National Register determinations and CRM archaeological thought

How does the Section 106 process effect archaeological thought?I am in the process of creating an online course focused on Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Even though I’ve been doing cultural resource management archaeology for over a decade, I admit I still have a lot to learn because, in order to successfully navigate the Section 106 process, you’ve got to do it. Ten years of recommending things eligible and filling out National Register forms is a lot less than many of the most experienced CRM predecessors. There are legions of CRMers out there (including archaeologists, planners, agency administrators, and architectural historians) who have a 20, 30, and more than 40 years working with Section 106.

Regardless of who makes it, this course must be created. Most young CRMers do not have a basic understanding of cultural resource legislation when they embark upon their careers. This course will be a simple introduction to one of the most recondite processes of historic preservation. The Section 106 process lies at the heart of the entire CRM industry— the process of determining the historical value of buildings, sites, structures, districts, and objects to local communities. We all need to be aware of how it works BEFORE we start doing cultural resource management.

There is a lot more that goes into an eligibility determination than simple adherence to the rubric outlined in the NHPA; however, the regulations give us an excellent starting point that provides a standard framework for how we make determinations. The NHPA is where most of our work starts, but, at the end of the day, our own personal judgment based on years of experience and communication with other CRMers plays a powerful role in how we determine eligibility. In the case of for-profit CRM firms, economics has a strong influence but our ethics and experience is what we use to do our best justice to historical resources.

The Section 106 process has varying results, which has been a focal point for archaeological inquiry for nearly 40 years.

Allegories of Eligibility

Besides our co-workers and supervisors, no other author has impacted the way young CRM archaeologists think about historic preservation than Dr. Tom King. For the last 20 years, we have all read his books and discussed his writings. Perhaps no other author has been as vociferous about the archaeocentrism in cultural resource management and how the focus on bounded “sites” has affected the way we think about preservation.

King has been writing about eligibility determinations for a long time. In his 1978 book chapter “Allegories of Eligibility: The Determination of Eligibility Process and the Capacity for Thought among Archaeologists,” he describes why CRMers are supposed to determine properties eligible and the impact of those determinations:

“In a nutshell: those places that are eligible for inclusion in the National Register are eligible for consideration in federal agency planning; they are eligible for preservation, maintenance, restoration, adaptive use, and funded salvage. Those that are not eligible for the Register are not eligible for such consideration. Since a property that does not merit consideration…has little hope for survival, the question of National Register eligibility becomes a rather important one for archaeologists…in a very real sense the question is simply a way of expressing one of the most basic practical issues with which our discipline deals: the definition of our study units” (King 1978:43).

Basically, historic properties that are determined eligible have a better chance of getting passed on to future generations. Ineligible properties have almost no chance.

He goes on to explain that archaeologists think they’re studying human pasts through the remains they left behind, but, in fact, we are limited by the fact that we think about the past from the vantage point of bounded archaeological sites (i.e. bounded geographic areas of material culture). King goes on to cite the difficulties we have in determining what is and is not a site.

I’d also like to add that, at least in my own experience, the vertical location of a deposit also plays a huge role in creating site boundaries and eligibility determinations. Archaeologists in Arizona are much more likely to think an Archaic site is more eligible for preservation than a ranch built in the 1900s, even if that ranch had a huge impact on the local history. Oftentimes, the Archaic deposits are located beneath the historical ones. Our data recovery methods and research designs typically give short shrift to the historical ranch. In order to get to the buried Archaic horizon, we regularly use a backhoe to strip off the “overburden”, which severely impacts the ranch deposits, in order to reach the layer with the higher research value—the Archaic site. In this example, the vertical provenience of archaeological deposits dramatically effect what is and is not National Register-eligible.

The aforementioned example leads into the way King describes how our personal archaeological research interests can color the way we make eligibility determinations. He writes; “Your research may demand information on the distribution of early 19th century Mennonite homesteads, but if my interest is only in Paleoindian sites I am certainly not going to worry about a bunch of buildings that are 12,000 years too late to qualify as assets to me” (King 1978:44).

How many times have you heard a supervisor or co-worker say something like, “Hell, it’s just a bunch of glass and rusty nails. You really want to make an eligibility recommendation for that?” Or, “Fifty prehistoric sherds? That’s not a site. REAL sites have structures and middens. That’s not even a single broken pot.” Or, this even more sinister approach, “The regs say 10 flakes and 20 sherds in a 20-meter area qualifies as a site. If it’s a site, then it is a site even if the artifacts were found in an active wash and are a quarter of a mile away from where they were originally deposited. Who are we to argue with the regs?

Blowing off sites is very common. So is recommending sites eligible just because they meet the minimum qualifications. Mindless adherence to regulations is about as bad as noncompliance. I’m not saying this happens every day, but it does happen more often than we would like to admit.

Why is this one eligible and that one not?

As King reminds us, the regulations were created not only to protect historical properties. They also protect the state from capricious nature of archaeology decision-making. “The advantage of the determination of eligibility process is that it makes us go through them on Monday with how we do so on Saturday and how I go through them with how you go through with them” (King 1978:46). The regs provide a framework to archaeological judgment helping assure it is relatively similar across the country. Additionally, the review process with the SHPO or another agency is an opportunity for a third-party opinion that judges whether or not you have adequately explained your determinations and whether or not they were grounded in the regulations.

If you’re recommending those 30 sherds eligible under Criterion D, have you adequately explained the research potential they are likely to yield? With regard to Section 106, will the project even affect this small site? If so, how? What role will your determinations play in the consultation process between the agency proponent, SHPO, local government, or Native American tribe? King explains how the regs make us think. They are a form of built-in reflexivity that forces us to use our expert opinion within a widely accepted rubric in order to explain the reasons why we think a site is or is not important enough for agency consideration.

Cultural resource management professionals are still individuals. There is still wiggle room in eligibility determinations, as there should be. The regs are an outline for what should be considered. They are the ground bottom, bare minimum, but they don’t keep us from exercising our expertise and being creative.

Most eligibility decisions are not like the examples of disaster King provides in this piece, such as a SHPO negotiating with a transportation department to make a French and Indian War-period fort ineligible in order for funding to dig the site (which was botched by local grad students). But, I still hear about CRMers making some pretty specious determinations. I also hear about project proponents trying to buffalo CRMers into recommending sites ineligible so they can get their project through the bureaucracy.

This goes back to my previous statement about personal research interests, but it also stems from a lack of tenacity on the part of some CRMers and the power of market forces. A newly minted graduate student who wrote his thesis on Great Plains horticulturalism is not the best candidate to make a determination on a mid-twentieth century apartment building. He’s going to need to ask for advice but may be too intimidated or worry about his personal reputation. If nobody watches him, he may make a bad call on an important building.

It’s also easy for certain CRMers to get railroaded by corporate mucky-mucks who don’t want their construction project delayed. I can immediately recall a story of how a construction foreman started screaming at one of my co-workers until he was purple-faced for stopping the backhoe to check out a horizon of historical artifacts while doing monitoring. He nearly had a stroke because a site that was later determined National Register-eligible had been found and he would have to start working on another segment of the project away from the site. A lesser man might have been intimidated and allowed the dozers to keep rolling. Fortunately, my colleague stood his ground even though he was only about 23—25 years old and this was his first archaeological technician position. We now know more about pre-internment life for Japanese immigrants in western Washington.

The regulations help minimize our mistakes. It also gives us something to fall back upon in the event our judgement is challenged. We are forced to think about what makes historicity according to the NHPA. We’re also forced to back up our claims in writing. It takes tenacity and self-reflection to make the right call but that’s part of the job of being a CRMer.

Have things changed?

When King wrote “Allegories of Eligibility”, cultural resource management archaeology was in its infancy. The NHPA was barely more than 10 years old. Many of the CRMers at the time were old-school salvage archaeologists with a hankering for digging up the sites that interested them. Regional historic contexts had not yet been written. SHPOs were on their way up a very, very steep learning curve. Young archaeology students were cutting their teeth on salvage jobs at amazing sites; simultaneously making both mistakes and breakthroughs. These experiences in fieldwork, reporting, and contracting helped grad students at the time establish many of the longest-lived and most prestigious CRM firms in the United States.

In many ways, the 1970s was like the Colonial or Preclassic Period in the Hohokam culture history (which was also solidified by Arizona archaeologists at this time). CRM had existed since the Great Depression, but it really grew and became formalized in the 1970s. Mistakes were made and overlooked because the cultural resource ombudspeople at the SHPO were still learning how to do their job. Also, professional reputation was powerful enough to quake a SHPOs judgements. King explains how SHPOs worried about offending entrenched PROFESSIONAL archaeologists at local universities, so they made bad decisions that it would be hard to believe today.

The simple fact that it is difficult for me to believe the cultural resource management disasters King mentions in this piece could happen today may be an indicator that things have changed for the better in cultural resource management. Backroom SHPO deals are less common, although they still do happen. Eligibility determinations usually harken to a research context that the state has deemed important. We also think about what the resource can provide to historic contexts at the national level. Sites still get blown off, but we are recording a larger number of sites than ever before. Most of today’s mistakes are caused by shoddy, lowballed CRM work conducted by desperate CRMers and it goes unnoticed by overwhelmed SHPOs who do not have the time to read every word of every single report that comes across their desk.

I’d like to say cultural resource management archaeology is an entirely different world than the one described by King in 1978, but it isn’t. We still make mistakes. We probably always will. However, I do believe, in general, cultural resource management archaeologists are doing a better job of explaining our actions and coming to more holistic determinations that encompass multiple research domains, including ones that aren’t sexy to the CRMer who is doing the determinations (2 flakes and 6 pieces of FCR in a shovel probe = a site, anyone? But, in most states that is a site as long as the dirt is intact).

I also believe King is right in stressing the important role the Section 106 process plays in historic preservation and the capacity for thought among archaeologists. In the pre-NHPA days archaeologists were making all sorts of decisions based on whatever they felt was right, which usually meant digging sites that were visibly bristling with artifacts. Today, cultural resource management archaeologists are more willing to survey the totality of the historical record in a systematic manner. Much of this behavior is due to our experiences working within the Section 106 process.

I would love to hear what you think. Have we in cultural resource management archaeology changed the way we make National Register determinations since 1978 or am I delusional? Write a comment below or send me an email.


King, Thomas F.

1978       Allegories of Eligibility: The Determination of Eligibility Process and the Capacity for thought Among Archaeologists. In Cultural Resources: Planning and Management, Roy S. Dickens, Jr. and Carole E. Hill, editors. Pgs. 43—54. Social Impact Assessment Series #2. Westview Press, Inc., Boulder.

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