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The Future of Public Archeology
Winter 1999

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*  The Future of Public Archeology

(photo) New Mexico's Fort Union National Monument on the head of a microchip.

"A shocking number of exhibit-goers were surprised at the extent of the Native American presence. "

Anna-Eliza H. Lewis and Brona G. Simon

A Conversation with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, His Chief Archeologist Frank McManamon, and Society for American Archaeology President Keith Kintigh

The federal archeology program aims to preserve and interpret the nation's archeological record—an estimated 6 to 7 million archeological sites, along with thousands of collections and reports. The National Strategy for Federal Archeology, which the Secretary of the Interior issued nearly a decade ago, is a blueprint for accomplishing that formidable task. This interview looks at the strategy's linchpins—preserving and protecting sites, conserving collections and records, using and sharing research results, increasing public education and participation—and the future they promise for the care of America's most diverse legacy.

The strategy, revised last year, is rooted in the 1906 Antiquities Act, which voiced a public spirited desire to manage that heritage for the benefit of all Americans. This resonates as a new public opinion poll signals the discipline's renewed effort to do just that (see page 4). The revision also brings a new face to the strategy in the form of a call for research. Kintigh explains how the two intersect: "The public relies on archeology to provide the story of the past, and they don't want any old story. They want what really happened. We can let them go on with the story from 30 or 50 years ago—which in many cases is what's in the parks and museums—but we've got a responsibility, just as we do in other areas of science, to get them the best information available."

McManamon, citing new technology and the strategy's accomplishments despite slack funding, says "Congress and archeology's supporters need to recognize that, with some modest increases in terms of the overall federal budget, we could do a lot more." McManamon also discusses a looming deficit in "intellectual capital," which poses perhaps the most serious threat to the strategy's future.

Common Ground: Why do we need a national strategy?

Bruce Babbitt: The strategy intends to raise the consciousness of public agencies. Concern about archeology is not something merely to be dredged up when you're doing an environmental impact statement, or rolled out when a visiting scientist shows up in the front office. Our archeological heritage is intrinsic to all the landscapes we manage. They can only be protected, interpreted, and appreciated if we integrate this reality into all our decisions.

Our managers and leaders must make a personal commitment to do that. The best example is a personal one, whether you're writing a biological opinion, making a geologic map, running a reclamation project, or leading a campfire talk at Yosemite.

But the example starts at the top. When the hundreds of thousands of us in land management see that . . . I think it's contagious. I'm not talking about getting bigger budgets, about getting more archeologists on the payroll, as desirable as that may be. It's about a larger issue: embedding this perspective in everything we do.

Keith Kintigh: The strategy provides some direction from the Secretary to the people "on the ground," who make decisions about budgets and how time is spent. In public agencies, many preservation decisions are made at the lower levels, by land managers with all kinds of responsibilities to juggle. The commitment to the task varies; sometimes they get support from preservation professionals in field offices, sometimes not.

Frank McManamon: There were several reasons why we put the strategy in place: to provide better protection for sites, to enforce the laws, to promote public education, to make sure information from projects was available to the profession and the public.

Across the federal archeology program, different people tended to work on different issues. We had a potpourri of activities that weren't necessarily coherent. We felt we needed to highlight the common issues and their potential for being mutually supportive. We thought if they weren't brought together at some point, important connections wouldn't get made.

Public archeology in the United States is very diffuse. Federal agencies have responsibilities, states have responsibilities, local governments have responsibilities, tribes have responsibilities. It's much more decentralized than in some of the European countries, where you have a national museum or a ministry of culture. Our approach is a strength in that a lot of people are doing things, but it's a weakness if it's not well coordinated.

Common Ground: How does the strategy work?

McManamon: Those who have seen the strategy as having the greatest utility have been at a local office or in the middle levels of agencies. For example, they can go to their supervisor—typically a biologist or a forester or a law enforcement officer now in management—and say we need public outreach because it's part of the Secretary of the Interior's strategy. Mike Kaczor used the strategy at the Natural Resources Conservation Service when he was the preservation officer. The agency, with maybe a half-dozen archeologists scattered across the country, was able to create a more comprehensive approach in the soil conservation districts, which operate at the local level.

Common Ground: How do we improve?

McManamon: Those of us in the public sector need to highlight the good efforts and how they could be much more widespread. Organizations like SAA need to make the same points.

Kintigh: By having the same or more work to do with less money and fewer people, it increases the pressure to view preservation as a paper processing issue and not think about the big picture—what we should be accomplishing for the resources, archeology, and the country. But the immediate bureaucratic requirements are staring people in the face. There's simply a limit to how much you can promote the forward thinking things in the strategy given decreasing or even stable funding.

Babbitt: The archeological fraternity needs to be more aggressive in doing something we in government can't: lobby for resources. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. For example, the archeological community in Phoenix ought to be lobbying the Arizona delegation. A congressman is much more responsive to advocacy emanating from his district than he ever will be to a letter he gets from a professional society in Washington. Both are essential, but as Tip O'Neill used to say, "All politics are local."

Common Ground: The Secretary's Report on the Federal Archeology Program is one yardstick of how well the strategy is working. What's the picture that emerges from the reports of the last decade?

McManamon: There haven't been any sharp fall-offs in the funds agencies report they're putting into investigations, or in the number of them, so there appears to be a steady effort, which is important, but it's not necessarily making up for the shortfalls. The number of sites inventoried is still a tiny fraction of the estimated total on federal lands. And the amount going into law enforcement is relatively small, although we've made substantial progress heightening sensitivity and understanding among agency justice officials.

Common Ground: Is there anything that doesn't show up in the picture given by the report's budget data?

McManamon: Over the last 10 years there's been an inevitable decrease because of simple things like inflation and the increased cost of living. But what's happened that doesn't show in the numbers, as an effect of cuts in government, is that we've been living off our professional capital. Roughly 20 to 25 years ago, agencies staffed up. Archeologists became much more common at the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Corps of Engineers, the Park Service, even at the state level. But there's been scant effort to replenish this core. Now these archeologists are reaching the end of their careers and it's very difficult to replace them. It's far more likely when someone leaves that the position simply is eliminated.

I'm afraid we haven't been grooming younger professionals to step into these jobs. They're out there, but they tend to be working in term appointments or as consultants, not as permanent employees. It's an ongoing problem. We need to solve it.

Kintigh: I see a remarkable level of public support for quality of life issues like preservation; two new national monuments were just designated in Arizona. Unfortunately, the public will is not being translated into political action in government budgets.

Common Ground: Could you talk a bit about the larger goals of the strategy?

Babbitt: In government, there's a tendency to compartmentalize what we do. Agency archeologists should be looking across the borders of the lands they manage. You know, we started with postage stamp monuments because archeology was focused on ruins. We've evolved to a larger understanding now. We've started to see that one site's artifacts are not sufficient to comprehend the story of communities spread across entire landscapes. Today these landscapes may be managed by three or four agencies. I think that Park Service archeologists, particularly, ought to think of themselves as having a leadership role in drawing together the scientific and interpretive resources these places need—seize the opportunities where the full resources of the Interior Department should be brought to bear.

Kintigh: Most sites in the West are held by the federal government. As a consequence, the quality of the federal archeology program has an enormous impact on not only our ability to learn from our heritage now, but to ever be able to. It's absolutely critical to the future that we maintain high quality management. We also need to cultivate the public's support of both archeology and the broader objective of preserving open space.

McManamon: That's a good point. The links between understanding the environment and understanding the past are of a piece with Americans, who increasingly value the connection.

Common Ground: A 1981 GAO report pointed to some inefficiencies in the program. How have they been dealt with?

McManamon: GAO highlighted the problem with the "gray literature," one of the reasons why the National Archeological Database was developed. The idea was to make it easier to put your hands on the reports of archeological investigations. The database is far from perfect, or complete. We've been making attempts, but it's a big job.

Kintigh: Arizona has major site files in three or four different institutions. Centralizing the information in a database, which is being done now, lets peoples do record searches that are faster, cheaper, and much more thorough. The technology is there to address a number of inefficiencies, but it's going to require some substantial investment. In the long run, making the results of our work available will let us learn more, and to share that with the public. As the Harris poll shows, the public really wants to know.

Common Ground: The recent revision of the strategy brought a new focus on research. Why was that change made?

Kintigh: Although there's still a lot we don't know, we've gained a lot of knowledge in the last three decades, and we need to get that disseminated much more widely. Of course the way we gain knowledge is through research.

Our heritage is disappearing. As the population grows and people use public lands more heavily, there are inevitable impacts. We have a responsibility to do ongoing studies to help mitigate these effects. I'm not saying we can even contemplate this research right now, but in some cases we'll never have the opportunity again.

That research will provide the data we need for better management. The strategy highlights the need for better inventory. The research can tell us what's out there, what sites are threatened, what sites deserve immediate attention.

In some agencies, research, especially by outside parties, has been actively discouraged or essentially prohibited. Hopefully the fact that the Secretary is saying that research is valued will help restore the ability of archeologists outside and inside the program to do it.

McManamon: Among archeologists, particularly in public agencies, the pendulum has swung very far to the conservation side. It needs to swing back a bit; research has many benefits and the health of the discipline requires it.

Common Ground: Why should agencies earmark annual budgets for public education? What's the payoff for them?

Kintigh: The public, through Congress, has said it wants us to preserve what would otherwise be lost. And the public pays for the work. Agencies, and archeologists generally, have the responsibility to share the results. Ultimately this will come back as support.

Everybody knows NPS is there for our parks—its role has always been very public. Whereas there's a perception that the Forest Service is there for the timber industry, BLM for the ranchers and the miners . . . the payoff to the upper managers is that by engaging the public in their archeology programs, they show the agency serving a more direct public purpose.

Several years ago, a field school put on an open house at a national forest. A couple thousand people drove up an hour and a half from Phoenix—to the utter amazement of the forest supervisor. It puts the agency in a very good light. The managers will see that.

The Forest Service Passport in Time initiative is a perfect example. The public has not only profited from its programs, but it has also changed perceptions of the federal government.

McManamon: That's one of the reasons the Forest Service has been so supportive of Passport in Time. BLM, particularly in the Southwest, has been trying to do the same. So has Reclamation.

A corollary is that as agencies show how painstaking an archeological investigation must be, the public will see why it's not adequate to pull pots or pretty stone tools out of the ground. In the long run, the increased understanding will make it easier for agencies to manage. Fewer people will be running around looting or trampling sites. People hiking or birding will become the eyes and ears of the agency, likely to report someone with a pick or shovel.

Common Ground: What can agencies glean from the poll?

Kintigh: The most striking thing was the number of people who had visited a site. The other was the degree to which people think it's important to have laws against looting.

McManamon: It goes straight back to the policy embedded in the Antiquities Act. These are public resources, and they ought to be treated that way. They're not for personal gain.

It's pretty clear that people get a lot of their information about archeology through mass media. We've got to figure out a way to tap into that more frequently, more systematically. A lot of our public education effort has been focused on the school system—which is extremely important in the long run—but the survey seems to argue for trying to work with the television producers.

Kintigh: The SAA executive committee had a discussion about it just this past weekend. Going after TV is a challenge for us. As a start, we need to get archeologists in the government and academia to identify interesting projects. Then we need to set up mechanisms to help them get these stories out to the media.

Common Ground: Let's talk about some of the partners who help carry out the strategy–tribes and native groups.

Babbitt: You know, our repatriation law is a good piece of legislation. But we must engage the Native American community in the spirit of it, not just in technical compliance. We must draw Native Americans into discussions of what landscapes mean to their spiritual traditions, and how they interpret the archeological evidence. That is an enormously powerful idea.

Often we've been a bit grudging in our acknowledgments. I remember—even within my lifetime—when archeologists were dismissing the Hopi oral history of the incredible sites across the Colorado Plateau. Now we've started to see oral tradition as rich in meaning and laden with the possibility for widening our perspective.

That said, conflicts will arise when deeply held spiritual beliefs come into apparent collision with the scientific tradition. What we do is not dismiss these concerns out of hand, we engage and discuss and try to make scientific decisions in a respectful context. It doesn't mean we step away from the issues, we just approach them correctly. That's what I tried to do with the recent DNA decision in the Kennewick case. And I don't expect the tribes to fully understand. What would happen if somebody wanted to dig up my ancestor in a grave marked 1660 in Massachusetts and do a DNA test? Say that I can't conclusively prove this guy's my ancestor, but I think he is. That means I'm entitled to a presumption that I'll be listened to. Maybe there'll be societal reasons to override my judgment but at least I deserve that.

Kintigh: On Native American issues, I think the record is mixed. An attitude that one sees occasionally, which works against partnerships and cooperation, is this notion that it's "my forest" or "my district" or "my sites." Unfortunately that doesn't go over well with the tribes, or for that matter, with the public.

McManamon: This is what happens when things are decentralized. It's a two-edged sword. You want people to have ownership because you want them seriously concerned about the resources. It would be nice if we always agreed with them but, of course, human beings being what we are, that doesn't always happen.

Common Ground: What are the primary threats to sites?

Kintigh: The biggest is obviously development, and that's something we have to live with. That's why we need well informed research and management, why we need public money to mitigate the effects. The second threat is looting, and the answers there are public education and law enforcement. The third is increased public land use. It's people walking over sites, not with any malice, inadvertently displacing wall stones, sometimes picking up pot shards.

Babbitt: Neglect is the number one threat, indiscriminate development is number two, vandalism is number three. Neglect feeds the other threats. If we don't have an informed and interested public, the loss to development and vandalism goes by unnoticed.

It is essential that we engage the public up front, ahead of any lawsuits to block development or criminal prosecutions, as necessary as those may sometimes be.

McManamon: These effects are cumulative, so the more we know about the sites, not just where they are but what's in them—the greater the likelihood we can route a trail around them, say, as opposed to over the top. Another effect is erosion. Along the Columbia River, we've had remains just dropping into the water not because anybody dug them up, but because the current undercut where they were buried.

Common Ground: What are some of the main justice issues?

Kintigh: Once prosecutors learn something about antiquities cases, they see they're interesting. Given there's more to prosecute than they can handle, they make choices. We want them to choose going after the looters.

Lawyers like to win, and they need the perception that they can. Certainly more support for law enforcement will make for stronger cases, easier to win.

In northeastern Arizona, the Apache County attorney has found it easier to prosecute looting as theft of government property rather than as a violation of antiquities laws. He's gotten a number of felony convictions. More power to him.

McManamon: We continue to have a strong partnership with the Department of Justice and to offer training for public attorneys at all levels. This has created a cadre of experts who know they can prosecute and win the cases. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah, for example, has become a beehive of expertise.

Common Ground: In the next 10 years, what should agencies and their partners be focusing on primarily?

Babbitt: It circles back to our very first question. The answer is raising awareness: internally, at all levels of government, and externally, among the public.

Kintigh: Gray literature is an enormous problem. I hate to think how many millions of pages of archeological reports have been produced in the last decade. The technology is there; we need a major investment of funds. Unfortunately, databases don't capture attention as much as chasing looters or launching a public education program. Still, it's critical both to good management and our credibility. We have to show that all this work is worth doing.

McManamon: The most intractable problems are the least sexy. Getting a handle on access to the gray literature is one. That holds for collections too.

Kintigh: Infrastructure is one of the easiest things for legislative and administrative bodies to ignore because you can go one year without improving it, and then another, and then pretty soon you're really in trouble. If we don't attack the problem soon, we'll lose the justification for what we're doing in the first place.

McManamon: The intellectual capital is retiring. We need to ensure that there are the best possible replacements, not just at the last minute, but archeologists who have expertise and knowledge and a shared history. We need to promote that as part of a policy that defines the American approach to public archeology.

MJB/EJL