Craft in Archaeology: Craft in CRM Archaeology

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

As an industry, Cultural Resource Management archaeologists have adapted to our commercial environment in order to expedite the identification of important historic properties. We tend to work through standardized methods and management plans. We’ve co-opted types to make interpretively dubious assumptions that allow us to categorize artifact assemblages with a cool, quick precision. We categorize artifact types, site types, feature types, and eligibility types. We like our types and we want them to be clearly defined so we can create workflows that can be easily applicable. We don’t have time for apprentices or interns that we would normally take under our wing; we just need to plug people into pre-existing positions. These hires need to ramp up to the necessary professional accuracy and speed as quickly as possible in order to meet our deadlines. Our budgets, of both money and time, rarely allow for a great depth of understanding.

Our innovations are largely one of technical process. We adopt new technologies that allow us to record data more precisely and quickly than ever before. When we do adopt technologies (such as geophysical prospecting and lidar), they are often employed to save the effort of fieldwork, rather than to simply expand the pool of data at our interpretive disposal.

We develop managerial tools that allow us to reduce the amount of workload. Predictive models are often used to determine where or how to look for archaeological properties, rather than being used by a project’s proponent to determine where to best locate their project in order to avoid historic properties. Program comments and agreements are developed to allow only a small percentage of sites to be tested.

I won’t argue that these tools aren’t appropriate for the tasks at hand, but they do illustrate the trend of efficiency optimization within the CRM industry. Where does all of this leave craft within the industry?

When Bill issued the call for posts for this Archaeology and Craft series, I had been working on a post for my blog that I felt was actually brushing against the topic of archaeology as a craft and the pervasive lack of it in the CRM industry. The working title for this post was/is “Standardization, Professionals, and Technicians.” In it, I was discussing what a professional archaeologist is.

There are a lot of definitions and criteria over what is a professional archaeologist. There are the Secretary of Interior qualifications, which is the prevailing definition in the industry. There are also those who argue that “professional” = “licensed” and thus, you can’t be a professional archaeologist because there is no licensing body.

Others use the “employed” criteria. If you’re paid to do archaeology, you’re a professional. This is closely related to the dichotomy of professional and amateur. The professional is trained through formal education and is the essential “keeper of the flame” for both information and also the technical aspects of the work.

I usually think about “professional” as opposed to “technician.” This is very similar to the SOI qualification definition that I mentioned above, but instead of qualifications, I’m thinking of the distinction in terms of process. Technicians follow a set process. Professionals develop that process. I think that an archaeologist who understands the process and the reasons for it. If the situation calls for a change in process, they can adjust it as needed. One could be a professional archaeologist and still hold a position with the title of “technician”. The opposite is also true. I’m sure we all know archaeologists who are ostensibly professionals, but fail to break processes when needed, sometimes even to devastating effect. 

Obviously, my notions of what makes a professional archaeologist overlaps considerably with the notions of craft as discussed by Shanks and McGuire (1996; the required reading for this post). For example they describe craft as “…a process of interpretation and involves taste and the judgment of quality; it is a process of design” (Shanks and McGuire 1996:78).

Standardization is needed in the CRM industry. Aside from the increases in efficiency, I think that the small samples that we use in the majority of CRM work (e.g. surveys and evaluations) could be very useful for improving our understanding of regions, but far too often are presented in ways that hinder incorporation of the data into wider analysis. Sites are not islands, yet we create islands of data that are not easily compared. The dangers of standardized methods are that we can follow them rote without much thought. It is the craft of CRM archaeology where we can design and follow processes, but alter those designs as needed.

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