Why do I try to help cultural resource management archaeologists?

Navigating a career in cultural resource management doesn't happen in a vaccuumI’m going to let you in on a little secret. I am selfish. Just like other human beings, my thoughts dwell on things that matter to me most of the time. I only put forth a little effort each day to see things from another’s perspective.

However, it is those few minutes each day spent thinking about others that makes the real difference in my life.

Putting yourself in others’ shoes is an exercise in empathy. It is an attempt to connect with the other people I share this planet with in a manner that breaks me out of my self-focused consciousness coma. I write the Succinct Research blog from this place of empathy because I know what it’s like to work in the cultural resource management industry and know how hard it can be. Writing down what I’ve learned about CRM in an easily consumable format like a web log is one way I can help others navigate their way through the struggles of being a CRMer.

Blogging is a two-way street. I frequently receive comments and emails letting me know that: a) my writing has helped, or; b) it did not. Fortunately, the good comments outnumber the bad ones. Either way, I learn more about the people that read this blog. I cannot tell you all how much I appreciate your readership and dialogue.

I also try to help other people in archaeology because of an altruistic belief that sharing what I know will help make other people’s lives a bit easier. More than once, I’ve had to listen to disparaging remarks about working in CRM: “This business is feast or famine.” “The bosses don’t care about techs.” “The clients only care about the ‘Recommendations’ section.” “If the public cared about archaeology, they’d do something to save these sites.” I could go on. It doesn’t have to be this way.

You cannot just be a digbot. You have to be a human being.

Cultural resource management is a tough industry. It always has been. Some would say the industry is getting worse because of underbid budgets, surplus of low-cost labor, and Byzantine regulations. But, I argue that our understanding of the past has been greatly enhanced because of CRM archaeology. From that perspective, cultural resources archaeology has been a success.

The industry has also suffered because of its bad reputation. All of the bad, unfinished work conducted throughout the years has made it look like CRM does a bad job. That it is sloppy, money-driven, “box-checking” that doesn’t care about method, theory, or communities. We have earned this reputation by acting like robots—digging sites, bagging and tagging artifacts, and drafting trite reports that do little to expand our knowledge of the past. Not all cultural resource management archaeology is this way, but a significant share is exactly that.

Before federally mandated archaeology, our society had to rely on archaeoprofessors at various universities across the country. These trailblazers did an excellent job of expanding our understanding of the past but it was nothing like what we know today. It is true that a plethora of shoddy, lowballed work still goes on in the United States. Unfortunately, this work rests alongside the amazing, high-quality work that is an asset to our understanding of the past, which makes it difficult for us to separate the two kinds of archaeology.

The expansion of archaeology caused by mandated cultural resources compliance has opened the doors to thousands of jobs for archaeologists across the country. Every state has a cadre of CRMers who are working, in their own ways, to make sure we have a chance to learn about the past in advance of potentially destructive constriction activities. It has also given Native American tribes and other descendant communities a chance to reclaim a small piece of their heritage and to address past grievances. The CRM regulations are what make it possible to even pursue archaeology as a career. The lack of a sense of duty to train the next generation is a major reason why it is so difficult to make it in the CRM industry.

None of us makes it alone. We all get help along the way.

When I started out studying archaeology, I knew nothing, nobody, and had no idea CRM existed. I am writing here today because of all the mentors and co-workers who have all helped me in my career pursuit. While there have been dozens of helpful mentors to whom I owe an endless debt of gratitude, five very important individuals stand out from the crowd because they spared no effort in helping me learn the ropes and move forward in my pursuit of an archaeology career. I would not be where I am without them:

1) To my undergraduate adviser at Boise State University—I would like to thank you for encouraging me to stop boxing groceries after graduation and start digging up artifacts to be packed in boxes. I’d also like to thank you for helping me navigate the bureaucratic flim-flam at the university that threatened to keep me from graduating. My first college adviser dropped me as a student; fortunately, you took me in and helped me finish school. Years later, you introduced me to my first CRM supervisors who hired me after finishing grad school (the first time). Without your encouragement, I’d probably still be working at Costco.

2 and 3) To my first two CRM supervisors in Seattle—Remember when you guys ravaged my writing and made me second guess whether or not I had what it takes to do CRM? What about those times when you gave me the freedom to organize, schedule, arrange, execute, draft, edit, and complete my own technical reports even though I made massive mistakes along the way? I hope you haven’t forgotten the time I dug shovel probes in the wrong area and had to drive 200 miles back to the project to dig a single probe through the permafrost in November. I also hope you haven’t forgotten the time you let me dig a Japanese workers settlement, the first in recent history, and had my back when the client started getting all uppity about our work. I owe you my most sincere thanks for all these opportunities and more. I also can’t thank you enough for not firing me when I made mistakes. You took a chance on me. That chance gave me my start in cultural resource management. Thanks.

4) To my Master’s adviser at the University of Idaho—You are still a mentor. I appreciate all the interest you’ve taken in my career. You encouraged me to go further in my education and professional life than I believed possible. Working with you made me realize African American archaeology is not a brand. It is a tool we can use for social justice, but that only happens through reflexive, community-based work. You know, without your encouragement, I probably wouldn’t have gone back for my PhD. Hopefully, I can help you and your students explore, investigate, and report on more discoveries in the future.

5) To my PhD adviser at the University of Arizona—I used to just dig sites and report on them. Sometimes, I went a little bit further and gave a conference presentation. It wasn’t until you accepted me as a student that I realized archaeology can have a real impact on communities. Collaboration isn’t just something extra, like icing on a cake. It should be the foundation of everything we do. Working with you has helped me realize that archaeology does not take place in a vacuum and, when done correctly, cultural resource management has the potential to contribute something meaningful for people struggling to reclaim their heritage. It is heritage conservation that was at the heart of the regulations that created the cultural resource management industry. Thanks for this revelation.

Notice who is missing from this list

I have spent more time doing cultural resource management than I have been a college student (barely). As a CRMer, I interacted with dozens of co-workers and numerous supervisors. I also had contact with well over 100 clients both companies and individuals. Yet, almost all of my mentors came out of my college experience. Why? Largely because the majority of CRMers do not take the initiative to help train up-and-coming co-workers.

Ever wonder why they say cultural resource management is a “Feast or Famine” industry? A lot of this has to do with the fact that the successful CRMers do not help their peers learn how to land contracts with functional budgets, how to satisfy clients while also doing justice to the archaeology, or how to collaborate with other companies, governments, and communities to convince clients to pay for good CRM. Each company operates like an island—alone in a deep, murky sea. We all think we’re keeping trade secrets, but the real secret is the fact that our actions are basically handcuffs that hold us back.

Each proposal is submitted with the understanding that somebody is going to low-bid everybody else, which forces the other consulting companies to lower their wages, benefits, and overhead just to keep up. Every CRM company that has diversified into landscape design, architecture, biology, or environmental consulting hides their secrets because they operate from a scarcity mindset. They don’t want other companies to take their piece of the pie. Rather than growing the pie, companies close ranks and fight for every crumb.

This is understandable given the industry’s track record over the last 50 years. If you’d been burned dozens of times by low-balling, cost-cutting, “solutions” providers, wouldn’t you think there’s not enough money to go around? What would you do if you couldn’t sleep at night because you were worried sick about making payroll and you knew all you had to do is undercut the competition in order to get a little money to trickle in? It’s not like cultural resource management PI’s and company owners act the way they do because they want to. Their decisions are very strongly influenced by market forces. They keep trade secrets because they want to make sure they can pay their employees’ mortgage, student loans, and put food on our tables. The only problem is this thinking is bringing the whole industry down.

While the industry’s top brass are justified in their behavior, it is unethical not to teach your co-workers how to do good CRM. Making new hires “walk the plank” into every project and standing by laughing at their mistakes does not help your company’s bottom line. It does not do justice to the archaeology that our whole society is counting upon you properly document and preserve. When we do finally land a job, there are few CRMers willing to take new people under their wing and teach them the ropes. Most of us get little to no training in how to do cultural resource management archaeology until we make a bunch of on-the-job mistakes. It’s a sad fact, but that’s the reason why so few CRMers are among my mentors whereas so many college professors are.

I help others out of my own self interest

In the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to help train dozens of students, volunteers, and cultural resource management archaeologists. I love teaching because I love learning. You really learn how well you know a topic when you try to teach it to somebody else. Every training and teaching opportunity is a chance to learn about myself—my strengths and limitations. Just like blogging, you will get feedback. That’s when you decide to stay the course or make a course correction.

I always tell my crews that I want them to know how to do everything I know so I can just sit back in the shade and sip a margarita. This never happens, but I can always dream. In addition to continually improving your own skills and education, you should be doing your best to train your replacement because your career success is intrinsically linked to the success of those you supervise. You only do a good job when your crew does a good job. This philosophy also flows upward. Your boss only does well when you do well. Your company only makes money when you do your job correctly, efficiently, and with a spirit of going above and beyond what is necessary (within the budget and scope, of course). Most importantly: You will only get promoted based on the performance of your co-workers. In CRM, there’s nothing like a well-trained crew because skilled CRMers are the ones who are capable of doing good contract archaeology. Good archaeology is the only way we learn about the past.

My forthcoming book “Becoming an Archaeologist: Crafting a Career in Cultural Resource Management” is yet another attempt to help other CRMers learn how to navigate the industry. I’m only doing this because I feel like it is important for cultural resource practitioners to do some career planning. If CRMers can learn how to create rewarding careers in this industry, they can apply these skills to almost any other job field in the country. This empowers each of us to build the kind of career that makes our lives better. The book is full of tips, techniques, and strategies learned by myself and others on how you can make a career in cultural resource management archaeology. It builds upon other similar CRM career books and simmers down the whole process into actionable steps that anyone can take. The book goes live on the Amazon Kindle Store on May 23, 2016.

This book exists because of all the assistance I received from other cultural resource management archaeologists. My career would not be where it is at without this assistance. It is my sincere wish that things change in CRM in such a way that co-workers and supervisors start helping new CRMers move upward. The industry will only change when its practitioners take responsibility for building a generation of skilled, motivated, and savvy cultural resource management archaeologists.

Tell me what you think. Write a comment below or send me an email.

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