Mind control in cultural resource management archaeology?

Are CRM archaeologists suffering from mind controlArchaeologists at the Universities of Arizona, California, Berkeley, Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Stanford, Florida, Illinois, or Pennsylvania are controlling your mind when it comes to archaeology. Archaeologists at these institutions are the ones you cite in your cultural resource management reports. Like it or not, they have great power over the way you see, interpret, and discuss CRM archaeology.

They’re leaders in the field when it comes to publishing. Since they publish the books and articles we use in our cultural resource management archaeology reports, they’re the ones we read. As the major institutions from whence most archaeology professors come, they are also the professors that train us. We add what we learn from their work into our own work. Their thoughts shape ours.

How does this effect CRM reporting? What’s wrong with a few elite institutions controlling archaeological theory? Doesn’t this make it easier to keep our work current? Is this really mind control?

Mind Control in Archaeology

My PhD adviser told me “There is no such thing as a new idea.” She was right.

Archaeologists rarely think of new ideas. Most of the time, we just repackage an idea generated in another field, declare we’ve invented a new recipe, cook it up using a younger, more famous chef, and sell it to the world as a completely unique meal. The problem is: This prevents the sous chefs or even line cooks among us from contributing to archaeological dialogues. It also creates an intellectual palate that overpowers archaeological thought that is not part of the mainstream.

It’s kinda like how Imperial Pale Ales (IPAs) have conquered independent brewing. For the last few years, I’ve noticed how every brewpub has a wealth of IPAs but not much else. Imperial Pale Ales are not new but, today, no other variety of beer is as well represented in bars in the United States as IPAs.

What if you don’t like IPAs? What if you’re sick of them? What if you’ve just turned 21 and your palate has come so accustomed to IPAs that you can barely even taste the difference in any other type of beer? It will take years of declining IPA sales before breweries start diversifying their production and you get the option to drink something other than an IPA. That’s an archaeology-friendly proxy for what is now happening in archaeological thought.

The concentration of epistemological thought in archaeology prevents theoretical change, stunts growth, and slows the evolution of our field. It also disproportionately empowers academic work at the expense of CRM. This is interesting considering CRM archaeologists are doing the majority of the archaeological work in the United States but are not making proportionate impacts on the theoretical and intellectual milieu of our field.

In their recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review titled “How the Academic Elite Reproduces Itself,” Andrew Piper and Chad Wellmon describe how “graduates from a few elite institutions account for an outsized proportion of high-profile published work” (2017:B7). The authors conduced a survey using metadata on JSTOR and found out that:

  • The top 25 % of PhD-granting institutions produced 89% of academic articles
  • Three percent of PhD-granting institutions (Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Chicago, Cornell, Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Cambridge) produced over 50% of all articles published.
  • Authors from Yale and Harvard—just two institutions— accounted for over 20% of all articles.

Additionally, PhDs earned from elite institutions are disproportionately represented in university faculty. This is something I’ve discussed before. Where you get your PhD greatly influences whether or not you’ll get a faculty job, especially at an elite institution; and, getting a job at an elite institution greatly influences your publication quantity and prestige. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Professors at elite institutions have even more pressure to publish research in high-impact journals and with influential publishers, increasing the chance that their research will be cited.
  2. Profs at research institutions teach fewer classes each year giving them more time to publish.
  3. Profs at elite universities earned their PhD from an institution with a graduate student culture that strongly pushes PhD students to publish in peer-reviewed journals so they’re already used to what is expected to survive at an elite institution and can better make the transition from grad school to teaching.

(DISCLAMER: I am biased. I got my PhD from one of the top 25 archaeology programs in the world and teach at one of the top 10. I definitely have biases and a different perspective of this whole situation. Take this into account as you read the rest of this article.)

There are several other reasons for this concentration but, given my experiences as a graduate student and now assistant professor, I can say that individuals that are products of this system are in a league of their own (Feel free to ask me about my own experiences in the comments below or via email).

Piper and Wellmon’s research encompassed the whole of the academe, but does it jive with archaeology? Signs point to yes.

As discussed above, there are incentives to hiring archaeology psychos who got their PhDs from elite universities. First, they’ve already drunk the “publish or perish” Kool Aid and have probably published a lot of stuff before finishing their PhD. Second, they are overachievers who are likely to keep overachieving as assistant professors. And, third, their degree comes dripping with prestige and some of that prestige will drip on to the institution.

We all like lists and the internet is full of lists. Here’s a list of the top 10 archaeology programs compiled by some university ranking website. There are many like it, but this is the one I’m using. A major component of these rankings is “citations per paper” and “h-index citations;” so, citations is one of the ways this website ranks these departments. Unsurprisingly, four of the top archaeology schools are also part of the 10 schools Piper and Wellmon showed are responsible for over half of all academic articles published on JSTOR.


*World’s Best Archaeology Programs (**2016)
1 Cambridge United Kingdom https://www.arch.cam.ac.uk/
2 Oxford United Kingdom http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/
3 University College London United Kingdom http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology
4 Harvard United States https://anthropology.fas.harvard.edu/archaeology
5 Durham United Kingdom https://www.dur.ac.uk/archaeology/
6 California, Berkeley United States http://anthropology.berkeley.edu/graduate/archaeology
7 Stanford United States https://archaeology.stanford.edu/
8 Australian National University Australia http://archanth.anu.edu.au/
9 Michigan United States http://archaeology.lsa.umich.edu/
10 Leiden Netherlands https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/archaeology
**I do not agree with these rankings. My alma mater the University of Arizona and my current employer the University of California, Berkeley are the two best departments in the world. I’m sure you have a favorite that didn’t make the list too, unless you went to Cambridge.


This table tells me two things: 1) Archaeologists know how to read English, 2) Archaeologists read publications in English, and 3) since we primarily read stuff in English and cite it, we consider archaeology written in English to be the most important. The next table shows that we love to cite what others have already cited. And, what we continually cite is created by archaeologists with connections to the top 10 archaeology programs (shout out to Michael E. Smith at Publishing Archaeology for this list).


*10 of the most cited archaeology articles (2008)
Lewis Binford Willow Smoke and Dog’s Tails 1980 Yes (Michigan)
Lewis Binford Archaeology as Anthropology 1962 Yes (Michigan)
Colin Renfrew Archaeology and Language 1987 Yes (Cambridge)
Polly Weissner Style and Social Information in Kalahari San Projectile Points 1983 Yes (Michigan)
Barbara Bender Hunter-Gatherer to Farmer: A Social Perspective 1978 Yes (University College London)
R.M. Clark Calibration Curve for Radiocarbon Dates 1975 No (Sheffield didn’t make the top 10)
Michael Schiffer Archaeological Context and Systemic Context 1972 No (Arizona didn’t make the top 10)
V. Gordon Childe The Urban Revolution 1950 Yes (Oxford)
Atholl Anderson The Chronology of Colonization in New Zealand 1991 Yes (Australian National University)
David Anthony Migration in Archaeology 1990 No


Of course, we can always say something like, “Lists are just lists. This doesn’t mean CRMers are under mind control.” Well it does and it doesn’t.

Cultural resource management archaeologists do not have the same obligations to do the “shout out” to other top scholars as is common in academic archaeology. You all know what I mean. That page that summarizes previous work but is basically a laundry list of other scholars who have ever published a thought that is similar to the one being published in that particular publication. The “shout-out” is probably how so many of these top archaeology articles got cited.

It also matters when the article was written. Most of the Top 10 were published at the start of the academic publishing explosion brought on by desktop publishing in the 1970s—1980s. Scholars, especially men, started publishing a lot more articles when they no longer had to ask their wives to type up their chicken scratch into a dissertation that could lead to journal articles (https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2017/03/27/thanksfortyping/ [thanks @bruceholsinger for letting us know of yet another unmentioned contribution to science by women]). Also, the cavalcade of academic publishing, in conjunction with obstructing paywalls from publishers, has made it much more difficult for any scholar to know everything that is going on in their field. This makes it much more difficult for a publication written today to have the same sort of wholesale impact on archaeology as one written in the 1970s, 1980s, or even 1990s. Finally, archaeology comes in more flavors today than it used to. African American archaeology, anarchist archaeology, feminist, queer, landscape, public, diaspora…I’m not even aware of how many varieties there are.

While it may seem like all this epistemological diversity means there is diversity in archaeological thought, this work is still coming from scholars at a few elite universities. As shown in Table 2, eighty percent of the Top 10 archaeology articles were produced by archaeologists with some sort of connection to the Big 10 Archeology Programs—either as graduate students or professors. If Piper and Wellmon’s statistics can be applied to archaeology, it is likely that 10 institutions are publishing a disproportionate number of archaeology articles and books. It is evidence of how academic elite reproduces itself and how a small number of scholars are influencing the thousands of CRM archaeologists in the United States.

So, what do we do?

Piper and Wellmon suggest we go digital to diversify epistemology. They state (2017:B9):

What we are imagining…is a new form of algorithmic openness, in which computation is used not as an afterthought or means of searching for things that have already been selected and sorted, but instead as a form of forethought, as a means of generating more diverse ecosystems of knowledge.

Instead of searching for what has already been said by the heavy hitters, Piper and Wellmon suggest we broaden our searches to take other values into account. For archaeologists those values could include questions that are more appropriate and would have a bigger impact on the communities in which we work. The authors also state that the goal of digitization is not simply “transferring print practices to digital formats.” They urge us to integrate data, experience, and institutional knowledge to “reinvigorate the intellectual openness of the university.”

CRM archaeologists are actually pretty good at searching for relevant information rather than tweeting about “who said what” because we draw heavily upon grey literature and archival data for so much of our writing. Census records are better than a local history book; local history is more valuable to our projects than a statewide historiography; state histories are more applicable to our project area than theoretical dissections of historiography. Good CRM reports are usually more timely and specific to our project areas but the discoveries we make rarely make it beyond the SHPO’s office. Archaeologists at most of these elite institutions are unaware of the discoveries made through contract archaeology because this data rarely makes it into peer-reviewed literature, which is what prolific professors are reading and using to write their articles.

Nevertheless, archaeology needs to be more integrated. If we’ve imbued the “elites” (of which I am one) with so much authority based on our position in the field, professors need to know what’s going on in CRM. So much of the research coming out of elite institutions is based on very small data sets. Similarly, large CRM companies are doing a lot of work that never sees the light of day. Both academia and CRM are largely funded by public dollars, which means U.S. taxpayers are backing almost all archaeological research in some way. How can we give them the most bang for their buck while also diversifying the archaeological datasets that go into journal articles?

Breaking the Archaeology Brain Trust

Epistemological change will be slow to come from archaeology if it only comes from a small “brain trust” who studied at a few elite institutions. I went to the University of Arizona and can tell you that my experience there greatly influenced the way I see archaeology. Doing CRM in Arizona did the same thing because the companies I worked for had some of the best archaeologists I’ve ever met. Well-educated, knowledgeable, competent, intelligent; the time I spent in Arizona forever changed me as a scholar and archaeologist.

As a product of the Arizona School of Thought, I would be mistaken if I applied everything I learned there to my current work at the University of California or my work in the Caribbean for the Society of Black Archaeologists. Things in Arizona are different. I am now in a new place, therefore, I should learn how things work in this place. I had to unlearn what I’d learned in Washington State and Idaho to survive in Arizona. I am in the process of re-unlearning my Arizona ways to survive here in California.

When we accept work from scholars at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Arizona, and other elite archaeology programs as cannon, it becomes more difficult to see the unique lessons being taught by the sites we’re working in other parts of the country. CRMers also miss an opportunity to make substantial contributions to the field of archaeology that could be useful and more relevant than the most frequently cited articles in our field.

To a certain extent, CRM archaeologists are already drawing heavily on locally sourced research. That “Previous Research” part of the report that summarizes what other archaeologists in the area have done holds a lot of weight on our interpretations. Their experiences shape our interpretations of our current projects. We also cite relevant articles that include thoughts from academic works—bridging academia and the industry. Information flows from academe to CRM but professors rarely cite CRM reports; there is not a reciprocal flow of knowledge.

It’s now time for information to flow in both directions. Here are some suggestions for ways cultural resource management archaeologists could break through the intellectual domination of archaeos at elite institutions while also making a big contribution at the local level:

Publish redacted versions of data recovery reports: Write the (pre)historical context and the results sections in an accessible vernacular format. Remove any unit locations and protect the privacy of our clients (if necessary).

Electronically publish these reports on company websites: Don’t charge more than $4.99 for any and all reports, even the 1,000+ pagers. It’s even better if you make them free. Make them available on the company website as PDFs.

Spread the word through social media: Archaeologists are cheap and love free stuff. Create a social media group on LinkedIn where you can make these reports available to other archaeologists and archaeology students for free. Widely-distributed, free reports are much more likely to be cited.

Conduct data recovery projects using a company-wide research design: I’ve been harping on research designs for the last couple years because too much work in the United States goes down with crappy or no research design. Surveys, testing, and excavations should all take place within a context that has the potential to build upon regional, statewide, or company-specific research domains. The goal is to accumulate data over time so that it can be applied to larger questions like the ones pondered by archaeologists at elite institutions and scholars in your research area.

Collaborate with universities: Ever wonder why professors publish 2—4 journal articles and a book for every archaeology project they’ve done? It’s because that’s all the data we have to work with. Broaden our horizons with your discoveries. Sharing data with professors publishing in your research area has huge potential to expand what they know. And, it will result in more holistic understandings of what’s going on in the past because professors won’t be simply publishing on the 10 journal articles somebody else wrote about this type of site or time period. If you don’t have the time to write the article yourself, share the data and help a professor write it for you.

Use the internet to comment on the work of others: Blogs are the new white papers in archaeology. Academia.edu and similar sites host proper white papers, but those documents are as stagnant as journal articles. It takes years to change public perceptions through peer-reviewed journals. The same mental gymnastics could happen in a month though social media, blog posts, and associated comments. Discussing issues online doesn’t have to be vitriolic. This blog is an example.

We can keep treading the road we’re currently trotting, allowing professors like me to publish journal articles so they can be cited in CRM reports. I can keep writing articles based on the research I’m doing rather than the research local communities and scholars would like me to do. Or, CRMers can write their compliance reports in such a way that they can publish versions for public consumption. Cultural resource management archaeologists can also use existing channels to spread the word about their research so publishing academicians can cite their work. This is one way we can democratize knowledge in archaeology.

What do you think? Is your mind being controlled? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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