The Future of Cultural Resource Management Archaeology, Part II

(This is the second in a 3-part series on a workshop focused on the future of cultural resource management archaeology that was given as part of the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology Centennial celebration. You can check out Part I here.)

Has the golden age for cultural resource management archaeology passed?“The Golden Age of cultural resource management archaeology is over.”

That was the response I heard from one of the panelists of “The Future of CRM” symposium at the University of Arizona on December 4, 2015. In case you haven’t yet read the first part of this post series, this symposium was a collection of CRMers who worked in universities, for government agencies, and private firms across the southwest. They were all asked to respond to four topics:

1) How did you get started? (covered in the first part of this series)

2) What changes have you seen in CRM since the 1970s? (the subject of this post)

3) What is the future of CRM? (also included in this post)

4) What advice do you have for aspiring CRM archaeologists? (the topic of Post III in this series)

After discussing how each of the panelists came to cultural resource management, they turned their focus on where the industry has come from and where it’s headed. That’s when I heard the shocking revelation that the Golden Age of huge CRM projects was over. As stunning as that revelation was, it wasn’t as befuddling as when I heard about from where we CRM archaeologists have come.

In the beginning…

As a profession cultural resource management came of age during the 1970s. Government-funded projects first came on the scene during the Depression and continued after World War II, but there were few requirements that the government and the general public take history into account when they were planning or conducting construction projects. It had been illegal to dig sites on public lands without a permit since 1906; however, there were no laws or regulations that prevented the destruction of archaeological sites until the Historic Sites Act of 1935, which stated historic preservation was a government duty. This allowed the federal government to do preservation work, but, initially, it did not really cover archaeological sites.

During the Depression Era, part of the push to put people back to work included employing Americans on archaeological projects across the country. Dozens of projects were conducted at this time, many of which have been dutifully discussed by Bernard Means on the blog This was the dawn of CRM as we know it today because many of the archaeologists that worked on those projects went on to be the earliest Principal Investigators for CRM projects of the 1960s and 1970s.

Salvage archaeology continued after World War II through the River Basin Surveys and Interagency Archaeological Salvage Program which were administered by the National Park Service and Smithsonian Museum. Many of the Depression-Era archaeos went on to direct projects under these programs, training another generation of CRMers. The Reservoir Salvage Act (1960) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) (1969) only further codified the CRM that had already been taking place for a generation.

The UofA panelists recalled how when some of them started in cultural resources during the 1970s and 1980s, government agencies were still in the business of sponsoring massive surveys and excavations associated with a variety of projects. The NHPA and other laws, such as the Pipeline Salvage Program in the Southwest, provided a nexus for all kinds of archaeology projects. In Arizona, this is when some of the biggest projects went down like the surveys and excavations for the Central Arizona Project.

This was also a time of rapid learning. There was a lot archaeologists still didn’t know about the prehistory of large swaths of the American landscape. Also, government agencies were not yet savvy in how to deal with their obligations under Section 106 so they ordered massive surveys and data recovery projects from CRM companies and universities. It is for these reasons that the huge projects of the 1970s and 1980s were considered the Golden Age by some of the panelists.

A Culture History of Cultural Resource Management Archaeology

Spending so much time in Arizona makes it easy for me to relate the development of CRM archaeology in the 20th century to the periods in the Hohokam Cultural Sequence. The dates for these periods remain open for dispute, but archaeologists generally agree upon what was happening in Hohokam history during these periods. Immediately, I realized that the Hohokam sequence parallels some of the symposium discussion on the history of CRM:

During the Late Archaic, the Hohokam started doing a lot of the things they are traditionally known for—growing maize, making ceramic objects, adopting an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. To me this period is similar to the time in CRM archaeology from 1906 to 1935. The government was getting used to doing preservation and archaeology was trying to sort out the different culture histories for each region of our country. We were getting skilled at doing archaeological fieldwork but hadn’t become de facto wards of the state with regard to how we got paid to do that work.

During the Pioneer/Formative/Early Period, the Hohokam coalesced into the archaeological culture we know today. Semi-sedentary agriculturalists making their characteristic ceramics. This corresponds to the time in CRM archaeology from 1935 to the 1950s when we developed the basic structure of the industry: government contracts, regulatory contexts, and technical reports. Our skills were getting adjusted to the world of regulatory-based compliance archaeology.

The Colonial/Preclassic and Sedentary Periods are when the Hohokam spread all across central and southern Arizona. They were fully integrated into regional trade networks and had sustained contact with Puebloan people in the Four Corners area as well as groups in Mexico. I believe this is similar to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in cultural resource management. The schism between academia and CRM hardened at this time and CRMers saw themselves as being in the business of archaeology. Agencies were still ordering big projects and CRM companies were learning how to profit from them.

The Hohokam Classic Period was a time of change. Huge sites like Snaketown collapsed, ballcourts fell out of vogue in many areas, and Hohokam settlements started erecting platform mounds. This was also a time of environmental change and the Hohokam adopted different strategies of surviving in this new world. The Classic Period reminds me of the 1990s and early 2000s in the CRM industry. Massive projects started to get rare and the proliferation of CRM firms ramped up the competition for these projects. By the Great Recession, we started seeing how our “proposaling-till-you-land-a-contract” business climate was unsustainable because it forced us to spend an inordinate amount of time scouring the landscape looking for the next meal. When the government faucet was shut off, a lot of CRM companies starved and CRMers (like me) were let go.

The cultural resource management industry is now in the time period roughly equivalent to the Hohokam Postclassic Period. For a short time in the fifteenth century, the Hohokam continued along the trajectory set by the Classic Period—building platform mound villages, irrigation systems, and irrigation networks. Then, around 1450, the whole archaeological culture disappears. Archaeologists still do not know why this happened, but we do know that the people encountered by the first Spanish explorers in the 1500s were not doing all the stuff for which the Hohokam are known.

The Postclassic reminds me of the post-Great Recession Period in CRM archaeology (2010—Present). Bigger CRM and “total solutions” companies are buying a lot of the CRM-only firms that were originally established in the 1970s and 1980s. Developments in technology, primarily paperless, cloud-based archaeology, is creating openings for smaller firms to enter the market. These placeless firms can run rings around the ever-expanding environmental resource consulting companies, but they lack the capacity to compete on equal footing with the big dogs (for now) because our contracting system is still living back in the 1980s CRM industry environment.

It will take a few more years for the small, placeless firms to establish a consortium of partnerships between hyper-specialized companies (ex. GIS gurus, Freelance arch tech troops, and LLCs that specialize in CRM Project management) in such a manner that they are actually more cost-efficient than the Big Dogs. From what I hear, this confederation-style system is already the way things are in California but I think that’s still the exception to the rule.

Is the Golden Age truly over?

No. In fact, I see that the Golden Age of cultural resource management archaeology is just beginning.

Think about this: The Golden Age cited by the UofA panelists (the 1970s—1990s) was a Classic Period. We are now living through a Formative Period in our industry that could quite possibly usher in another Classic Period. Government agencies and private clients were just learning the ropes of cultural resource compliance. They relied on us to help them through their legal obligations and there were a lot fewer firms who could do the work at that time. We were making it up as we went along, especially since we had a lot less data to shape our decisions. They had to trust us and we had to roll with the punches when we made a mistake.

Over the last 40 years, agencies and the environmental compliance industry in general has gotten savvier to how things should be done. The number of CRM firms has also expanded exponentially and we are sitting on tons and tons and tons of archaeological data amassed over millions of dollars of CRM work. This competition and wealth of existing data has forced us to make due with smaller budgets and more intelligent clients (although, the latter isn’t always true).

We can’t charge as much for each project but, in all fairness, we shouldn’t have to. The best CRM companies have got this system down pat. Fieldwork and reporting is a seamless system. For a well-scoped project, I can go into the field with a map that shows me exactly where a site should be found and, voila, I usually find a site. Historical contexts make sure my project adds to research questions proposed by the SHPO and long-term research goals within the company’s archaeology department. There are templates for hundreds of different projects for almost every culture area, regulatory nexus, and phase of archaeological research. Proposaling remains the only real obstacle for archaeological work.

There is a push these days to put all this Big Data to work, creating models that can guide our research in the future. We are also making use of all the proprietary data in order to save money on fieldwork, reporting, and the overall research effort. Collaboration between companies and university departments, which doesn’t seem likely in the near future, is the primary stumbling block for the establishment of regional or statewide archaeological consortiums dedicated to furthering the craft through research. I believe archaeology’s greatest age will happen when we establish these collaborations between archaeology factions, businesses, government agencies, and descendant communities. This means, we have not yet reached the Golden Age of cultural resource management archaeology.

Where is the industry headed?

The UofA panelists had a variety of predictions with regard to where they see the industry headed. Since none of us can tell the future, here are a few highlights from the symposium:

Addressing Market Fragmentation—One of the panelists reported that the CRM industry is bringing in about 97% of all the money spent on archaeology in the United States (approximately $889 million annually). However, in real dollars, this sum remains about the same as the amount spent on CRM in the 1970s. Furthermore, this nearly one billion dollars is spread across dozens of firms around the country including the large “total solutions” outfits. This means the money spent on CRM archaeology is spread all across the board, which makes it difficult to build large research programs that could improve our knowledge of a culture area, time period, or type of site.

Hungry, hungry, hippos—While the amount of money spent on CRM has not really changed, an increasing proportion of it is falling into the hands of “total solutions” environmental consulting companies. As recently as 20111, 65% of CRM jobs were offered by these environmental firms and only 27 percent of job offers came from CRM-only outfits. The CRM industry is consolidating, but this consolidation is going to the hungry, hungry big CRM firms or large multi-service providers who are buying out the small companies in order to increase market share.

Who says archaeologists are the defenders of our cultural resources?— This market consolidation happening among multi-service companies is making non-archaeologists (i.e. MBAs) responsible for managing cultural resources. This may not be a good thing for the industry unless we can consistently come up with compelling arguments against solely doing low-balled, bare-bones compliance archaeology.

Tribes and CRMers are finding common ground— The panelists agreed that relations between Native American tribes and cultural resource management archaeologists are improving. In fact, tribes and CRMers are starting to come together over a number of different issues in parts of the country. This is particularly encouraging given the rancor between the industry and Native peoples as recently as the 1990s.

Academia is getting the hint— Universities are realizing they have been creating a product that is nearly worthless in the CRM world. Some universities, not surprisingly the ones in Arizona, are changing their curriculum in order to better prepare students for life in the industry. Also, CRMers and academicians are starting to bridge the chasm between commercial and grant-funded archaeology. This is to the benefit of all practitioners, communities, and our historic properties. We still have far to go, but the future looks bright for collaborations between companies, students, and faculty.

Keys to the Future can be found in the Past

Do we want the cultural resource management archaeology of the near-future to look like the Protohistoric Period in the Hohokam culture area? At this time, nearly every large village was abandoned. Trade networks were disrupted. The people dispersed across the landscape, living in small bands doing what they’d done since the Archaic Period. What archaeologists call “Hohokam” ceased to exist.

Human beings did not stop living in Arizona, but they were forced to change their ways. They went back to what they’d known for hundreds of years. They went back to their default way of life. It wasn’t as embellished as what had come before, but it allowed Native Arizonans to exist. While they continued to exist, they were doing just that: existing.

Do we want to go back to the way things were during the early 1900s?: Few projects, few archaeologists, very basic reporting focused on defining culture areas and time periods, and most of the work being done by temp workers? The current trajectory of the industry suggests this may be a reality but it doesn’t have to be this way.

We can bridge intellectual and proprietary divides to do the kind of archaeology that furthers our craft. We can embed ourselves in local communities in order to position our knowledge, expertise, and services as a necessity for improving quality of life. We can properly train new practitioners so they don’t waste so much time, money, and other resources. We can partner with biologists, geologists, and project management professionals in order to better compete with the big multi-service corporations. And, we can constantly fight within these multi-service providers to make sure they consider doing ethical archaeology at the same time as making a buck on a contract.

The choice is ours. We can enter the true Golden Age of cultural resource management archaeology if we choose to.

Write a comment below or send me an email.

Blogging Archaeology eBook

Check out Succinct Research’s most recent publication Blogging Archaeology. Full of amazing information about how blogging is revolutionizing archaeology publishing. For a limited time you can GRAB A COPY FOR FREE!!!! Click Here







Resume-Writing for Archaeologists” is now available on Click Here and get detailed instructions on how you can land a job in CRM archaeology today!










Small Archaeology Project Management is now on the Kindle Store. Over 300 copies were sold in the first month! Click Here and see what the buzz is all about.






Join the Succinct Research email list and receive additional information on the CRM and heritage conservation field.

Get killer information about the CRM archaeology industry and historic preservation.

Subscribe to the Succinct Research Newsletter

* indicates required

Email Format

Powered by MailChimp