When business people think they can teach cultural resource management

Can the business community teach us how to do cultural resource management archaeology?A friend of mine recently asked if I could help him hire an employee to help with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance. He was interested in someone with technical writing experience but understood the intricacies of both biological and cultural resource assessments. Throughout the conversation, he insisted that the ideal employee should be somebody straight out of college with a track record of punctually completing short reports.

I told him this kind of person does not exist in cultural resource management archaeology or historic preservation for several reasons:

  • Greenhorns fresh out of college rarely get to write technical reports. We save that work for more experienced CRMers
  • CRMers rarely know how to do the biological assessments. While it’s easier to train an archaeologist to identify threatened plants and animals, it is much more difficult to teach a biologist how to identify significant sites. Archaeology is not environmentally deterministic like biology is.
  • It is a very, very bad idea to hire someone with little to no experience to do cultural resource management reports without close supervision. Historic preservation regulations are so subjective that it takes experience to make adequate recommendations. A greenhorn left to their own devices will probably electrocute themselves.
  • It is unethical to ask a CRMer to do work they are not qualified to do. An inexperienced newbie can do a lot of damage to the archaeological record, allow potentially historical buildings to get destroyed, and get their company and client in hot water.
  • Finally, I didn’t want to contribute to the activity that drives down wages within the industry. I owe it to all of my peers to help them find jobs that pay livable wages or better. Helping him hire someone at bottom-barrel wages does nothing to help improve the wages in our industry.

Our conversation continued for an hour longer and I realized that he didn’t actually need somebody to do an official NEPA Class I. My friend was looking for someone to do something like a real estate property assessment for parcels slated for a specific kind of development that might lead to a Class I in the future. This pre-NEPA was a quick and easy way for developers to find out if there was any pollution or other encumbrances that may complicate their project by leading to a complicated NEPA assessment.

I also learned that he didn’t need a CRMer or biologist for that matter, but, hiring someone with those skills was important because his company wanted to groom this individual into someone who could do a Class I someday in the future. The company currently subcontracts out the CRM services when necessary but would like to do more of this work in-house in the future. They wanted to teach this new hire how to do CRM.

What got me on board was the fact that his company was willing to pay waaaaaaaay more than an entry-level CRM position would provide. I’d be directly helping a new graduate into a job where they would get an oblique introduction to the NEPA and would be making a livable wage, which is something most CRMers don’t experience for a few years after graduation

After getting this additional information, I felt better about making some hiring recommendations. However, I still felt uneasy about the idea of a consulting firm that doesn’t do cultural resources teaching a new hire how to do CRM. How can businesspeople who know nothing about historic preservation do an adequate job teaching their employees how to do quality cultural resource management? Is this possible?

It also made me think reflexively about my own career and the folks I’ve taught to do CRM. We know colleges do not prepare their graduates to be CRMers, although this is changing. But it made me think: Do we CRMers do a good job teaching our co-workers and field techs how to do ethical and fiscally sound cultural resource management? Are we doing any better than the MBAs?

It’s all about the Benjamins

Or, the Jacksons. Sometimes it’s even about the Hamiltons.

Business people tend to gauge things in dollar amounts. How much can be made by spending as little as possible? That’s not their entire emphasis—providing value, doing good work, helping communities, and improving the world is important to a great many companies these days— but making money is central to the business mindset. This is the way they have to think and the presence of business-minded folk at a CRM company can be a good sign because it means someone within the organization has overcome the pervasive poverty mentality in archaeology and is actively trying to make money.

How CRMers go about making this money varies widely between companies. In their excellent book “Archaeology by Design”, Stephen Black and Kevin Jolly emphasize the importance of crafting well designed archaeology projects as a means of doing justice to the archaeological record, our profession, and in order to increase efficiency. They clearly describe the benefit of hiring experienced employees because they save money by being able to do more work faster and better with fewer mistakes. Black and Jolly say this is a major difference between doing good work and slopping through a blunder-filled, over budget project:

“The best consulting firms employ well-trained archaeologists and specialists in other fields who are committed to achieving meaningful and cost-effective research within a viable business environment. The downside is epitomized by the low-bid “archaeologists” whose main goal and chief skill are exploiting the process for their own profit. Such unethical individuals and firms survive largely because the discipline has not yet figured out how to effectively regulate itself as a profession.” (Black and Jolly 2003:71).

Low bidders (a.k.a. lowballers) are the bane of the CRM archaeology industry. They only exist because the clients who hire them are unaware of (or don’t care about) the problems an inadequately scoped project can cause. According to Black and Jolly, low bidding is one strategy for landing contracts but it is definitely one of the worst ways:

“Some [companies] may calculate what they think the sponsor is willing to pay and bid no more, even if it is not enough to do the work properly. Others may calculate what their competitors will bid and set their own price lower. Still others may be inexperienced contractors who tender unrealistically low bids based on little more than wild guesses. All of these tactics sometimes win contracts, but often the archaeological record suffers as a result of significantly underbidding the cost of doing a good job. For the ethical bidder the only reasonable approach is to do your best to calculate the true costs of successfully addressing the scope of work.” (Black and Jolly 2003:60—61).

This is where experience comes into play. Calculating costs and creating efficient, quality, profitable scopes of work is an art that can only be learned by doing CRM archaeology. You have to know how long it takes to survey an acre, how many people it takes to dig an archaeological feature, how long it takes to fill out the site forms for every historical building, how many person-hours it will take to analyze 1,000 artifacts, how much it costs to curate collected assemblages, and how many hours it will take to write up the report if you have any chance of crafting a viable proposal or research design. This can only be done by experiencing all of these elements of cultural resource management archaeology.

Can a businessperson teach a CRMer how to adequately bid on projects and create adequate, ethical scopes of work? My answer is yes, but only by the right businessperson. There are some MBAs and other business-minded clients I’ve worked with who totally understand what it takes to do good cultural resources consulting. They’ve probably learned by getting burned by the shoddy work done by low bidders. These knowledgeable clients know the benefits of hiring a good consultant. They’re the ones who can teach CRMers about the business end of things.

While MBAs can teach you the contracting, budgeting, and proposaling side of the industry, knowledge of the subjectivity of historic preservation laws and conditionality of fieldwork has to be learned by someone who has navigated those waters before. Experienced PIs, skilled project managers, qualified crew chiefs, and seasoned lab and field techs are the best people to teach these skills.

Do CRMers do a good job of teaching new CRMers

My answer is no. At least, not all the time.

How many times:

  • Have you been dropped into the field with no clear instructions from your supervisor?
  • No idea how to fill out the company’s forms?
  • No clue how they want you to excavate?
  • No mention of the kind of data they expect to find or what research questions this data will address?
  • Have you been given a scope of work and expected to just “figure it out”: pick your own crew, organize transportation and lodging, devise your own method of collecting data, and figuring out what kind of information you will focus on?

And, how many times have you fu*ked up these kind of projects?

It’s easy for us to say, “Our bosses are so busy. They can’t be expected to teach their employees EVERYTHING.” This is totally true. Project directors and PIs are too busy to do a field methods bootcamp for every single project. And, they cannot be expected to tell crew chiefs and other mid-managers how to do their job for every single project (conversely, a good field leader will ask a plethora of questions BEFORE they go into the field to reduce the odds of FUBARing their project). I completely understand that young CRMers should take the initiative to learn what they do not know and take ownership of their actions, including mistakes.

Teaching an employee is an important but, oftentimes, overlooked element of doing good business. Our supervisors should never be too busy to keep us from going over the edge of a cliff because we’ll bring everyone else down if we fall.

Cultural resource management projects do not grow on trees. They are the result of a long series of coordinated events extending from local communities, government agencies, clients, your company, and the greater field of heritage conservation. Communities deserve to have their cultural resources properly managed. This responsibility has been transferred to CRMers through government regulations. Cultural resource management clients also deserve to get quality services. They do not like or deserve to be the victims of shoddy, inadequate, low bid work because the results of bad CRM work can have real ramifications that could result in other non-CRMers losing their jobs or companies getting sued into oblivion. Cultural resource management companies spend a lot of time trying to land these projects. That’s a big part of that amorphous line item called “overhead”. The best client is one you already have, which is why every single project needs to fulfill the client’s needs while also doing justice to heritage conservation. CRM companies can’t afford to lose clients over mistakes born of ignorance.

Most importantly, archaeology and historic preservation stands upon a foundation of good, accurate, ethical work. Our discoveries guide what is known about human pasts. We are empowered to do our best to preserve truly worthy resources and to judiciously decide which resources our society can do without. This is no small task. It certainly should not be heaped onto the shoulders of a greenhorn, recent college graduate desperate to find work.

It is easy for CRM companies to focus on the bottom line—dollars and cents—and forget about what we are actually doing and why we do it. We help communities preserve their heritage. That’s our job. That’s why our industry exists.

In recent years, cultural resource management industry has been convincing some anthropology programs to emphasize cultural resource management. We are far behind university architecture departments who have been instrumental in building historic preservation programs. Even though I’m waist-deep in college education, most of what I know about historical preservation, heritage conservation, and archaeology was learned on-the-job as a CRM archaeologist. College gave me the ability to focus, learn, and apply myself. Work taught me how to do archaeology for American communities.

This education came through rainy days spent digging shovel probes, late nights spent redoing technical reports, writing conference presentations in my own time, and burning my ass off walking across the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Sometimes I had patient mentors who showed me the ropes and set me up for success. Other times I was out there all alone with no idea what to do and a truck full of co-workers looking to me for the answers. While I learned a lot by making mistakes and fixing them, I can’t help but feel like I wish some of my supervisors had spent more time teaching me what it means to be a good CRMer.

Cultural resource management is learned by working alongside other skilled CRMers who care about their work

A motivated, experienced businessperson who knows nothing about CRM consulting cannot teach a young CRMer how to do cultural resource management. Regardless of good intentions, you cannot teach something you know nothing about. That’s what I told my friend because it is the truth. He cannot expect a new college graduate to know how to do a NEPA Class I without working with a CRMer who has already done that type of project and is good at it. I also explained that he cannot teach a new CRMer how to do cultural resource management and expect to get quality results because he does not know what it takes to do a CRM assessment. While he’s read the resulting reports, he has never done it before and does not know what it takes to create those reports. Fortunately, he totally understood what I was saying.

After conveying this information, my amigo realized that he is better off outsourcing the historic preservation consulting services for the time being. I said the best strategy was to build his company’s profits large enough to be able to afford to hire a seasoned CRMer—someone that meets the Secretary of Interior’s Standards and has a few years of CRM management experience under her belt. This could be the person he ends up hiring, who gets tutelage from another CRMer somewhere else, but it’s more likely to be someone else from outside the organization. The best strategy would be to hire the seasoned vet to help train the new hire of today and move this consulting in-house. This would require hiring two employees and I don’t know if they have the budget for that, but it would be a better way to build consulting capacity within the organization.

Ultimately, the decision will be a combination of financial considerations mixed with a vision of future growth. I hope my friend’s company heeds my warning and doesn’t try to get a young CRMer to walk the plank and ruin their career right out of the starting gates. He’s a good man with a great knack for business sales, so I know he will take my recommendation to heart.


Black, Stephen L. and Kevin Jolly

2003       Archaeology by Design. Alta Mira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

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