Not every archaeologist has a poverty mentality

Not every archaeologist has a poverty mentalityRecently, I published a blog post that tackled the issue of what I called the poverty mentality in archaeology. Most of the people that read that piece had no problem with it. Some of the readers, however, did not agree with my perspective and were not impressed by my message. Some commentators correctly recognized that the article was intended for a specific audience­ cultural resource management archaeologists in the United States that have a poverty mentality.

Rather than rehashing my definition of the poverty mentality, which is clearly defined in the original piece, I will talk about archaeologists that do and archaeologists that do not have the poverty mentality.

I know what the poverty mentality in archaeology is because I am recovering from this malady myself. I used to take cultural resource management jobs and complain about how I was treated by the company. I complained about the low pay and lack of raises. I complained about getting laid off even though my work always came in on time and on budget. I worked with crews that complained about the hotel, the food allowance, not getting paid for drive time, having to room with another crew member, not getting reimbursed for sunscreen…the list goes on and on. As a graduate student, I sometimes joined the refrain about our low stipends, increasing health care costs, lack of student day care/preschool facilities, massive sports funding at the expense of research (namely, archaeology research), and a litany of other complaints.

This negativity is so difficult to shake that I still find myself grumbling about these things today; however, usually, I recognize when I’m doing this and make the huge mental shift toward thinking of ways to remedy these problems. Recognizing that you have a problem is the first step towards finding a solution to the poverty mentality.

Archaeologists that do not have the poverty mentality

There is usually some way we can fix the problems in our industry and our lives, but, oftentimes, these solutions take a lot of effort. It’s never easy, but I know there are many archaeologists that have successfully shaken the poverty mindset and are actually doing something about the problems they see in our industry.

Just off the top of my head, here are some examples of archaeologists that have shaken the poverty mentality:

J.W. Joseph and Mary Beth Reed­– co-founders of New South Associates. NewSouth was founded in 1988 as a cultural resource management and historic preservation outfit that currently employs dozens of employees including archaeologists, architectural historians, desktop publishing professionals, and GIS specialists.

Kerri Barile and Michael Carmody–­ co-founders of Dovetail Cultural Resources Group. Founded right before the Great Recession, Dovetail has actually grown during the economic downturn. Kerri Barile was a long-time CRMer and transportation archaeologist before she started the company. She put her house up as collateral in order to get a loan to start the business. It was a gamble that created jobs for dozens of archaeologists.

Mary and Adrian Praetzellis­– directors of the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University. Recognizing that most universities do not teach the skills necessary for functional CRM archaeologists, the Praetzellises designed career-oriented curriculum for the MA in Cultural Resource Management at Sonoma State. They use the Anthropological Studies Center to conduct CRM consulting, which provides employment for their graduate students and helps pay for the cultural resource management degree program.

Christian Miss­– founder of Northwest Archaeological Associates. In 1987, Miss started her CRM company out of the laundry room of her Seattle home. The company remained in business for over 25 years and employed dozens of archaeologists before being bought out by SWCA in 2004.

Sarah and Eric Kansa­– directors of the Alexandria Archive. Recognizing that publishing paywalls and inaccessible site reports hinder the free flow of archaeological thought, Sarah and Eric formed a 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to facilitate data sharing in archaeology.

Bill Doelle­– founder of Desert Archaeology, Inc. and the non-profit Archaeology Southwest. Desert Archaeology is well-known in the Southwest for its high-quality publications and consulting work, including the analysis of the oldest irrigation system in the United States. Archaeology Southwest is a public archaeology not-for-profit organization that purchases archaeology sites, acquires easements, and collaborates with property owners and government agencies to manage archaeological resources.

Jeff Altschul­– founder of Statistical Research, Inc. and the non-profit SRI Foundation. A long-time CRMer, Altschul founded one of the largest CRM firms in the western United States that maintains locations in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington State. The SRI Foundation was started in 2001 as an advocacy and educational venue to spread information about the value of historic preservation.

Chris Webster­– founder of DIGTECH, LLC, the CRM Archaeology Podcast, and the Random Acts of Science Blog. (NOTE: Chris is a friend of mine. I am biased. Just warning you) After getting laid off from his last CRM job, Chris started his own CRM company even though it was the depth of a recession and everybody told him not to. That was over 2 years ago. He’s still paying the bills with CRM consulting, diversifying into tablet-based CRM applications, and helping spread the word about CRM through social media and a popular podcast.

This is just a small sample. I could continue highlighting people that have shaken the archaeology poverty mentality all day long. William Self who started his own CRM company in 1973 and grew it into a multi-million dollar corporation. Kenneth Aitchson, founder of Landward Research, LTD, who conducts market research on the archaeology industry and designs training courses. Tom Motsinger who founded PaleoWest and has expanded across the western United States. The widely read author and cultural resource management regulations commentator Tom King who has created the books that form the backbone of CRM education in the United States. The list goes on and on.

A few important observations about these individuals:

Instead of complaining, these archaeologists acted.

They didn’t wait for somebody else to do all the heavy lifting. They started something of their own.

They grew businesses from the ground up that filled a public and industry need.

They hustled and found a way to get the money they need to keep their businesses going. Getting grants, landing contracts, and lobbying the government­ anything it took to finance and sustain their ventures.

They continue to invent and discover new ways to get archaeology done and tell the world about their work.

Most importantly, they hired dozens, if not hundreds, of archaeologists and consultants to do what they were trained to do. In the process, they furthered the mission of their companies and organizations.

I know what you’re thinking. “But some of those folks are exactly the scumbag, low-balling corporate elites that keep archaeologists unemployed and working in poverty. I mean, at least one of these companies has a slam website dedicated to revealing their unorthodox business tactics.

You are right, to a certain point. Some of these entrepreneuring archaeologists have been guilty of operating companies that did not always create good jobs for archaeologists. They are responsible for the layoffs that caused me to create this blog. They are also responsible for the ever-decreasing wages for field techs in the United States and, as I’ve heard, have caused the projects that lead to #freearchaeology in the United Kingdom. Some of these people deserve to be vilified.

While their practices haven’t always been perfect, I do believe these people should be commended for their motivation to DO SOMETHING. Rather than waiting for the next round of grants or complaining about low wages, these folks actually found financial solutions that help their businesses grow. They were not and still are not afraid to act. Some of these companies were started in closets and garages. Some of these enterprises came from a deep dissatisfaction with a current career path­ the thought that “I can do better than the others”. Other ventures began as side hustles that grew into full-blown corporations. Regardless, taking the initiative to solve one’s own problems and problems that exist in the industry is at the core of all of these ventures.

These folks also weren’t afraid to hire people, archaeologists, consultants, and other specialists. This is why it’s important for us all to start side hustles. These companies can’t do everything. Sometimes they need skilled consultants to help get their projects done. Hiring other archaeologists is another way we can combat #freearchaeology, which has a place but does not belong in cultural resource management consulting.

Archaeologists who have a poverty mentality

Unfortunately, I could also expand this list all day long. It includes:

­CRMers that complain about their employment condition, but do nothing to change it.

­Archaeologists that are doing the bare minimum for their employer and wonder why the company is doing the bare minimum for them.

­Academicians that make their principal research focus something that only interests them and is not rooted in the needs of local communities, and then wonder why they can’t find a teaching job. (Or, any archaeologist that is betting it all on landing a teaching position with the potential for tenure-track right out of college)

­Anyone who believes in a safe, secure job with a university/company/government agency. If the recession didn’t teach you that there is no such thing as “job security”, I do not know what will.

­Archaeologists that dream for something more out of life, but spend every evening watching TV., socializing at bars, and hanging out with other archaeologists that have a poverty mentality.

I write to change the cultural resource management industry

This blog is not for everyone. I write because I want to change things in cultural resource management and historic preservation. Other blogs focus on other issues, CRM archaeology and historic preservation is this blog’s focus. The content on this website addresses the problems I hear other archaeologists complaining about. This is a place for dialogue. I hear us talk about how the good things in life (usually, luxury goods, vacations, large homes, ect.) can only be had by people that aren’t archaeologists. Guess what? Some of the archaeos that started those CRM companies are millionaires. They can more than afford the luxuries many of us believe are out of reach. Most are not millionaires, but at least they don’t have to come in to work worrying if they’ll have a job or not because they are creating their own job. That piece of mind cannot be bought with money.

Financially independent archaeology technicians and crew chiefs would be a very good thing for the CRM industry because companies would be forced to pay more to hire the skilled practitioners. If every tech and crew chief was working toward financial independence, they wouldn’t be so easy to push around­ so willing to work for peanuts. If companies that paid peanuts continued to attract monkeys, their projects would continue to be botched, budgets blown, and lessons learned. They’d have more incentive to hire higher quality employees who, because of their financial independence and side hustles, would have some leverage and could bargain for their services. This all starts by abolishing the poverty mentality that keeps us all down.

I do not believe making a ton of money is what most of us want. I think we’re trying to forge careers that give us the freedom to learn more about the aspects of the past that we think are interesting. We do not do archaeology for the money. We do it for the experience. Dropping the poverty mentality is one way we can realize this dream. We can provide for a healthy retirement by becoming financially independent; remedy the bad kind of #freearchaeology by forcing governments to pay skilled professionals to conduct compliance work; capitalize and diversify the existing CRM archaeology companies in order to increase wages for archaeological technicians; and, in the process, do the kind of research we’ve always dreamed of doing.

This will not be easy, but neither is creating a viable CRM company that provides jobs and quality services. Fortunately, we have dozens of examples to follow.

Let’s continue this conversation. Do you believe there is a poverty mentality in archaeology? If so, what do you think will solve it?

Write a comment below or send me an email. I’m always open to suggestions, comments, and critiques.

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