Maryland Archaeology and the Certified Archeological Technician Program

CAT Instrument Survey Workshop at Bee Tree Preserve in northern Baltimore County (photo courtesy of author via http://marylandarchaeology.org)

Citizen-scientists didn’t just dominate Maryland archaeology until the 1960s…they were Maryland archaeology. But, as in all areas of scientific endeavor, they were marginalized by a growing body of professional, university trained scientists. The Archeological Society of Maryland (ASM) reversed this trend in 2001 with the creation of the Certified Archeological Technician (CAT) program, offering individuals the opportunity to obtain recognition for formal and extended training in the goals and techniques of archeology without having to participate in an academic degree program. Now in its eleventh year, the program honors its thirteenth and fourteenth graduates: Valerie Hall and David Frederick.

ASM took several years to develop and implement the program, drawing inspiration from several programs around the USA, notably those of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Principal challenges that confronted the organizational committee came largely from the professional community which was very skeptical about the value and wisdom of certifying individuals who did not come through conventional university programs and that insisted on a more thorough academic grounding (largely through a lengthy reading list of regional and national classic studies) than seemed consistent with the objective of the program. Some of those fears were allayed by including representatives on the CAT committee from the Maryland Historical Trust - the state’s principal historic preservation agency and institutional seat of the state historic preservation office – and from the statewide professional organization, the Council for Maryland Archeology. These representatives participate in all discussions regarding program modification and in the “defense” of each candidate for certification.

Most members of the organizational committee brought to the table preconceptions of the purpose of the program. Agency archaeologists saw the CAT program as a training ground for prospective volunteers. Other participants thought that successful candidates might use their credentials to take jobs away from those in the private sector who completed more conventional training programs. The more skeptical professional members feared that CAT awardees would use their certification as legitimization for unscientific collecting, misrepresenting themselves to gain access to sites on private and public properties for personal gain. In the end, the committee established the current purpose of the program: to meet the needs of ASM members seeking formal archaeological training, without assuming personal motivations, and a signed ethics statement providing sufficient insurance against misrepresentation. Since Annetta Schott became the first candidate to complete the program (2003), none of these fears have been realized, and the CAT program has become non-controversial and institutionalized.

The key to the success of the CAT program and the concept that has allayed most fears lies within the program name. The ‘T’ stands for technician; not scientist. Here we modify the citizen-scientist concept in recognition that archaeology differs from most fields of scholarly endeavor in that destruction of physical evidence often is unavoidable, a circumstance not generally encountered in cataloging stars, conducting bird counts, or observing whale behavior. Candidates and graduates work under the direction of professional archaeologists engaged in the ethical study of archaeological resources, helping CAT candidates and graduates recognize the difference between ethical and unethical work.

Each candidate (aged 16 or older) applies to the program, paying a nominal one-time fee ($50) and agreeing to abide by the statement of ethics. Candidates pick or are assigned a mentor who: answers procedural questions; identifies field, laboratory, and archival research opportunities; recommends readings and provides copies of difficult to acquire publications; and serves in all other ways one might expect of a mentor. Candidates complete a course of directed reading; document in a journal as well as on a series of forms the required hours in different aspects of fieldwork (mapping, survey, excavation) and laboratory work; prepare forms for registering newly discovered sites; and participate in a series of required and optional workshops offered by professional archaeologists, including: archaeological law and ethics, overviews of state archaeology; historic and aboriginal ceramics; lithic analysis, etc. ASM’s annual field session in archaeology, conducted over eleven days each spring in partnership with the Maryland Historical Trust since 1974, provides opportunities for candidates to fulfill many requirements, but other state, county, and foundation programs, as well as some opportunities offered by the private sector, are integral to the program.

The CAT program appears to be an unqualified success, both in terms of meeting the specific personal goals of individual participants and in providing programs for ASM members who are not candidates. Presentation of awards to the two latest graduates at ASM’s annual spring symposium - which focuses this year on the archaeology of war and community conflict – publicly recognizes their achievements and inspires others to join and complete the program (current enrolment is 48 in an organization of just over 300). Producing one to two graduates each year, the CAT committee is considering other program developments, including a “Kitten” program for adolescents, an advanced level for CAT graduates, and prospective roles in future programs for graduates, most of whom remain active in ASM. The committee also has begun to work more closely with comparable programs in the neighboring states of Delaware and Virginia and encourages candidates to participate in legitimate archaeological projects outside of the state. I would like to see graduates directing field and laboratory projects under nominal professional direction, work proceeding without constant supervision. Would we realize the worst fears of the program’s early opponents? Or would we greatly expand the capacity of the professional community to explore the past? A worthwhile experiment?

The Ethics of Historical Archaeology

Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons because we know that such objects provide historical stories that might otherwise pass completely unnoticed. Consequently, it is gratifying and not surprising that lots of people who are not professional archaeologists become committed and reflective avocational archaeologists or are simply fascinated by heritage and respect the complicated process of piecing together archaeological narratives.  Nearly all of us with relatively active projects have dedicated local volunteers, supportive communities, and streams of visitors who share our own fascination with archaeology and heritage, because archaeological excavations and interpretation are an exciting process of thoughtfully weaving together remarkable stories based on the most modest items.

It is not at all surprising that archaeology and material heritage would find its way into popular culture, and some television shows, magazines, and web pages have done exceptionally thoughtful presentations of archaeology.  Nevertheless, with that popularity there inevitably will be some popular interpretations of archaeology, preservation, heritage and value that archaeologists will resist because they break with our most fundamental ethics.  The most recent challenge comes from Spike TV’s American Diggers, hosted by former professional wrestler Ric Savage.  Like many professional and avocational archaeologists alike, Savage indicates that “I’ve been a history buff my whole life,” but in the hands of Spike TV that interest in history demonstrates no real respect for archaeological methods, community heritage, or preservation law, since the show’s central goal is to recover items that amateur “diggers” can sell.  In Spike’s own words, “In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.  `American Digger’ hopes to claim a piece of that pie as the series travels to a different city each week, including Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, NY, Chicago, IL and Jamestown, VA searching for high-value artifacts and relics, some of which have been untouched for centuries.”  The show proudly proclaims that “After pinpointing historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, Savage’s first task is to convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property using state-of-the-art metal detectors and heavy-duty excavation equipment.  The team will then sell any artifacts found for a substantial profit by consulting experts and scouring the antique and collectible markets, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.”

The show has been greeted by a host of archaeological voices who recognize such work as indiscriminate looting of our collective heritage, a heritage that archaeologists professionally document so those materials and stories are preserved for all of us.  We may not transform Spike TV’s shallow interest in simply presenting profitable “larger than life character” shows, but many thoughtful people may not initially recognize the dilemmas of Savage’s ambition to excavate the “hidden treasure found in the back yards of every day Americans.”  It is those audiences who share our interest in documenting and preserving history for generations to come that we need to reach.  We need to recognize that this is a potential “teaching moment” in which we can inform more people about historical archaeology and encourage a more responsible preservation ethic among the many people who are excited by heritage and materiality.

Savage transparently caricatures historical archaeologists and paints himself as a sort of working-class self-taught scholar with whom his audience of homeowners and history buffs should identify, revealing that he does not know any archaeologists or know much about what we do.  He told the St Augustine Record that “’Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,’ Savage said. `The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.’”  Of course many historical archaeologists have exceptional community-based excavation teams staffed by volunteers committed to their local history, and many volunteers routinely become solid scholars with a genuine understanding of and appreciation for archaeological method and interpretation.

Savage clumsily suggests that he is protecting a past that will disintegrate if we do not recover it now.  When Savage descended on St. Augustine in February he said that “diggers are able to recover relics `that are rotting in the ground and (would) never be found’ as archaeologists wait for grants or for construction to trigger an excavation.”  Of course virtually no artifacts are “rotting” in the ground, least of all the metal artifacts on which Savage focuses his excavations.  If anything, removing those artifacts from a stable soil matrix accelerates their decomposition.

Archaeologists have always rejected commercial exploitation of archaeological resources, and professionals do not seek to “convince reluctant homeowners” to excavate saleable things from their otherwise preserved property, much less encourage people to excavate on and around historic sites like Jamestown or Civil War battlefields that are legally protected.  Professional and avocational archaeologists alike have always strongly resisted commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and selling the products of his digs are Savage’s fundamental goal.  It is unclear what other artifacts with no real commercial value—scatters of clothing snaps, broken plates, splintered marbles—were found in Savage’s digs or what happened to them, but of course those things that cannot be sold are what fill most historic archaeological collections.

St. Augustine has been the scene of exceptional archaeological scholarship on some of the very earliest European immigrants to the New World, so it is especially distressing that some of this rare material might be lost to somebody digging haphazardly in search of the purported “gold nugget” Savage suggests he recovered in St. Augustine in February.  Kathleen Deagan provided a thoughtful response to the St. Augustine Record based on over 40 years of her own archaeological research in the city, and local avocational and professional archaeologists have responded rapidly and thoughtfully.  The city’s archaeology project has done an outstanding job documenting the city’s earliest European occupation and even earlier prehistoric settlement because St. Augustine has committed itself to preservation.

American Diggers professes to share our concern for documenting national and international heritage, but it actually appears to promote the destruction of that heritage.  It simply finds and plunders the past and fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands archaeological research, preservation law, and the community heritage that we all aspire to protect.

I have attached SHA’s letter to Spike, which also went to its production company and the Executive and Senior Vice-Presidents in charge of original series at Spike. You may view it here.