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Archaeological Training and the Changing Landscapes of Cultural Resource Management

May 25, 2018
Completed erosion stabilization at Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site (courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, photograph by Dwayne Walker). Completed erosion stabilization at Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site (courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, photograph by Dwayne Walker).

Archaeologists are mentors, consultants, and employers. Through these roles, either actively or passively, all archaeologists are advocates for modern people.

One of my most vivid memories from graduate school did not occur in the field or in the classroom. Instead, it came during a department-wide round table discussion. Faculty, administration, and students were invited to have a self-reflective discussion on the viability of the department. At one point, someone posed the question: “Why are we seeing a slight decline in the numbers of undergraduate students?” Uncomfortable with the few seconds of silence while people gathered thoughts, I blurted an answer that made sense to me: “Parents send their kids to college to get an education and to prepare them for the workforce, maybe we need to do more to explain the types of employment a degree in anthropology can provide.”  Thinking I had made a safe and cogent argument, I was floored to hear a long-tenured faculty member retort: “Well, we’re hardly in it for the money!” While I understood the sentiment that anthropologists work towards the greater good and that education is as much about personal development as it is the bottom line, I was dumbfounded, and temporarily silenced, by the response. Three years later, the nation was undergoing the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and my career and vision of cultural resource management’s role in archaeological anthropology had drastically changed.

Archaeologists wear many hats. Many are researchers and professors, while others work for federal, tribal, state, and local governments, and for private consulting firms as Cultural Resource Management (CRM) professionals (though not all CRM practitioners are archaeologists). Archaeologists are mentors, consultants, and employers. Through these roles, either actively or passively, all archaeologists are advocates for modern people.

Cultural resource management in the United States is implemented through the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), either alone or in combination with its sister law, the National Environmental Policy Act. Section 106 of the NHPA mandates that federal agencies identify historic properties (sites that are listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)) when the agency partakes in a federal undertaking. Additionally, these agencies are required to consult with interested parties, including but not limited to State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO), Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs), and the general public

Traditionally, archaeologists fulfilled Section 106 through a series of investigations. They would conduct a survey of records to identify previously recorded sites and a field survey to identify new ones. Then, if any sites were found, they would evaluate those for the NRHP. If historic properties were identified they would then enact mitigative measures to reduce impacts. To fulfill consultation requirements, agencies made determinations of effect and sent reports to the State Historic Preservation Office for concurrence.

Over the years, because of changes to the law and in the practice of CRM, the role of consulting parties has shifted in terms of inclusiveness and scope. SHPOs, THPOs, the public, and general interested parties are included in the planning, implementation, and review. This takes historic preservation out of the past and puts it squarely in the present.

Understanding the past is not just about objects; archaeologists’ goal is to learn about people and heritage is always defined by people living in the present (Kryder-Reid et al. 2018). By nature, cultural heritage begins at the local level, even if it is regulated nationally (Zimmerman 2013). Federal archaeologists must advocate for the people of the United States. This does not mean the majority, but all communities, many of whom federal archaeologists work with on a day-to-day basis. State and Tribal archaeologists represent a more focused set of communities. Sometimes, they agree with the federal implementation of NHPA; many times they do not.

Cultural resource practitioners need to be prepared to face a multi-vocal backlash against our chosen trade. Descendent communities do not necessarily want or need a colonialist legislative environment in which the interpretation of a people’s history is relegated to academically trained professionals. Other members of the public simply may not value cultural heritage, especially with the all-too-pervasive perception that it impedes progress. In addition to adhering to a complex set of regulations, cultural resource managers must demonstrate why understanding and protecting the past is important, while at the same time preserving the rights and sovereignty of others to control their own heritage. It is this balancing act that is key to the practice of CRM.

Private CRM consultants are advocates as well. Consulting is a business. Beyond serving as cultural stewards they help their clients navigate the regulatory environment toward the goal of completing projects, regardless if the client is a government agency or a private applicant. A business owner should also advocate for their employees. Working for the greater good alone does not necessarily provide employees a livable wage, access to health care, means of paying student loans, or funds for retirement.

In the current job market, no academic archaeologist is completely divorced from CRM. A recent study showed that 20% of anthropology doctorates land a tenure-track position and 56% of those come from twenty universities (Speakman et al. 2018; Speakman and Thompson 2018). Simply stated, most students graduating with doctoral degrees in archaeology are not working in academia. Most anthropology programs do recognize the reality of the job market, but without faculty actively engaged with the CRM community, the recognition is little more than lip-service. This is not an indictment on all departments. Many do employ CRM professionals and some of these professionals specialize in applied archaeology, but any graduate who is not well versed in CRM, regardless of geographical research area, is either unprepared for the job market or ill-prepared to train their students for their future careers. Both CRM practitioners and academic researchers need to adapt to strengthen and maintain the discipline in an actively changing cultural and fiscal environment. While we may not be in it for the money, no one expects to be in it for the poverty.


Figure a

Visible tension cracks threatening Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site (courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, photograph by Tim Reed). 



Kryder-Reid, Elizabeth, Jeremy W. Foutz, Elizabeth Wood, and Larry J. Zimmerman. 2018. “‘I Just Don’t Ever Use That Word’: Investigating Stakeholders’ Understanding of Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 24 (7): 743–63.

Speakman, Robert J., Carla S. Hadden, Matthew H. Colvin, Justin Cramb, K. C. Jones, Travis W. Jones, Corbin L. Kling, et al. 2018. “Choosing a Path to the Ancient World in a Modern Market: The Reality of Faculty Jobs in Archaeology.” American Antiquity 83 (1): 1–12.

Speakman, Robert J., and Victor D. Thompson. 2018. “The Reality of Faculty Jobs in Anthropological Archaeology.” March 7, 2018.

Zimmerman, Larry J. 2013. “Is ‘The Past Is a Public Heritage’ Democratizing or Alienating?”


Andrew J. Clark is a field archaeologist with US Army Corps of Engineers covering Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case along the Missouri River. He received his PhD in anthropology from the University at Albany in 2017 and specializes in conflict studies, public archaeology, and spatial analysis. With Douglas Bamforth, he is a coeditor of Archaeological Perspectives on Warfare on the Great Plains.


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