Academic Archaeology and CRM

Academic Archaeology and CRM?

Jon C. Lohse, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Archaeological Studies

I’ve been asked by Mindy Bonine to submit a brief blurb in my new capacity of Chairperson of the Academic Archaeology and CRM Committee. As I understand it, this committee was formed by the membership some years ago in response to the perception that some academic programs lacked much in way of adequate curriculum content that would prepare students to productively participate in cultural resource management. Personally, I suspect that some of what was being expressed at the time also reflected perceived shortcomings within the CRM community in terms of the development of research ideas, and how these were explored in the context of regulatory compliance projects.

I’d like to begin my tenure on this committee with a note of honesty. I don’t know what “academic archaeology” is supposed to mean. In my current job as Director of the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University-San Marcos, I come to understand aspects of cultural resource management each and every day. But I feel strongly that the distinction between “CRM,” which most people think means only “contract archaeology” and “academic archaeology,” whatever that is supposed to include, is misleading, misguided, and totally unproductive. Should anthropology and archaeology faculties across our state do a better job of training undergraduate and graduate students to engage in compliance-based archaeology after graduation? Absolutely, and they could begin by emphasizing concern for and awareness of rules and regulations, ethics, budget and time management, concern for constituencies, and other issues that contribute to better resource management as much as other methodological and/or theoretical courses. Should consulting firms and sponsoring agencies exert greater effort to understand the past and of the people who inhabited it? Yes, and first steps could include placing as much value on applying novel analytical techniques, developing thoughtful research questions, conducting honest background studies, and engaging in self-reflective awareness to understand biases against new ideas and approaches as they place on year-end performance bonuses and economic incentives.

Don’t get me wrong: I know that there is a great deal of outstanding work going on in Texas archaeology. Developing techniques for analyzing residues, building geoarchaeological frameworks for understanding site formation and contextual integrity, and advances in ceramic analyses are only a few examples of cutting-edge research that is being developed largely in the context of compliance-based undertakings. Furthermore, an enormous amount of money (relatively speaking) is spent each year on our work, and this is no mean commitment of public resources. But the fact is that the business of archaeology in Texas has shifted in a dramatic fashion from universities to the private (business) sector since the CTA was formed in 1976, and this shift will continue to have irreversible implications for our profession. Some historical information, taken from early issues of our Council’s own newsletters, helps to clarify this transformation, which in my opinion has a very great deal to do with where we are at the present.

According to CTA newsletter volume 1, number 1 (April 1977), the organizing committee consisted of  Mott Davis, Tom Hester, Harry Shafer, Alan Skinner, and Curtis Tunnell. The CTA was organized for the purpose of facilitating communication among archaeologists who are involved as professionals in the state, and contributing solutions to problems faced by the profession. At the second annual meeting, held in October, 1977, the primary topic for discussion was “The Declining Quality of Contract Archeology in Texas and What We Can Do About It” (volume 1, number 2, September, 1977). Leading up to the meeting, a number of archaeologists across the state had apparently expressed concern about the effect of profit motive on both the quality of work being performed and on the reports that were subsequently submitted. An interesting and informative element of these early newsletters is a section called Works in Progress, where entities conducting contract work summarized some of their recent undertakings. In volume 2, number 2, reports were submitted by labs at Southern Methodist University, TARL, Texas Tech University, UT El Paso, UT San Antonio, Texas A&M, and the THC. A year later, North Texas State University, the Panhandle-Plains Museum, Rice University, Stephen F. Austin University, and the Texas Antiquities Committee also contributed reports. Incarnate Word College in San Antonio contributed a summary in volume 2, number 2. It was not until 1979, volume 3, number 3, did private firms, Prewitt and Associates, Inc. and Archaeology Resource Consultants, contribute summaries of recent work to this section of the CTA newsletter. In the earliest days of the CTA, contract archaeology was strictly a university-based enterprise. In contrast, today one finds a quite small number of university-based research labs actively engaged in cultural resource management in Texas, and even this number seems to be dwindling.

A historical point that emerges from early volumes of our newsletter is that, in the early days of the CTA, there was no practical distinction between “academic” and “contract” archaeology in terms of who was conducting compliance-based fieldwork and how graduate students could simultaneously gain experience in “research” and “compliance” work. Another important point for us to be aware of is that many of the people who received their training in the 1970s and early-80s, when CRM in Texas was predominantly a university-based market, constitute our more seasoned CTA members, and are steadily being replaced by younger practitioners who are being educated in starkly different circumstances. Consequently, it shouldn’t be any surprise that people perceive a schism between applied archaeology and other fields that aren’t quite as relevant to the needs of the professional community. I recently learned that at least one and perhaps two MA-granting programs in our state have lost their graduate programs; this development will only make it harder for archaeology students to gain important experience and training before they join our professional ranks.

What does all this mean for the Academic Archaeology and CRM Committee? I’m not completely sure. As I write this piece, I think even the name of this committee contributes to the misperception that there are two distinct “kinds” of archaeology. I know many (academic) archaeologists with advanced degrees who I wouldn’t let near my site in a million years. I also know many (CRM) archaeologists who turn up their noses at proposed research topics because they are years out of touch with theoretical developments in North American archaeology, or who won’t acquire relatively inexpensive equipment for their staff to conduct analyses because it affects their bottom line. We all have a lot we can do to improve our field. I think this means finding ways to inject some regulatory component into curricula across the state, particularly where university departments currently do not cover these topics. It also means encouraging ways to stretch our professional imagination of and tolerance for new and productive ways to explore our subject matter. For as long as I’m part of this committee, I welcome and invite any other suggestions from the CTA membership about what we can do to improve our collective lot.

2 thoughts on “Academic Archaeology and CRM

  1. Hi! I am currently a senior at UTSA and am hoping you could provide me with some information. I am looking for a chance to gain experience in cultural resource management and was wondering if you could provide me some clues as to how to get my foot in the door. If there is an internship opportunity for undergrad students or any advice you could supply would be highly appreciated. Thank you for your time. 🙂

    1. Stephanie:

      The best way to get some experience is to do a couple of things: join the Texas Archaeological Society (TAS) and go to one of their field schools. There are several archaeologists in the CRM field that go to the field schools. Also, join CTA and come to a meeting, we are always looking for more student members. Also, shop your resume around to the CRM firms – projects come up quickly and sometimes we need field techs fast. This sometimes involves a little luck, but its a good way to get experience. Hope this info helps. -Mindy Bonine

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