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.

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