Cultural resources management

From Academic Kids

Cultural resources management (CRM) is a branch of archaeology concerned with the identification, maintenance, and preservation of significant cultural sites in the face of threats such as development, erosion or unsustainable visitor numbers. It also stresses the importance of heritage interpretation and presentation in communicating the value of heritage to government and the public.

It has its roots in the rescue archaeology and urban archaeology undertaken throughout North America and Europe in the years surrounding World War II and the succeeding decades. Salvage projects were hasty attempts to identify and rescue archaeological remains before they were destroyed to make room for large public-works projects or other construction. In the early days of salvage archaeology, it was nearly unheard-of for a project to be delayed because of the presence of even the most fascinating cultural sites, so it behooved the salvage archaeologists to work as fast as possible. Although many sites were lost, much data was saved for posterity through these salvage efforts.

In more recent decades, legislation has been passed that emphasizes the identification and protection of cultural sites, especially those on public lands. In the United States, the most notable of these laws remains the National Historic Preservation Act. The administration of President Richard Nixon was most instrumental in passing and developing this legislation, although it has been extended and elaborated upon since. These laws make it a crime to develop any federal lands without conducting a cultural resources survey in order to identify and assess any cultural sites that may be impacted. In the United Kingdom, PPG 16 has been instrumental in improving the management of historic sites in the face of development.

CRM techniques

While archaeological sites remain the primary focus for most CRM archaologists, other work such as ethnohistorical projects and public outreach also fall within their purview.

In both countries, a phase of evaluation is considered important in assessing the significance of a threatened site. This can comprise a desk-based study, a wide area survey or trial trenching.

If no significant archaeological sites are found in the impacted area, construction may proceed as planned. If potentially significant remains are found, construction may be delayed to allow for excavation and evaluation of the site or sites found within the impacted area. This is done to determine the archaeological site's true significants. If archaeologists determine the site contains important/significant cultural remains, the adverse effects on the site must be mitigated. Site mitigation can involve avoidance of the site, or having a percentage of the site being excavated to recover the data. These restrictions involve any federal project involving the possible distrubance of culutral resources, and can extend to state and private development efforts as well, if those efforts involve public waterways or federal funds.

If archaeologists determine the site contains highly significant cultural remains, the adverse development effects on the site must be mitigated through a structured programme that is often long and expensive. Alternatively an important site may be designated as being protected by the state so that no development at all can take place. In the United Kingdom, all forms of development, public and private are subject to archaeological requirements whilst in the United States, this work can only be undertaken in Federally-funded projects or those on government-owned land.

The effect of CRM

CRM has been a mixed blessing for archaeology. Preservation legislation has ensured that no valuable site will be destroyed by construction without study, but the work of CRM archaeologists is not always sound. Some academic archaeologists do not take CRM work seriously, because of its emphasis on site identification and preservation rather than intensive study and analysis. CRM firms obtain contracts through a bidding process; it is not unusual for the company responsible for construction to select the bid with the lowest price estimate, regardless of the soundness of the submitted plan, though this not always the case. The impact of CRM has been considerable; given the large amount of construction, the bulk of archaeological work in the United States and the United Kingdom is conducted through CRM channels.

Further reading

  • Thomas F. King, Cultural Resource Laws & Practise: An Introductory Guide, Altamira Press, 1998, trade paperback, 303 pages, ISBN 0761990445
  • Thomas W. Neumann and Robert M. Sanford, Practicing Archaeology: A Training Manual for Cultural Resources Archaeology. Rowman and Littlefield Pub Inc (, August, 2001, hardcover, 450 pages, ISBN 0759100942
  • Robert M. Sanford and Thomas W. Neumann, Cultural Resources Archaeology: An Introduction. Rowman and Littlefield Pub Inc (, December, 2001, trade paperback, 256 pages, ISBN 0759100950

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