Archaeology and Development: Statistics from the Historic Resources Management Branch

Here’s what the industry looks like in Alberta.

Does anyone else think “new sites” is a weird metric?


Have you ever wondered about how development impacts heritage sites in Alberta? Today’s post is for you! Check out the following infographic, which presents data collected by the Archaeological Survey at the Historic Resources Management Branch.

RETROactive_HRIA_infographicMAR16_corrected.pngWritten by: Colleen Haukaas, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator, Archaeological Survey

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The Grand Challenge for CRM Archaeology

Earlier this month, Doug started a blog carnival dealing with the Grand Challenges for Archaeology. We discussed it on an episode of the CRM archaeology podcast. For those of you who don’t listen to podcasts, my ideas can be found below.

After Doug announced the carnival, I looked over the 25 grand challenges article published in American Antiquity. These are all larger social theory questions that the 181 respondents felt could (and probably should) be addressed by archaeological work.  There was a lot of outrage over it online, including over the lack of diversity in respondents, the low number of respondents (many SAA members claimed to have never received a call for the survey), the decision to not include methodical and logistical issues, &c. Of these, I’m most forgiving of the last issue. The goal of this was to identify topics that archaeology could help address. I’m also somewhat forgiving of the topics picked. Any potential sampling issues that might have occurred do not dismiss these as worthy topics, but the archaeologist looking to make a contribution should be aware that they might not be the only challenges out there.

So now, two years later, Doug is looking to stir the pot by declaring a blog carnival regarding our own grand challenges in our own personal or professional spheres of archaeology. He leaves it open-ended in order to let the participants figure out how they’d like to define it. Our challenges no longer have to be research oriented. They can be methods as well. Being very methodical, CRM-oriented blogs will (and have, I note) go this way. This post is ultimately no different.

First, let me discuss what does interest me as far as research goes. I’m particularly interested in the ceramic styles of the Early and Middle Woodland periods in southwestern Wisconsin, or at least I was, before moving from Wisconsin to Alberta.

In Wisconsin, the Early and Middle Woodland ceramic sequence goes Marion -> Prairie ware -> Havana ware -> Linn ware. These wares contain more than one type, but the progression is astoundingly linear. Worse, it is tied directly to the phases and the other cultural elements that make up those phases. For example, when the phases change, everything changes. Point styles, ceramic styles, and lifeways all change, if only by a small degree.

There’s no way that this reflects the actual archaeological record for the region at the time, but we continue to use it as the guiding framework. While we should be using the archaeological work to refine the nuances of our categorical notions, we’re often using them to evaluate the quality of sites from whatever we’re looking at in CRM. That’s clearly not how we’re supposed to do things, but in CRM we need the tools that contribute to expediency.

CRM archaeology is heavily dependent in how we learn to do archaeology. That often becomes the baseline for what is acceptable. We’re informed by both our field schools and work places in how we do things. Many of us don’t leave our particular corporate or regional sphere, so we just carry on in the way that we assume is correct. What innovation we do is normally focused on doing what we already do, only faster and cheaper. There is little innovation in the way we interpret, assess, or organize archaeological data.

We still use sites. We still use phases. We still assume 1:1 relationships between points and ceramic styles—even when there isn’t data for it. In many ways, academic thinking has moved beyond these ideas, only not in a way that is easily applicable within the CRM processes. We’re still out there inventorying data in the way that we always have. Unsurprisingly, we’re coming up with the same interpretations that we always have instead of saying anything new. We have no new research questions beyond what Sarah Herr once referred to as “disco archaeology”. There are plenty of my colleagues who think that this could be remedied with added level of nuance to discern greater differences, but I can’t help wonder if it’s not because our foundational theoretical framework (i.e., culture history) was just assumed to be correct.

It would be easy to think that the grand challenge for CRM-based archaeology is to revise the theoretical approaches to our work. Ultimately, the work that we’ve done doesn’t seem to easily fit with the research agendas held by our colleagues in the ivory tower. Sure, we can (and often do) find important sites that are historically important to descendant groups or other communities with historical ties. As a science, though, our contributions don’t seem to amount to much.

Maybe that’s the grand challenge, the grandest of them all: Relevancy.

We’re just not good at relating what we do to others in a way that they find important. We try to communicate the importance for archaeology, for sure. Only, it seems to be quite rare that we can actually deliver.

This isn’t just about CRM, either. It holds true for the other branches of our discipline. I strongly suspect that it’s why the original challenge survey was held. The authors wanted to identify broader research questions that others might feel are important. Perhaps they wanted to achieve a greater level of relevance by showing the broader questions that we can answer.

Archaeology does a good job at working as heritage, but as a science, thinking in terms of its ability to provide meaningful data and answer questions that non-archaeologists would also find important, that still seems to be lacking. Meanwhile, curational facilities are filling up, or worse, are being closed down. We’re doing a lot of work out there. Where is it taking us? What are we learning and teaching? How does it actually contribute?

Undeveloped Regions

It came out a while ago, but I’m still working my way through the September issue of the SAA Archaeological Record. Two articles in particular have caught my eye as being noteworthy both for my own practice and for comment in general.

The first is a reprint of Robert L. Kelly’s Patty Jo Watson Distinguished Lecture that he gave at the American Anthropological Association Meeting in 2013. In it, an academic archaeologist despairs at the possibility for doing meaningful research in the future. He runs into the desert and ends up having a debate with a coyote, as one sometimes does in our profession. It’s definitely worth a read, but part of the story involves a discussion about finding new places to investigate. Here’s a quote relevant to CRM work (pg. 14):

“But the expansion of fieldwork, and legislation to protect the resource and to protect interests in the resource had consequences. We’ve learned so much that standard archaeological research is almost useless. When I first started in the Great Basin, the projectile point sequence wasn’t even completely known. In 40 years we’ve learned a lot. Because we did our job well.

“But it’s a diminishing returns curve. Every effort we make adds increasingly smaller amounts of knowledge. I tell my students that research entails finding a hole in our knowledge, and then filling it. But the holes are getting smaller. Really, who cares about a canyon like this one today. We can’t justify surveying it simply because it hasn’t been done; at the end of the day, what’ll we have learned?”

Gateson paused for a moment, fidgeting with his eye patch. “Now here’s what bugs me: CRM will always have something to do—at least until the damn Tea Party overturns the legislation— even if it means mapping late twentieth-century scatters of cell phone parts. But what about academic archaeologists? What can we contribute?”

What matters to Gateson is, apparently, finding sites and figuring out the culture history of our study area. A discussion about broader research questions follows, but the idea of looking at new places keeps returning. When discussing how academic work would fit with local CRM work, the coyote suggests this (pg. 16):

“And CRM doesn’t do everything. It can’t. It only works where development is. So, seek out places where CRM isn’t filling the holes. Take high altitudes; the mountains see little development, so CRM isn’t there. And with much of your western forests left dead by beetle kill, vast tracks of forest are burning, and there’s a lot hidden beneath the pine duff. Or what about the coastal areas? We know they’ll soon erode as a result of global warming and sea level rise. Maybe you need something like the River Basin Survey to target and assess stretches of the coast that are vulnerable. Academics should take the initiative here. It’s your data that will wash out to sea.”

This is all true. I strongly suspect that, in the future, smarter development firms will catch on to where important archaeological properties might lie and plan to avoid them. This would leave CRM archaeologists with poorer pickings, although we might hit upon new ideas about these gaps in our understanding.

There are, however, things to consider beyond survey and culture history and the second article in the Archaeological Record helps to put that in context. The very next article is by Michael E. Smith and appears to be a cleaned up version of something he has blogged about at least a couple of times (here and here). I wrote a brief comment on his second blog post, in which I point out that most of what CRM-based archaeology is describing what we find along with some post-hoc interpretations that hopefully serve as the beginning of future research. Having read Dr. Smith’s new article a couple of times, I still think that’s true.

Those of you who work in CRM should be thinking about the nature of your work and how you might apply some of the thinking in this article to your it. I might blog about this further at some point in the future, but for the present I think it’s sufficient to emphasize that CRM archaeology primarily works at gathering data and presenting initial explanations for what we find. There is little hypothesis testing or additional research because our scopes of work don’t extend beyond the clearance or concurrence letter.

There’s a lot of work that could be done with CRM-generated data. An academic looking for projects in areas with long histories of CRM work doesn’t need to be seeking some sort of untouched environment. You don’t need to be some sort of data hermit. We have plenty of those. Take a look at that second article and see all of those areas of arguments discussed by Smith where CRM doesn’t reside. That’s your mountain. That’s your coastal area. You could be using the data and those post-hoc interpretations as the starting point for syntheses and better interpretations. Test our assumptions. Tear them apart. Make us change our minds and methods. Give us new interpretative tools and ideas to work with. Archaeologists still have a lot to do in all of these areas.

In your face, Space Coyote.

Accessibility and Existence: Toward an Ethical Consumption of Literature

Somewhere, deep within my archaeologically encultured brain, I firmly believe that archaeological theory is important. We hardly ever discuss it in CRM, but we often enjoy discussing methods and theory shapes those methods. At least, that’s what we’ve been told in our theory courses. It’s been decades since I took that type of course. What developments have been made since that course? Could any of those new ideas be applicable to my work? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but I sometimes have the inclination to try to update what I was formally taught. How do I go about doing this? That’s the problem. Although I might have the inclination, I don’t necessarily have a lot of time, especially when I already have a large “to-read” stack of pdfs and books to go through.

Bill Caraher recently posted a draft copy of a review that looked at recent works on archaeological theory. I read this with the idea that I could choose the one that sounded the most interesting and start there. The one that sounded the most interesting to me is Archaeology in the Making: Conversations in a Discipline, edited by William Rathje, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Witmore, and published by Routledge.

Routledge. If you have easy access to an institutional library, this imprint might not mean much to you beyond the many useful titles that you have access to. For those of us who typically have to purchase our reading material, the name itself makes our blood run cold. Or maybe hot with seething hatred, depending on one’s disposition. There can be a lot of variation between archaeologists, after all.

I didn’t even need to check the price to know that I wouldn’t be able to afford it. When I did bother to check it, the price is well in excess of my daily wage. Gross, even, not just net. For the ebook. From Amazon, whom I don’t even like to do business with because they undervalue labor. There are a patchwork of ways that I can use read the book, though. I might be able to find individual chapters on Or hobble together a useable copy between Google Books and Amazon’s preview. If I’m lucky, I can get some sort of community access to the local University’s library.

When I was in grad school, I attended a conference and saw a paper relevant to a project I was working on. The authors didn’t want to give out a copy of the paper because they were working on an updated version of the paper to be published, but they couldn’t tell me where or when it would be published. I later mentioned this to my advisor who said something along the lines of “Well, if it’s not published then it doesn’t exist.”

Whenever I stumble upon issues of accessibility for literature, whether CRM grey lit or pay-walled academic lit, I think about what he said. If we can’t access data and ideas, do they functionally cease to exist? At what point do we just ignore the unavailable and focus on the lower-hanging fruit that are less expensive books and open access articles?

If the books or articles aren’t available for a reasonable cost, or easily accessible in other ways, perhaps we should think about which publisher we’re working with. There can’t be much impact, if the source is prohibitively expensive. But in my angrier moments, I think we should go further and just draw a line in the sand and ignore anything that crosses a certain threshold of availability. Don’t read those volumes. Don’t learn or propagate those ideas. Definitely don’t provide free advertisement in the form of reviews. Let them remain inaccessibly alone and isolated.

That’s a quick run down the short path to poor scholarship, though. Avoiding ideas can stunt our own work as well as the published work that we can’t easily acquire. We aren’t just scholars and researchers, though, we are both producers and consumers of ideas and their media. We can’t ignore our responsibilities of the marketplace anymore than we would with other types of products. Just as we would be with other types of products, we need to be conscious of the effects our choices of these products have, both as producers and consumers.

I wish I could say that I do this as a matter of course. I try to be an informed and ethical consumer when I shop for other stuff. Honestly though, I’m mostly aware of these issues with archaeological publications when those publications are out of my reach. Most of the time, I just want to read those materials. When I can’t, that’s when I get all concerned. Perhaps you’re better than me at remaining aware of the accessibility issues. Perhaps not. Either way, here’s what I’d like you to do. Whenever you’re about to read an article or book, ask yourself how easy it is for others to access that work. Ask yourself who might be excluded from accessing that work. I’ll try to do the same.

Notice: Change of Venue

For the past few months, I haven’t blogged much of anything on my Tumblr account. This, despite the fact that I’ve had plenty of ideas for entries. I did manage to create something for the Day of Archaeology and have kept up other archaeologists on Twitter, but Tumblr? It had become a little much of a pain to use, which might be as much Chrome’s fault as it is Tumblr’s. In any case, I decided to move to WordPress as my blogging platform. The theme of the content will not be changing much, if at all. For those of you who enjoy following the Tumblr, I’m going to keep linking to it. If everything is set up correctly, WordPress should send a link over there. I might, from time to time, reblog something of interest that I see on Tumblr.

The field season is in the middle of crunch-time. Everyone at work is desperately trying to get all of the field projects finished before the winter hits. No one knows when that will be, but it could be any day now. The pressure is on, which makes today the perfect day to start the transition of blogs. Hopefully, as the field season winds down, I’ll be able to clean up the design of the blog and add content.

Until then, I hope you enjoy whichever holiday you choose to observe on the 12th of October, whether Indigenous Peoples Day, Canadian Thanksgiving, the day that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was first published, or what have you.