Dead-end discoveries?

Many archaeological finds are reburied in mounds of dull reports. One way to help: Hire storytellers to help daylight what comes from digs.

Crosscut archive image.

Crews perform an archeological dig as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project.

Many archaeological finds are reburied in mounds of dull reports. One way to help: Hire storytellers to help daylight what comes from digs.

The curmudgeon factor is pretty high at any meeting of archaeologists. You've got a lot of smart people who spend years on their knees in the dirt studying tiny broken objects, and when they look up, they often notice how little anyone cares, and how wrong their colleagues are. They are trained to be precise, to get things right, and that leaves a lot of room for argument over interpretation. Is that a piece of stone, or a prehistoric tool fragment? Is that an Indian skeleton, or the remains of a prehistoric "caucasian" named Kennewick Man?

Such distinctions can have huge consequences: a highway built or not, history bulldozed or preserved, ancestors desecrated or honored, millions of dollars wasted, or made. Like any profession, there's frustration with the business itself. Most archaeologists are in the private sector, entrepreneurs with trowels. They make money being hired by other folks to meet the legal requirements for major projects.

Federal and state laws protect the environment, heritage, and historic sites, so there's money, sometimes millions of dollars for them, in public projects (like the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project, the 520 expansion, etc.). While far-thinking, these laws are rife with inherent conflicts of interest, or as archaeologist Thomas King put it the other day, the current system is "corrupt and useless."

King was speaking at the Society of Applied Anthropology Conference here in Seattle, and he's frustrated by built-in problems with far-thinking laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which require that both the natural environment and heritage and cultural factors be considered in development projects.

One problem is that when a public agency, say Agency X, decides to build a dam or tunnel or bridge, managers hire consultants, including archaeologists, to do environmental-impact assessments to see what the impacts are, and whether they are damaging. But Agency X gets to decide the scope of the project, define terms of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and hire the consultants who do the work. How many private archaeological firms will flourish for long if they make a habit of telling their clients what they don't want to hear?

The current system is "corrupt and useless," insists King, who is an acknowledged feather-ruffling expert on the subject. (I've touched on his work previously.) The work should not be solely under the supervision of, as King calls it, the Dept. of Foxology.

Needless to say, there are archaeologists who bristle at the suggestion that their conclusions are for sale, but there are firms that make their living rubber-stamping projects and are subject to political pressures when coming up with their analysis. As Scott Williams, archaeology program manager for the Washington Department of Transportation (and a former private-sector worker) acknowledged, there can be pressure for consultants to be "team players."

On top of that, the process tends to produce mountains of reports and paper that "document" historic, archaeological and cultural sites. But little of this documentation ever gets out of the filing cabinet, let alone onto the Web. King's complaint, echoed by other archaeologists, is that much of the text in a typical EIS is designed to justify projects, or not scoped for a full analysis. The impact statements are often too narrowly focused, filled with rote information, and written in impenetrable prose peppered with esoteric terminology. They're designed to adhere to rules, but they can obscure things of significance, or miss them entirely (see the Port Angeles Graving Dock fiasco).

I have observed this looking over impact statements for various projects, even ones I have reported on extensively. Often archaeologists dig up fascinating stuff — and we're not even talking about relics that would stop or delay a project, but things like broken china, old garbage, and shell middens that could produce valuable data about the past. But a clear, comprehensible relaying of these discoveries is seldom found in reports, or the meaning of the finds is not conveyed, at least not in terms the lay public can understand. 

Reports often get buried. One of the conference presenters, Richard Stoffle, an archaeologist from the University of Arizona, complained about the difficulty of obtaining information on research that had been done in western states on traditional Native American cultural sites. He found that state record-keeping was generally poor and that much of the research never comes to light, because states don't track it, or Indian tribes don't want it made public, or it falls between the bureaucratic cracks. He described himself as "a little pissed and a little jaded" after years in the business.

On the one hand, the public pays archaeologists to dig up important history, but then our system encourages them to quickly bury it again in a midden of paper and reports, often where no one will see it or understand what it means. Few members of the public, media, or the profession itself have time to comb through the dense layers of informational sediment.

Not all is lost. A common form of mitigation in projects impacting historic sites is to document them fully. The Alaskan Way Viaduct, for example, has been extensively photographed and documented since it will likely be demolished. Archaeological digs at Discovery Park's West Point have a fine Web page. Some artifacts find their way to museums, though often in deep storage. A few journalists cover heritage and preservation issues; Lynda Mapes at The Seattle Times and Peter Callaghan of the The News Tribune in Tacoma are two who come to mind. But no one I know covers the heritage beat full-time.

During a question-answer period at the conference, archaeologists complained that there was a lack of storytelling, of making their discoveries known and compelling to the people. They're not talking about making the information available (like putting everything online) so much as making it understandable in the first place. The value of that is obvious. One, the people pay for much of the work, so they should get something for their money. Two, the knowledge of history, culture, and place can be very enlightening, entertaining, and enriching. Three, it would lead to better management of cultural resources. Four, it would reinforce the importance of the work and the laws that make it possible.

That understanding could lead to better laws or policies down the road, and more support for archaeology, heritage, and culture. Heaven knows it's needed, as the recent budget crisis underscores.

The problem isn't only here. Across the border in Canada, the lack of storytelling on behalf of archaeology is an identified problem too. Quentin Mackie, who writes the excellent North Coast Archaeology blog in British Columbia, has been tracking controversies about whether property owners should have to pay for archaeological work done on their private land, including a fight at an archaeological site at Willows Beach on Vancouver Island, which, Mackie believes, could have grave consequences for the future for archaeological work in the province. 

It's a complicated story, and the laws are different in B.C. than here in the States. But Mackie is frustrated by the media coverage and the apparent lack of concern on the part of archaeologists who have not told their side of the story well. He also complains about the lack of interpretive detail in discussing findings:

How can we get the story out that archaeological research, including CRM [Cultural Resources Management] archaeology, has meaningful results? We, all archaeologists — academic, private, government — really, really need to find a way to express the meaning of discoveries, and not just fall back on lame 'you have to do it, it’s the law' excuses.

He continues in the comment thread:

Maybe the money [private property owners pay for archaeology] should just go to First Nations to support an indigenous archaeology and cultural history program. If archaeologists can't or won't explain themselves then that might well be an improved direction.

What I mean is, archaeologists need to write real human history-as-a-story, in addition to their careful descriptions of stones and bones. There is no real reason why consultants should be discharged of this responsibility. I know "storytelling" makes a funny line item in a proposed budget but let's figure out a way to make it happen nonetheless.

Storytelling alone won't fix all or most of the problems with the system that Tom King and others have identified. That would take a legal overhaul that's not on the horizon. But it should become part of the operating standard that smart archaeologists and agencies utilize more frequently.

The EIS process absolutely needs reform: Expecting agencies to be objective and unbiased about their own work is unrealistic, and consultants should not be rewarded for downplaying or burying their findings because they are poor communicators, in a hurry doing work on the cheap, or because their client agency wants to keep things hidden or fuzzy. 

It's absolutely true that many public agencies regard the EIS process as a nuisance, an item to be checked off a list, and that they often seek to minimize public consultation and response because it might get in the way of their plans and timetables (see the Seattle downtown tunnel project).

Good storytelling could mobilize people against a project, or steer it where the agency doesn't want to go. But it can also be a reward, a bonus, even a legacy of projects that go forward responsibly. It daylights the process and highlights the benefits, which merely fulfilling requirements by producing dull, unreadable reports does not. What's the good of government "transparency" if what's on the other side is as clear as mud?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.