Lingering problems in the CRM archaeology industry

Call it fortune or misfortune, but I just ran across one of the most amazing articles/critiques of the CRM industry that I’ve ever seen I print.

It’s called “Archaeological Research in the Context of Cultural Resource Management: Pushing back in the 1990s” by Robert G. Elston. This article was published in the Journal of  California and Great Basin Archaeology in 1992 (14[1]:37–48). This is one of those obscure gems that you want to share with others right away. This is one of those articles they never show you in college, not even in the CRM university courses, because it rings with the truth that is not commonly found in academic archaeology writing.

Immediately, I felt like the author was speaking directly to me. The author makes an attempt at a treatise that doesn’t victimize CRM or academic archaeology, but, rather tries to show some ways we can come together to make our field more robust, articulate, and comprehensive.

The problems Elston points out are just as pervasive 20 years ago as they are today. Here are some of the high points:

Academic and CRM archaeologists should work towards a common ground- This concept is huge and would overhaul the entire field of archaeology. Cooperation between academic and CRM archaeologists has increased dramatically since Elston wrote this article, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Two things can do much to promote cooperation. First, CRMers need to make their work available. I’m not talking only about submitting their reports and huge technical series’ to the local university library. Of course, we should be doing that. I mean also making data sets and GIS data available to qualified archaeologists that are interested. We should also think about making our best work available for an affordable price via eBook or digital download, so everyone can see the great work that is being done in CRM archaeology.

Second, academia needs to recognize the wealth of information that can be found in CRM reports. Not all reports are created equal, but there are some killer tech series that are better than the books written on that subject available in the academic press. Academic archaeos need to look further than their local library before they publish.

It’s partially academia’s fault if CRM has unskilled practitioners- In recent years, several universities across the United States have created CRM classes or a CRM degree track. I was first exposed to CRM in graduate school at the University of Idaho and am proud to say that the University of Arizona’s Applied Anthropology MA and the Heritage Conservation certificate are huge steps in the right direction. But, the vast majority of anthropology, architectural history, and history grad students never receive even a glimpse of what’s to come in their careers.

Some will receive post docs or professor positions. Many will have to find a job with the government or a CRM company and, without prior exposure, these folks are going to have a hard time keeping steady employment because their first 5-10 years will be spent simply learning how to do their job. During that time they’re extremely likely to do dozens of projects poorly. Project failures add to layoffs and shuttered CRM departments/companies. It also adds to the bad stereotype CRM has.

Poorly trained PIs and crew chiefs with grad degrees is one of the major reasons CRM projects go wrong. I’ve heard dozens of stories and live through many of them.

CRMers can do better- While our education system is partly to blame, the CRM industry is the primary reason for its bad reputation. I understand that we had to comply with laws that mandate we do certain things. I know it’s a business and one of our main goals is to help our clients and make money. But, we don’t have to do the bare minimum every single time.

Cultural resources laws were created to make sure that a bare minimum of work was done. I’ve seen horrible 2-page, box-check-a-thons that barely even have full sentences or paragraphs. Entire sites summarized in a single, poorly crafted paragraph. No maps. No research design. Completely shoddy work. And these were published in the last 5 years!

The mantra in CRM these days seems to be, “do the bare minimum” and that’s sad. None of us went into this field to do the least we could do. We do it because we love archeology and history and care about human pasts. Elston said it best, “Most  important to the overall quality of CRM  archaeology are the attitudes and qualities of the individuals and institutions who perform it.” It is our responsibility to do the very best we can with the budgets and time constraints we have because if we don’t care, who else will.

This article was a welcome breath of fresh air for me because I’d been feeling disappointed with the quality of work I had recently seen conducted by others. I recently found two sites in a location where 3 other surveys hadn’t seen anything. One site was clearly visible on Google Earth. I was glad to read bout another CRMer interested I reforming the field, even though he spoke up 20 years ago.

I emailed Dr. Elston after reading his article. He emailed me back and encouraged me to follow his lead and try to do the best that I can. I promised I would.

I suggest you read Elston’s article. You can view it for free on the University of California’s eScholarship website (


If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

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