Cutting corners in cultural resource management archaeology hurts everybody 4


How does cutting corners hurt our cultural resource managementI just finished listening to Episode 37 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast. The last 10 minutes of the show reminded me of a salient story.

One day, I was sitting at my cubicle in one of the many beneficent CRM archaeology companies I used to work for when one of my co-workers came into the office. His face was beet red, he looked exhausted, and it wasn’t just because the thermometer read 110+ degrees outside (It’s Arizona in summer, folks. Work goes on. We deal with it).

“What’s up, man?” I queried. “Weren’t you guys supposed to be out there for another 3 weeks?”

He didn’t answer right away. He just stared at me for a second. Immediately, I knew something was wrong. He wasn’t hot. He was angry. Rather than rehydrating by drinking water, my buddy raised a cup of lukewarm coffee to his lips and took a sip.

He responded. “I thought we were going to have a month of work ahead of us too, but the new field director decided to finish the whole thing in a single 10-day session.”

I didn’t know exactly how large their project area was but I knew it couldn’t be covered in a single 10-day. I knew there was a potentially historical ranch out there and the APE was in a place where little archaeology had been done. It was an important location that could fill in unknown information about the prehistory of the region. Survey in Arizona is easier than most places because the ground is usually barren. A trained eye can usually see even the smallest sherd or flake from 5 meters away. I’ve never dug a shovel probe on an Arizona survey. Digging is usually part of data recovery or testing. We usually just walk and look around.

Still, the project area was huge and in a remote location. How the hell had they finished that whole project in 10 days?

A few minutes of conversation explained the whole thing. The new field director wanted to show he was a hard ass so he pushed the crew to cover way more than the budgeted acreage each day. The crew was forced to nearly jog across the terrain even though it was over 100—110 degrees each 10-hour-day. Transects were over 2 miles long in some locations (FYI: I think it’s dangerous to take the crew more than half a mile away from the truck when the temperature is over 100 degrees because, if somebody gets heat stroke, their brain starts dying in less than 5 minutes. Any more than ½ mile away from the truck in that heat is asking for trouble. It will take at least half an hour for the crew to carry someone that far [check out my post and downloadable resource page on doing archaeology in extreme heat if you want to know how to stay safe]). Additionally, the field director thought morning safety meetings were unnecessary so he pencil whipped them while driving to the project area in the morning and had the crew sign them when they got out of the car. Basically, the crew’s health was at risk.

Moving at that speed, the archaeology was terrible. No sites were found and they few features even though they were surveying a historical ranch (no fences, roads, claim markers, tin cans ect.). They saw almost no prehistoric artifacts. They didn’t take many notes, GPS points, or photos.

Finally, he broke one of the cardinal rules of being a mid-level CRM archaeology supervisor: If at all possible, come in exactly on budget. Don’t go over budget. Don’t come in under budget (unless your boss says so). In some instances, it’s okay to come in under budget as long as the work quality doesn’t suffer. But, when you come in 20 days under budget, the bosses all know you didn’t do your job properly. Oftentimes they will also be extremely pissed about having to re-allocate your crew to other projects because that messes up the other budgets. In this case, there were no other projects for the crew to work on so they got cheated out of a month’s worth of work and pay.

Also, when you finish a huge survey in such a short amount of time the client thinks you can do it that quickly all the time. Next time they’ll wonder why you’re budgeting such a large sum when, last summer, you covered the same parcel in a third of the time. This makes your bosses look like they don’t know what they’re doing. It also puts them in a difficult position because they have to explain what happened. In this case, the contract was time and materials so the PI’s had to answer the following questions: Did you survey the whole thing? Did you find all the sites out there? If not, why didn’t you do what the company was contracted to do? Basically, is our project going to get screwed because you didn’t do your job?

Last but not least, your crew will rebel if you treat them unethically. They don’t want to work for someone that breaks their backs and cheats them out of work. No tech wants to risk their health for a ball-busting boss that doesn’t care about their pain. Nobody wants to dig themselves out of a job so the crew chief can look like Hercules. Crew chiefs like this will always have a difficult career if they don’t earn their crew’s respect.

Almost any group of field techs will give you overtime in 110+ degree temps as long as you’ve demonstrated you understand their plight, you are compassionate to their concerns, care about their well-being, and show that you’re grateful for their efforts. In the past, I’ve worked sun up to sundown in the blistering desert heat for whole 10-day sessions with no feelings of malice toward my supervisors because they made me feel like my effort was helping everybody. They made sure I knew they were sorry I was placed on such a FUBAR project, but, if I just kept giving my all, we would all come out on top. These are the bosses I’d follow to the end of the earth.

The field boss in my story didn’t do that and his crew complained to the PIs and said they’d never work for him again. They mutinied at the end of the project. The company was forced to hire separate crews of temporary hires to field this field director’s projects because of his treatment of the crew. He was also sternly disciplined since this behavior happened during his probationary period, was told to follow the scope of work.

I’d like to tell you that he changed his ways, but that’s not what happened. He did start fulfilling the budgeted field time, but, since his first project set the tone for additional projects with that client, the company was never able to make much money on any of these contracts. And, they were setting themselves up for failure with every sloppy project he lead. A few weeks after the incident I just described, I heard he told a guy that was visibly suffering from the heat to sit under a palo verde bush until the crew could finish recording a site. It took about an hour. Temperatures cracked 120 degrees on that project. When they finished with the paperwork, the boss decided to knock off work 15 minutes early because one of the crew was dying. The sick crew member could barely stagger the mile back to the Jeep. He narrowly escaped hospitalization. This was about 2 years ago. The field director still works for that company.

Another Tale of Corner Cutting on the CRM Archaeology Podcast

On Episode 37, the podcast host Chris Webster described an ethical dilemma faced by one of his colleagues working back east (For Chris and I, anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains is back east). Chris’ colleague was employed on a project that required shovel probes of a certain diameter to be excavated to a specific depth. This guy seems to be the only one following the scope of work. The other crew members, crew chief included, are digging very narrow probes and giving up at the first sign of a root or rock obstruction. They’re also not digging to the depth outlined in the scope of work. This behavior is actually encouraged by the crew chief, even though it could cause huge problems for the company in the future.

Chris’ friend is in a bind. He’s not finishing the same number of probes as the rest of the crew, which makes him look lazy. He also doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers by bringing up the issue with his supervisors because he needs the job and is a temporary hire. Causing problems will almost certainly mean he never gets hire there again. It could also result in him being blacklisted by the other companies in the area. But he wants to do good archaeology.

What should he do? Below are Chris Webster’s answers and my response in italics:

1)  Address the problem from the inside— Chris recommends he ask the crew chief why they’re not digging to the depth and diameter in the scope. If this doesn’t work, Chris says he should bring it up with the crew chief’s bosses.

(This is probably the best option. In a perfect world, the crew chef would realize his sloppy work and try and change it. This probably isn’t going to happen. Nevertheless, Chris’ friend may be able to figure out why the chief is cutting corners. Maybe the project is totally lowballed. Maybe they’re digging in disturbed sediments and all the artifacts are in the upper 20 centimeters. Maybe the chief is jockeying for a promotion and thinks slopping quickly through his work will make him look good.

The main problem is the fact that the crew isn’t properly looking for sites. There is a reason why the scope asks for probes to be dug to a specific depth. Even if it’s just protocol, they should try their best to follow the scope of work. Also, if a site is found and the client/SHPO finds out the CRM company wasn’t thorough enough, the whole company is in huge trouble [One example is the Port Angeles Graving Dock project in Washington State. The CRM company wasn’t thorough enough and prematurely gave a green light to a project area that was directly atop a Native American village site with a known cemetery. Over 500 Native American burials were removed and the project was delayed for over a year. FYI: This is one of the examples in “Avoiding Archaeological Disasters: A Risk Management Approach” by Darby C. Stapp and Julia G. Longenecker]

Slopping through projects also makes it hard for the PIs to budget for future proposals because the bosses will think crews can dig faster than they really can. They may get in a sticky situation where their scopes do not adequately assess project areas. Burials and sites may be found. Contracts, money, and jobs will be lost if that happens.)

2)  Call the SHPO or government agency— If working things out through the company doesn’t work, Chris suggests his friend should contact a government agency and tell them what’s going on out there. This can be done anonymously, although future action may require him to come out of the woodwork.

(This is pretty good advice, but it could compromise Chris’ friend’s career in that area because he won’t be able to stay anonymous forever. He may need to come forward and lodge a complaint. He may also be seen as a nitwit or vindictive temp hire if an archaeological site isn’t found out there. His reputation may be tarnished.

I know of a situation where contacting the government agency actually helped prevent the wholesale demolition of a major archaeological site. A few years ago, some archaeological techs I know heard that some of their friends were working at a nearby site for another company so they decided to stop by after work and say hello. When they got there, the crew was gone. Some screens were set up nearby and it looked like somebody was looking for artifacts. In the backdirt pile, the site visitors saw what looked like bone and flakes. Why were these artifacts found but not collected? Furthermore, the mechanical stripping wasn’t going deep enough to find archaeological features. The backhoe wasn’t even removing the vegetation from the ground surface. Why wasn’t the backhoe going deeper?

It looked like the crew had just found an awesome archaeological site and were positioned to find even more stuff.

After calling their friends, the site visitors realized the site’s discovery was unwelcome. Needless to say some unsavory CRM archaeology was taking place, but their crew was too worried to say anything because they might lose their jobs. That was something the site visitors didn’t have to worry about. They gave an anonymous call to the agency sponsoring the project who sent some folks out there to check out what was going on. They were just in time.

In exchange for not being sued, the initial consultant was forced to change their methods and properly test the site even though it meant they were going to lose a lot of money. A different company was hired to excavate what would become one of the most influential sites in the area.

The company that tried to pull off a cover-up is still in business. Nobody was fired for their behavior. The “whistleblowers’ also still work in the region today.)

3)  Go through the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA)— Chris also suggests his friend contact the RPA and notify them what’s going on out there. Since most project directors and PIs are RPA-members, perhaps the Register can do something about it.

(In all fairness, the RPA has almost no power over its members. Principals and supervisors have to qualified to work according to state and local standards, but they don’t have to be RPA members. I wish this situation was different and all practicing archaeologists had to be RPAs. I also wish losing your membership was similar to a doctor losing his medical license or a lawyer getting kicked off of the bar, but it isn’t.

This may help Chris’ friend get something off his chest, but it probably won’t change much. It does open him up to getting blacklisted though, so I wouldn’t recommend going down this path.)

4)  Contact the American Cultural Resources Association (ACRA)— Finally, Chris told his amigo to contact the ACRA and tell them what’s happening. The ACRA is the leading organization for CRM archaeology firms and being an ACRA member does have some weight. It’s also likely that the ACRA doesn’t want its members cutting corners because it’s bad for the organization’s reputation.

(Unlike the RPA, I feel like ACRA does have some influence and may say something to the company’s PIs that could make them straighten up. This is probably sound advice as long as the friend doesn’t have to sacrifice anonymity.)

My Advice

Don’t risk your reputation unless cultural resources are at risk and unless this kind of behavior doesn’t fit your view of what archaeology should be. Go with your heart— keeping in mind that you may lose your job and future work for trying to do the right thing.

I don’t have enough information to know the whole backstory about this situation but sometimes we CRMers are doing compliance for posterity’s sake. Sometimes we have to dig probes that have almost no chance of yielding archaeology. Other times we’re digging to extreme depths even though the project won’t go down that deep. For example, you’re probably not neglecting any archaeology if you’re supposed to dig every 50-cm diameter probe down 2 meters along the side of a highway in the city for a road resurfacing project and you don’t dig deep enough on every single hole. Conversely, you are neglecting potential archaeology if you’re not going to project depths in an undisturbed area near a stream on flat terrain.

The bigger issue is your own personal morals and work ethic. It seems like Chris’ friend isn’t okay with cutting corners. Maybe his company is. Maybe his bosses and co-workers are just digging for dollars rather than trying to help manage America’s archaeological heritage. Maybe they’re lowballers that just want to make clients happy and don’t know how to budget properly. I can tell you, crews that aren’t digging to project specifications probably keep supervisors even more out of touch with reality and make future scopes even worse.

No archaeologist should be forced to work on projects they feel uncomfortable about or for companies that are doing unethical things. Not following the scope of work is unethical not only because you might be missing sites, but also because you’re not doing your bosses, co-workers, or the entire industry any justice. Your bosses will continue lowballing until they miss a site and get sued or start having their reports bounced back by SHPO. That field director will keep doing sloppy work until she/he no longer knows how to do their job properly. At that point, they’re in major trouble because the company will either stop getting work because of a bad reputation or the company will keep expecting herculean efforts that can’t maintained forever.

I’d like to say justice will be done for companies that cut corners, but it’s not true. Sh*tty companies can stay in business for a long time and continue to do crappy work. Bad PIs, project managers, and field directors tend to stay in the industry too— continuing to muck up the archaeological record with every project they complete. Clients looking to save money on their compliance requirements or hire a CRM company that, somehow, never finds anything will keep this cycle going. This is just one of the bad facts of contract archaeology that we all have to deal with.

Fortunately, there are virtuous archaeologists like Chris’ friend, my colleagues that rebelled against their field director, and the techs that called in the inadequate efforts of a crappy CRM company. These are folks that don’t let dollars get in the way of doing what is right. They’re the ones that keep CRM archaeology relevant and help us all learn about our heritage.
If you haven’t done so already, you really need to listen to Episode 37 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast. The end of the show covers the ethical dilemma I wrote about in this post, but the rest of the show is with the hosts of Time Team America. They interview Joe Watkins, one of my professional role models and archaeology heroes.

Also, please write a comment below or send me an email if you want to contribute to this post.

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4 thoughts on “Cutting corners in cultural resource management archaeology hurts everybody

  • Maria

    I think I had a friend who worked under the crew chief who made his crew run during survey. She had a story very similar to what you describe while working SW CRM. My comments about safety weren’t dissimilar.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      It’s too bad that my experiences are similar to others. I’d like to say that the vast majority of projects I’ve worked on haven’t been like that, SW projects included. The problem is when crew chiefs focus on getting a specified amount of work done (acres surveyed, probes dug, levels excavated ect.) rather than trying to find archaeology sites and do them justice.

      Thanks for reading, Maria.

  • Chron

    Good post. It seems like we’ve all been there. I remember having to sneak back after work to test these sites that our drunk bosses blew off so that they could go get drunk.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Sure have. We’ve also all had to short change our analysis/excavation/write-up in order to make poorly budgeted projects come in on budget. Like I said, that stuff hurts everybody.