CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2009
CRM Journal

Book Reviews

Quality Management in Archaeology

Edited by Willem J. H. Willems and Monique H. van den Dries. Oxford, UK [Oakview, CT]: Oxbow Books [David Brown Books], 2007; viii + 159 pp., illustrations, maps; paper $56.00.

Over the past 40 years or more, countries around the world have become increasingly concerned about the physical survival of their heritage resources in the face of ever-advancing development, and with good reason. Such resources are both finite and non-renewable. Therefore, as infrastructure grows to keep pace with changing times and accommodate the needs of society, it is important for governments to be mindful of those tangible vestiges of the past that have meaning to present and future generations.

In the laudable effort to manage threats to heritage resources, many laws, regulations, and international conventions have been promulgated, and the discipline of archeology has evolved dramatically in order to comply with those government mandates. In almost every instance, however, the question of how best to approach the preservation and protection of significant archeological sites has been especially challenging. This book is the first major attempt to present a comparative study of the policies and procedures adopted by nine nations in North America, continental Europe, and the United Kingdom.

The editors, Dutch archeologists having considerable experience with the practices in the Netherlands, begin this volume with an introduction in which they discuss “quality management” concepts derived from the business world and explain how they might apply them to archeology carried out in the public interest under government mandates. Analogies to Japanese business philosophies, in fact, have apparent resonance in light of widespread perceptions that many of the problems related to assuring quality products and performance in compliance-related archeology derive from the fact that it is largely a private enterprise performed by government contractors. Underscoring points made in the 10 chapters that follow, Willems and van den Dries show how different perspectives on the organization of archeological resource management affect quality assurance in the mandated research.

As an American archeologist, having long and varied experience with how the system of cultural resource management works—and sometimes does not work—in the United States, I read this book with great interest, looking for specific ways in which our system differs from other countries. While I did learn a great deal about how other countries approach this slippery problem, I gained no insights into how U.S. protocols could be substantially improved. This owes, in no small measure, to many of the key differences in those systems that the editors emphasize in their introduction.

It becomes clear, from various chapters in this book, that distinct disparities exist among nations respecting concepts of government’s responsibility in guaranteeing the proper management of cultural resources and notions of government’s authority to regulate commercial enterprise. There are also notable dissimilarities in views on the sanctity of individual property rights and what aspects of private property can rightly be subject to governmental control. Those models do not necessarily translate well across national boundaries where political systems and long-standing historical precedents vary greatly.

The book, in fact, makes it apparent that evolving political systems in certain European nations have brought about a trend toward the American way of doing things, much to the chagrin of at least one volume contributor. The prevailing attitude in Europe once favored government control of cultural resource management as a public monopoly. In the past decade, as apparent from several of the chapters, more nations have begun to encourage the growth of a private enterprise in archeology, as well as developer funding of required investigations. Indeed, in chapter 10, “Scientific Quality Control and the General Organisation of French Archaeology,” this widening transformation is attributed, in part, to the policies embodied by President Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., which promoted the privatization of state enterprises and the deregulation of markets.

As several authors point out, however, free-market forces that normally weed out poor performance through competition do not work in the context of compliance-driven archeological research, because few developers or land managers have any concern for the quality of products received. Most have no vested interest and see no benefit in financing high quality archeological investigations that lead to meaningful interpretations of the past. Instead, they wish only to meet the minimal government requirements mandated by law and then move on with the progress of their undertakings. Therefore, it is incumbent upon government and the archeological profession to work together in assuring that the larger public interests in heritage preservation are served.

Unfortunately, as shown in the chapter on guidelines and practices in the U.S., attempts to implement an effective system of quality assurance here have not been terribly successful. In the highly critical contribution, “Cultural Resource Management Guidelines and Practice in the United States,” the authors provide a litany of familiar examples showing how the system has so often failed to make certain that the persons, processes, and products associated with cultural resource management in the U.S. meet high and consistent standards.

As is often said of laws and sausages, the more one knows of their making the less one respects the end products. Similarly, if one closely examines the American cultural resource management system, one is bound to find numerous flaws that make it appear far worse than it is. In contrast with most other contributions to this volume, which acknowledge but downplay systemic difficulties while praising national success stories, the chapter on U.S. practices seems to me a harsh appraisal that takes insufficient notice of what is good about our historic preservation programs.

There is no question, though, that the U.S. system could stand improvement. Substantial variability can be found in the procedures of state and tribal historic preservation offices, which are typically understaffed for the incredible volume and diversity of obligatory compliance reviews. Moreover, few state or tribal governments in the U.S. have adopted stringent professional qualification standards beyond the minimums defined by the Secretary of the Interior. At the same time, attempts by the archeological profession to self-regulate through the establishment of watchdog organizations, like the Society of Professional Archaeologists and its successor the Register of Professional Archaeologists, have not been as successful in realizing their mission as similar professional institutions have been for practice of law, medicine, or civil engineering.

Such failures owe, at least in part, to the fact that the perceived consequences of being wrong are not as keenly felt in the case of archeology as they are for those other professions. The public insists that those professions and their government take more active roles in policing the quality of practice, because it is all too clear what results will come of poor performance. Not so with archeology, and thus there seems no compelling need for the public to be concerned with measures that would bolster quality assurance.

While most citizens see intrinsic value in enhancing our knowledge of the past, relatively few seem to recognize how our interpretations are diminished by the loss of important archeological sites and data, whether by indiscriminant development or incompetent investigation. Until those public perceptions fundamentally change, those who practice cultural resource management will continue to struggle with the issues addressed in this book.

Quality Management in Archaeology is an important and thought-provoking book for its examination of diverse approaches toward the resolution of a common dilemma. Readers will take from it some consolation in knowing that others around the world face the same problem of promoting historic preservation in the face of much-needed development and maintaining high-quality research in the face of other priorities and pressures.

Vergil E. Noble
National Park Service