How do we enforce accountability in cultural resource management

This post comes hot on the heels of a fiery debate on the Archaeology Careerist’s Network LinkedIn group about #freearchaeology (If you haven’t signed up for the LI group, you really should. And, I’m not just saying that because I’m the group’s manager. There have been some lively topics about forging a career in CRM archaeology that are unlikely to have been discussed in any university class. Join the discussion). The discussion was originally focused on the fact that several companies in the United Kingdom have been hiring unpaid archaeological technicians and, now, many companies actually have a certain number of volunteer archaeology hours as a requirement of their job post. As you’d expect, entry-level and archaeology grad students are pissed.

You can read about the problems soon-to-be heritage conservation archaeologist Emily Johnson is having finding work on her blog:

Doug Rocks-MacQueen had an excellent follow-up post on his blog that explains it’s who you know not what you know that lands you a job in archaeology:

Here’s a link to the constantly evolving Twitter feed about #freearchaeology

I decided this would be a ripe topic for discussion on the LI group, so I asked the question: Is #freearchaeology really a threat? The discussion did not stay on course for long. It rapidly morphed into a debate about professionalism and the quality of CRM work. This has given way to the perennial topic of abysmal wages for entry-level archaeos. The topic of accountability in archaeology also came up towards the thread 25th comment.

It made me wonder: what can we do to make CRM archaeologists more accountable for the quality of their work and how can we get government agencies to enforce accountability standards that already exist?

Accountability and CRM Archaeology

One of the earliest gripes university archeologist had about CRMers is that the quality of our work is poor (see my post on Robert Elson’sarticle in the Journal of  California and Great Basin Archaeology). I’m not going to name any names, but I can see their point. As the business management saying goes, you can only have a product/service two of three ways: good, fast, or cheap (I’d actually argue you can really only have it one of those three ways). It does seem to me that CRM companies are specialists in the fast or cheap. Few are capable of doing projects well enough to be considered good. Most take the term “good” to mean just barely good enough.

Just like the rest of the “business community,” CRM archaeology focused on getting things done on the cheap or on the quick has resulted in the prevailing Great Recession-period industry context where there has been an ever-expanding number of companies that lowball their scopes-of-work and budget estimates in order to land projects by being the cheap one. As any experienced business professional could have told us, that’s not really a sustainable business model unless its done on a Wal-Mart scale (although, at least one of the commentators on the the LI group thinks otherwise). In order to compete against the lowballers, and keep their employees employed, other CRM companies have been hard pressed to lower their rates. This has resulted in the cutthroat situation we’re all in where it’s hard for experienced CRMers to keep jobs and things are even worse for the up-and-coming, entry-level folks.

That’s how #freearchaeology happens, in a nutshell.

What are we going to do about this situation?

Truthfully, I don’t know. But, that won’t stop me from making some suggestions in this blog post. So, here goes nothing:

We could challenge/confront the lowballers that are driving the industry into the ground. That has been tried and has generally failed. Clients still hire cheapos. SHPOS and government agencies still allow their work to pass review. While companies that have been burned by a CRM consultant will spread the word, it doesn’t result in a company-ending event that drives them out of business. Basically, this will make us all feel good if we have enough clout for our careers to not be adversely affected but it’s not the best answer and probably won’t get the desired result.

Force SHPO to remove them from the CRM list of approved vendors. I think this could be a good method of enforcing accountability because all of the state’s I’ve worked in have had some system of approving qualified CRM principal investigators. This should be expanded to project managers and crew chiefs. A business will suffer if they’re dropped from the list. I think its a good idea to convince SHPOs or other state-level organizations to add a requirement for all CRM professionals to meet the minimum qualifications for their position and register with the state. And if you’re stricken from that roster because you’ve gotten too many complaints about your work, you’re done in that state.

We could make the Register of Professional Archaeologists actually mean something. I am an RPA. Many have laughed at my value of this designation; however, I feel like this could be the best thing for the profession than a college degree (see Doug Rocks-MacQueen’s post on an archaeology guild structure for a description of what the RPA could mean). We just need to get the RPA to influence state SHPOs to enforce their lists and address grievances. We also need for the RPA to actually follow up on grievances that are brought before them. The RPA is what we make it. If other archaeos don’t value the Register, then it will never have any teeth.

Get SHPOs to enforce the GSA pay rates. Money is the crux of this whole issue. We archaeos get screwed when PIs lowball. Pis also screw themselves out of money when they lowball. Getting the government agencies to enforce the GSA rates is huge. This will take a couple of quality CRM companies to lead the charge for a huge number of archaeological technicians and other entry-level folks. A few PIs with nothing to lose will be crucial in this movement. The techs and others that testify will have to be allowed anonymity in order for us to get anyone to speak up.

Those are just suggestions. They may seem “pie-in-the-sky’, but things will never get better unless we act. Without action, things will get worse.

Is the lack of accountability part of our education?

Ultimately, our entire industry is seeped in ambiguity and is truly a soft science. This has been eloquently pointed out by Lewis Binford in the updated version of his book “Debating Archaeology.” In his discussion of accountability in archaeology with regard to post-processual archaeological theory, Binford critiques Ian Hodder’s suggestion that archaeologists are not accountable for their interpretations (2009:34):

Clearly what Hodder is suggesting is simply that archaeologists are not accountable to a real past, nor to a body of experience; they are accountable to the moral and ethical challenges of time and place.

Further down the page, Binford explains:

Our ideas dictate what we see; thus we see what we want to see.

I just happened to come across this passage when I Googled “accountability in archaeology”, although I know this is part of the greater study of ethics in archaeology and archaeological theory. This passage is also a good reminder that most of us in CRM were taught in post-processual departments that stressed reflexivity and the importance of perspective. We were also taught to eschew quantifiability and focus on the “touchy-feely” side of archaeology. This background has led us directly on a collision course with the world of wholly quantifiable economics and business– a place in society we were not necessarily prepared for.

Sometimes I agree with Binford, but I don’t think we archaeologist are focusing on the moral and ethical challenges of the time in which we now live. Rather than draw upon the wealth of CRM business knowledge amassed during the last 60 years, we’ve decided that we only need to focus on the short-term; we only need to do what it takes to get us through the next fiscal year or quarter or, even, pay period. Sometimes these short-minded goals result in us tossing ethics aside or the moral obligations we have to our employees. This must stop.

We’ve also decided not to “see” the lack of accountability in our industry, or have decided not to address it. Whistleblowers have been blacklisted. CRM management has also been silent about this issue (perhaps it’s one of those “he/she who is without sin” issues). Few of us are rising to address the “moral and ethical challenges of time and place” and fewer are thinking about how we’re going to keep CRM a viable career field for the next couple generations. Getting a PhD or MA in order to land an entry-level job is not a sustainable career plan. Neither is selling our services for cheaper.

The “holy sh*t” moment when we anthropology degree-holders realized that we were running businesses or were a central part in their profitability hit some of us like a ton of bricks (I know it did for me). Ill prepared for this uncomfortably real situation, many of us have stood in the road like a deer in headlights. And we’ve gotten slammed by our business-savvy clients like an 18-wheeler pulling an oversized load. Rather than focus on the fact that, according to Federal regulations, we are the only ones that can provide professional CRM services, many of us have mismanaged the industry to the point where young CRMers are forced to compete for welfare wages or no wages at all. That’s sad.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can reform the industry. The starting point will be ensuring companies adhere to GSA wages. This will eliminate the most egregious lowball estimates because the most expensive element to any RFP, employee’s wages, will be about the same. Accountability in archaeology is a serious problem and has been for decades, but it doesn’t have to be that way decades in the future.

Do any of you have any suggestions on how we can turn things around? If so, write a response below or send me an email.


Resume-Writing for Archaeologists” is now available on Click Here and get detailed instructions on how you can land a job in CRM archaeology today!










Small Archaeology Project Management is now on the Kindle Store. Over 300 copies were sold in the first month! Click Here and see what the buzz is all about.



Join the Succinct Research email list and receive additional information on the CRM and heritage conservation field.