One Head, Many Hats: The Diverse Expertise of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Archaeologists

Photo by jaden/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by jaden/iStock / Getty Images

When I think about the many colleagues I know, I realize that many individual paths have led us to careers in archaeology.  Some started as readers, (perhaps a little introverted in some cases), who were fascinated as children by tales of the past: the various worlds of dinosaurs and wooly mammoths, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, pyramids and ziggurats, tales of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines.  In exploring American history, they (we) were often lost in writings about the worlds of Native American cultures before contact, and the Old World colonies planted in the New.

    Some others were interested first in cultural anthropology but discovered archaeology along the way.  Some were involved in completely different areas of study, but took an archaeological field school and got hooked by the intriguing exploration of the past.  Some, being a friend or relative of an archaeologist, took a temporary job that lasted longer than they ever could have imagined.  Many were happy to realize that archaeology is a field where one applies all kinds of knowledge and ability:  data analysis, quantification, geometry, math, cartography, science, geology, history, illustration, photography, narrative, teaching, management, entrepreneurship:  each of us in different measure.  It is true for some of us that we did not foresee the diversity of skill-sets we would need to develop.  

    Recently, my friend Nina Versaggi provided a contribution to The Conversation that succinctly and beautifully offers her perspective of a career in archaeology. While Nina conveys the excitement of archaeological discovery and the importance of reconstructing the past, she also talks about the varied responsibilities and skill-sets that many American archaeologists have as cultural resource managers.  For example, for archaeologists in the applied science programs of CRM, it is important to be both business-like and diplomatic.  These are not skills that are specifically taught in anthropology graduate programs, at least not in most; but need to be developed nonetheless by many archaeologists who lead CRM organizations. They are in addition to the grounding in general anthropology that provides the substantive core.  

  On the other hand, business schools don’t train archaeologists or other non-business professionals.  So there is a general need to develop business skills.  And, there is a literature for this.  In his book The E-Myth Revisited, reaching out to non-business types who require a little perspective, Michael Gerber argued that technically-skilled people who start their own businesses must learn to put on two additional hats:  manager and entrepreneur (and this advice can be extended to others trained in a profession or craft but directing a larger business or non-profit).  That is, management and entrepreneurial roles are not optional. 

Meanwhile, in his book Thinking about Cultural Resource Management, archaeologist Tom King extolled the central role of communication and diplomacy in CRM (with apt lessons for all).  Section 106 (the federal historic preservation review process) allows for building consensus and mediating concerns.  CRM archaeologists benefit from being skilled in (to borrow a phrase) “Getting to Yes” when the goals and perspectives of the different people involved in development projects, regulatory authority, consulting party responsibility, and cultural resource management come into conflict.  

So now we can start to count the CRM archaeologist’s hats:  applied research scientist, manager, entrepreneur, communicator, diplomat, mediator.  When we think about bringing the result of all this to the public, CRM archaeologists also don educator hats.

However, before I ramble on any more, allow me to close this wordy way of introducing what I really want you to read about:  Nina’s experience told in her great article “Scientists at Work:  Public archaeologists dig before the construction crews do”!  Enjoy!