The biggest difference between good and bad cultural resource management reports

What is the biggest difference between good and bad archaeology reports?Don’t get me wrong. I’ve written garbage before. I have been guilty of writing exactly the same kind of cultural resource management archaeology report that I am about to excoriate in this blog post, but I learned my lesson after being told by several cultural resource management archaeologists I respect to take ownership of my work. This is why I am in a good position to write the following post.

I have recently been working on a side project that was spawned from a horribly reported CRM project. Getting to do the additional compliance so the client doesn’t get sued is excellent for me. But, I can’t help but ask how come this project got messed up in the first place.

I know how this happens. Cultural resource management companies are paid for their experience and expertise with historic preservation laws. This is our strength. It’s what we do. However, problems arise when we become so narrow-mindedly fixated on the regulations that we forget the fact that we’re also archaeologists with a duty to use archaeological method and theory to investigate the past, and an additional responsibility to situate our work in the wider field of archaeology. It also happens when we concentrate on “making the client happy” (which is impossible because what would make them happy is if they didn’t have to hire us) instead of doing good work.

My struggles this week made me ask: What is the biggest difference between good and bad cultural resource management reports?

My answer: The research design.

Weak, or non-existent, research designs result in weak reporting and a scatterbrained approach to a project that makes it hard to do good work. They are also a sign of bigger issues within the company that did the work. It tells me that this company does not care about archaeology and is simply doing this to pay their bills and get their clients’ “cultural resources box checked.” They are only in it for the money, which is somewhat understandable since we all need money to live. But, if you just wanted money why not go to business school and work for a massive corporation somewhere? Or, forgo college all together and just fill coffee cups at Starbucks for a living?

Cultural resource management archaeologists decided upon this career for altruistic reasons. We care. We care about the past. We care about learning. We aren’t here to simply pay the bills because there are dozens of different ways we can do that.

Cultural resource management is also a gift from the American people. It’s not a requirement to care about the past. Heritage is important but it is not a life-and-death necessity. America does not need archaeologists like we need our military, law enforcement, doctors, or daycare employees. Historic preservation exists because Americans cared about the amenity provided by older, diverse neighborhoods, prominent buildings, and unique archaeological treasures. The CRM industry is paid millions of dollars for our services each year. Our professional ethics tell us that we are supposed to do the best we can, as experts, to investigate the past and add to archaeological knowledge while also giving guidance on how we can protect historic properties. The NHPA, NEPA, and all the state and local regulations give us a chance afforded few scientists: A legal nexus for us to practice our craft. It always irks me when I read CRM reports that fail to add anything valuable to our field because the authors, PIs, and other folks involved decided to fixate solely on the regulations and shirk any responsibility to expand what we know about the past.

How can every CRM report add to archaeological knowledge? Two ways:

1) Use a research design to guide the fieldwork, and

2) Use the sites that were, or were not, found to address relevant archaeological research questions.

Basically, we have to conduct and write up the work as if we were real archaeologists instead of touristas trying to save a few bucks on tchotchkes while on vacation.

Laundry List Reports are not Archaeology

Context is everything in archaeology. This goes for artifacts and historical buildings as much as it does for CRM reports.

I am not the first person to notice that so much CRM work is crappy. This debate has been going on for decades. Back in 1963, James Hester wrote a piece for American Antiquity calling for universities to train a cadre of archaeologists with the capability to do cultural resource management work. His call for action has been echoed throughout the decades until we are at the point where there are currently several graduate degrees in cultural resource management. While it may appear that schools are finally heeding this call, it also looks like the industry is not doing much to hold up its end of the obligation—namely, doing scientific archaeology rooted in good method and theory.

The schism between academic archaeology and CRM started because of claims that CRMers were not actually doing archaeology. They were doing compliance, which is something akin to properly filling out paperwork so a road or dam could be built. CRMers fought back by focusing on the many quality projects that actually added to our knowledge of the past, and by citing the fact, for better or worse, CRM was doing most of the archaeology in the United States. Since CRM was doing most of the work, CRMers adopted the perspective that CRM was archaeology and academic research was something else. That’s pretty much where we’re at today.

Good archaeology—CRM, academic, or #freearchaeology—is rooted in an ethos that values a research. What is a research design? It’s the guiding construct behind any archaeological project that prioritizes the research potential of every project. Stephen L. Black and Kevin Jolly’s excellent book Archaeology by Design (AltaMira Press, 2003) accurately describes what CRMers should be thinking whenever they conduct a project. They state, “The difference between good, interesting research and boring, worthless projects can be traced back to the right attitude” (2003:2), which, according to them, means research-oriented work. The authors continue by describing the five essential elements to any good research design; “1) a research context, 2) explicit research questions, 3) definitions of the data you plan to collect, 4) a plan to present your work and results, and 5) accommodation to the real world” (2003:3).

If you’ve been working in CRM for any amount of time, you might have absorbed the pervasive, self-depreciating meme that many long-time CRMers have. You could be thinking, “That’s all fine and good but clients don’t care about science. They just care about getting their ‘cultural resources box checked.’ And, we’re not getting paid to do science. We’re just here to help another strip mall get built. Why should we care about those high-fallutin’ ideas?” Black and Jolly know how you feel and have an answer for you:

“Academic archaeologists have looked askance at CRM or “contract” archaeology for years. Even within the ranks of CRM archaeology, there is a certain perverse and perverse self-loathing that diminishes and minimizes the work of thousands of professional archaeologists at not quite “real” archaeology. But this bad reputation is only partially deserved, and it is completely within the power of the current archaeological generation to refute” (2003:11).

Why care? Because you can. In fact, you’re one of the few people who is in a position to care. Conducting research-based work is the primary difference between the unconscionable looters on Nazi War Diggers and the real archaeologists trying to research World War II before another subdivision gets built in Poland.

Grounding CRM in Archaeological Research

Report_WilsonJoseph_thenounprojectWhat happens when you simply spaz out a Request for Proposal (RFP) without taking any time to think about what will happen if you actually land that contract? You will land a project that simply focuses on recording sites and generates in a laundry list-style report that does nothing to help us understand what was going on at that location in the past.

I know the success rate for landing CRM projects is low. It’s made even more difficult by all the low-balling, underbidders out there that contribute to the Walmartization of CRM archaeology. I also know you can’t be expected to devise a new research design for every single proposal. That would be cost prohibitive. But, you do need to think about the bigger picture. What will this project contribute? How will others be able to build upon your work? Those are the types of things real archaeologists think about when they are doing their projects; they are doing research.

In order to make it easier to conduct research-oriented CRM, your company needs to put together some boilerplate research domains that are relevant for different culture areas and some that actually span culture areas. Create generic domains and build upon/update them as new data becomes available. Like Legos, you can simply grab some domains from a community file somewhere on the server and plug it into your RFP, scope of work (SOW), or “expectations” section of the report.

Start simple and build towards more complex questions. For example, site formation is essential for describing every site you may find so this is should be a given research domain for all projects. However, I am always amazed by the huge number of reports that don’t even address how a site was created or how it has been impacted by natural forces over the hundreds of years since it was created.

You should also apply the proper domains to the type of sites you found or expect to find. I’ve slogged through dozens of pages of lithic and groundstone analysis for a couple prehistoric artifacts found at a historical farmstead while there were only a couple generic statements made about the farmstead itself, even though the farmstead was the reason why the site was recommended National Register-eligible. This shows me nobody at that company knows how to address this site type, which is a violation of the fourth clause of Section 1.2 of the Register of Professional Archaeologists’ Code of Conduct—doing work you are not qualified to do. Getting a historical archaeologist to help you make some research domains for the types of historical sites you may come across could at least give you a reading list of references that would help you better place this site within the universe of archaeological knowledge.

These boilerplate domains are going to have to be based on current research focused on specific locations and time periods, which is why this should be tasked to people that actually know about this and are willing to read up on the current trends. This is also an excellent way for field techs to get a chance to contribute since many techs have an interest in certain time periods, artifact categories, or parts of the world. Give them a chance to read up and report on current events in their interest area.

Having prefabricated research domains will help build a SOP or RFP that could help you address those questions. It will also let you know the projects where these domains can or cannot be addressed. What do you need to find in order to answer this question? Is it possible that the data you need will come from this project? Can you get that data using existing scopes that you have already written? Can you analyze and report the data in a way that effectively addresses the question? You will never know this if you do not start from a place that prioritizes research-oriented archaeology.

A research design place your work within the wider realm of archaeology in such a manner that it can actually be used by other archaeologists. So, you found a historical road? Big deal. Based on your description, that dirt road is like thousands of miles of road found across the United States. It’s probably not unique in itself even though you recommend it eligible for the National Register. The historical value of this road lies in the role it played in transportation, communication, and social networks in this area. Dirt roads connected places and people—nodes in the network. Paved highways and railroads improved upon this interconnectivity, which helped fuel social change in our country. From a landscape scale, they transform spaces into places through their ability to connect nodes. Space outside culturally defined landscapes become accessible places within our collective knowledge because of roads. Roads traversing areas that retain their historical integrity are the reason why SHPOs and local communities value historical and scenic highways—because they have the ability to connect the way things were in the past to people living in the present. Historical roads add to and shape our landscape and collective, cultural knowledge.

Does your report address these wider concepts in archaeology and historic preservation? Did you synthesize your recommendations from an anthropological perspective? Or, did you simply describe the road and say, ”Site XYZ is a road that retains integrity and is recommended eligible under Criterion A for the role it played in the development of Whereverthehell County.” Remember, you are the only person who saw this road as it existed at the time when you recorded it. Twenty years from now, that road is going to be different. Our research questions for roads will be different. We need to know what you were thinking when you recommended that eligible and what that designation added to our knowledge of human beings in the past. This helps us understand our past beliefs as archaeologists (i.e. where we’ve been) as our research questions continue to evolve. Most importantly, research-driven CRM actually helps archaeology evolve because it helps move our theoretical paradigms and methodological perspectives as we add to our universe of knowledge.

You are an archaeologist, not a tourista

Archaeologists help create. Tourists simply consume. Are you creating or consuming?

Cultural resource management archaeologists actually drive the field in the United States. Our methods, thoughts, and perspectives are being exported as international CRM expands around the globe. Do we want to export crappy laundry-list reports like archaeologists or do we actually want to learn more about human pasts? CRMers are not tourists. We should not be simply consuming dollars and crapping out laundry lists of “stuff we saw” with little or no synthesis. We are active participants in archaeology and can make an impact. That will not happen if we do not embrace our ethical obligation to investigate the past through research-driven work.

Simply recording sites is not doing archaeology. We’re 100 years past the period when we could simply catalog the archaeological record without interrogating our finds. With the wealth of archaeological data that has been collected in the last 60 years, it is pathetic to see reports that read as mindless, trite, boilerplate descriptions of what the field crews saw out there. Having the desire to do research is the point of departure for a good archaeological report because it provides a backdrop for each project’s results. Without a research design, the resulting report will read like a laundry list that nobody wants to read and does little to improve the field.

You don’t have to do physics every time a low income housing complex gets built. You do not have to elucidate theories in symbolic logic, linguistics, political science, or mathematics whenever the transportation department wants to widen a road. But, you do have to conduct a biology and geology study to make sure endangered plants and animals do not get harmed or the ground is not or will not be contaminated. You also have to conduct a cultural resource management survey, which most of the time means archaeology.

Historic preservation laws are a gift to archaeology that we have not been using to the fullest. I know we have to work within budgetary and time constraints. I understand a simple monitoring report is not likely to expand our archaeological knowledge, especially if we do not find anything; nevertheless, we should endeavor to do work that has the potential to add to the field.

I know this because I have done a crappy job many times in the past. I’d like to say I didn’t know any better. I’d like to say I didn’t have the time/budget/support/capability to write a good report. But, the truth is doing crappy work is a choice that I chose to make because I thought it was what my supervisor or the client wanted. I no longer choose to put my name on sub-par work. You shouldn’t either.

You have a choice. Choose to do research-driven cultural resource management archaeology.

Do you value research-driven cultural resource management? Why or why not? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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