For some time I have been gathering definitions for the term “cultural resource.” I have read books, reports, forms, websites, and articles. I have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with Cultural Resource Management (CRM) practitioners, Native American monitors and curators, academics, and policy makers. I have gathered data about cultural resources as a professional archaeologist, and worked at public institutions aimed at storing that information. Through this process I have come to understand one thing above all else, as my understanding of “cultural resource” has become more detailed, my personal definition of the term has become more indistinct.
There is a popular tendency amongst critics of CRM to define “cultural resource” using single-dimensional categories, e.g, “cultural resource” means data/money to the Archaeologist, heritage to the Native American, obstacle/cost to the Developer, and legislation to the Bureaucrat. In response to this: first, applying the critique of postmodernism, now nearly cliché, that groups only appear completely homogeneous in their opinions from the outside. Second, and most importantly, over time it has become glaringly evident that “cultural resource” only exists as a term because all of the involved parties, and individual members, have been fighting over how best to define it for decades.
CRM, often more generally described as compliance or contract archaeology, has gained an increasing presence in the United States since the 1930s. The term “cultural resource” was first used by National Parks Service staff in 1971-1972 (Fowler 1982: 1). W. D. Lipe and A. J. Lindsay are most commonly recognized with the first publication containing the “CRM” in the Proceedings of the 1974 Cultural Resource Management Conference, Denver. Thomas King contests this, perhaps in jest, observing that the first use of “CRM” came in the airport bar, following the Denver conference, while a number of the participants were waiting on their delayed flights (King 2002: 13). Whatever the case, archaeologists in the southwestern U.S popularized the label of “Cultural Resource Management” beginning in the early 1970s. This corresponded with a period of drastically increased housing development and large infrastructure improvement projects, which required government agencies to hire private archaeological contractors. The business of professional archaeological consulting now accounts for roughly $500 million dollars a year nationally (King 2006: 1). In San Diego, nearly every project involving development on public or private land requires CRM consultation. CRM practitioners, often under the watchful eye of Native American monitors, are hired by developers to help avoid, or at least minimize, destructive impacts upon existing cultural resources. All of this preservation and archaeology is mandated under federal, state, and local law.
If CRM helped to define “cultural resource” in terms of “archaeological data”, it was the legislation that helped to make these so commonly thought of as synonymous. Contract archaeology is government mandated archaeological practice, as defined by legislation, in response to the environmental and cultural costs of development. This relationship was born from the looting of Mesa Verde prior to 1906; carved through the New Deal projects from 1933-1969; re-shaped by the building of reservoirs, gas pipelines, and roads from 1946-1969; and finally, sold by freeways, tract homes, urban renewal, and the oil crisis from 1950s-1980s. The primary bureaucratic smorgasbord, effectively fattening the body of historical/archaeological and environmental preservation legislation to what it is today, emerged at local, state, and national levels from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. This collection of laws, acts, regulations, and executive orders granted archaeologists the ability, and funding, to “manage” threatened prehistoric and historical period cultural material. In the co-evolutionary relationship that has defined the development of practice in CRM over time, it has been the bulldozer that has been the primary host, and the archaeological practitioner that has been the pilot fish. Through the passage of legislation, the CRM practitioner has moved from picking through the dirt behind the bulldozer, to scrambling just ahead it and behind the surveyors, to defining its path through a maze of culturally significant boundaries, months in advance of work.
CRM archaeologists have been the principle consultants for defining which cultural resources should be held as significant within the legislation, and consequently, preserved. Thomas F. King has used the term “archaeobias” to describe this infusion of archaeological interpretation into the cultural resource preservation legislation (King 2006: 1). The biases in “cultural resource” began to be contested as the cultural material collected by archeologists was recognized as the material remains of other people’s cultures. Beginning in the late 1960s Native Americans gained public attention through the American Indian Movement. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, and later, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), NPS Bulletin 38 in 1990, and revisions to the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) helped to add a wider array of socio-cultural considerations to the preservation legislation. Traditional cultural activities and beliefs gained preservation status under law. Most notably, places of religious or cultural significance, with no directly associated artifacts, came to be formally recognized. Subsequently, definitions of “cultural resource” began to include aspects outside of the physical archeological data, incorporating the terminology of intangible cultural values.
So, what does “cultural resource” mean for contemporary considerations of heritage? In CRM, boundaries are created in space, around objects of cultural value with different temporal attributes. Like the land surveyors of the United States Geological Survey, which incidentally produce the most widely used maps in U.S. archaeology, areas are classified in terms of type and composition. Through the mandates of legislation and the demands of development, these areas, lets call them “archaeological sites”, are evaluated by archaeologists for their eligibility to be listed in registers of local, state, and the national significance. As in theories of classic economic exchange, relative cultural significance is usually directly related to the scarcity of other like-sites listed upon these registers. The greater the demand for use of a specific area for development, and the higher the value of the cultural resources upon this land, the more costly the price for CRM practitioners to conduct work. Such sites of cultural value are not always destroyed though the deep pockets of determined developers, and are often moved or halted following determinations of “significant”. However, the inertia of progress is ceaseless, and in the end, usually the dominant force. In this way, the objects of cultural activity, and the space that surrounds them, are commoditized. This status as commodity is not simply a creation of the legislation, but defined through the practice of CRM itself and the culture that considers them to be valuable.
Definitions of “cultural resource” are written through ideologies of culture and archaeology, designed for a diffuse, rather than a distinct, sense of ownership and responsibility, and are grounded in classifications of spatial association. A common respondent definition follows: A cultural resource is a physical or intangible, built or natural, aspect of the environment, that holds cultural significance for a group or an individual. “Cultural resource” began with an archaeology that was funded through development and promoted through legislation. This has since created a practice that, through evaluations of significance, promotes the understanding that culture is a commodity. The most prominent trend in recent years has been the increasing recognition of intangible cultural heritage. This has served to alleviate some of my personal anxieties of yet arriving at a concise definition of “cultural resource”. While it is true that my understanding has grown increasingly indistinct over time, the past decades of defining this term has only served to increase its sense of intangibility for most everyone else as well.
Fowler, Don D.
1982 Advances in Archaeological Methods and Theory, “Cultural Resource Management”, Academic Press, USA
Lindsay, A.J and W.D. Lipe.
1974 Proceedings of the 1974 Cultural Resource Management Conference, Federal Center, Denver, Colorado, edited by W. D. Lipe and A. J. Lindsay, Jr., pp. vii-xiii. Museum of Northern Arizona Technical Series No. 14. Flagstaff
King, Thomas F.
2002 Thinking About Cultural Resource Management: Essays From the Edge. AltaMira Press, USA.
2006 How I Infected Cultural Resource Management With Archaeobias. Presented at the Society for California Archaeology. SCA, CA.