the interview to the company website with a small popular version of our fieldwork based on the draft report. After submitting the final report, we uploaded it to the company website and initiated an automatic social media blitz about the project’s success and the client’s deep concern for the communities in which they work.

That dream is how projects will actually be done in the future. I know some principal investigators that are already working towards doing them this way.

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