Archaeology Labs Bite the Dust

For the second time within a year, another Ivy League university has shut down its archaeological contracting office. While Commencement exercises are being held in Harvard Yard. Harvard's Institute for Conservation Archaeology. (ICA) in the Peabody Museum will quietly be preparing to close its doors--following closely the demise of Brown University's archaeology lab last year. Both labs found themselves subject to the same common denominator: the projected profit margin.

Last month, however, the ICA held a press conference at the Charlestown Navy Yard to discuss and display finds from the Chelsea and Water Streets section of Charlestown, near the gates to the Navy Yard. Significantly, the finds challenged conventional research conclusions about prehistoric and colonial life in Boston. However, regardless of such timely funds, Harvard has decided to close the ICA "because of doubts about its long-term financial strength." (according to a March 23 article in The Harvard Crimson.)

Unlike their counterparts in exotic parts of the world, contrast archaeologists stay on their home turf to study and recorder sites that will be hurt or destroyed by development projects. They usually work just ahead of the backhoes. Since the mid-1970s, when preservation legislation required archaeology on sites funded by the federal or state governments, universities with public archaeology institutes were hired by Federal and or state agencies, engineering and architectural firms, preservation-minded private developers, towns and cities public works departments etc., to conduct research on areas that will be destroyed by highways, sewers housing projects, and utilities work. Overhead from these contracts went into the University's general coffers. Also, spurred on by the Bicentennial, towns, local historical societies, private benefactors--all who could raise the funds--often commissioned "a dig".

Brown in 1976 and Harvard in 1977 jumped onto the contact archaeology bandwagon, and other colleges and universities did likewise. But even tax-exempt status will not sustain university "commitments" to research in the strained economy of the 1980s. Post-Bicentennial fervor fell short of expectations for long-team, substantial revenues from historical research.

Increasingly, it seems the business of universities is business. Because cultural resource management projects do not generate huge government or foundation grants, a marginal program such as contract archaeology is easy to cut. Brown closed it Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) when the lab could no longer generate enough big-budget contracts to cover staff salaries and make a tidy profit for the university. Harvard is following suit with the ICA, despite its lower overhead. As an ICA staff member is reported to have said. "There's no good reason [to close the ICA], other than lack of interest from Harvard."

Evidently scholarship is supposed to turn a profit. Granted, universities must be cognizant of their fiscal responsibilities. Yet a university is historically and ideally a preserve for generating and protecting knowledge for its own sake. A university cannot be overly concerned with the balance sheet if it is to meet its other obligations as an institution of higher learning which provides facilities for teaching and research.

As students of history, contracting diggers have learned an ironic lesson: all things do, in fact, pass. Archaeological sites are as diverse as the people who inhabited them or the diggers who rescue them, and the romance of the profession or the site rarely meets public expectations. The demise of the ICA at Harvard--and the PAL at Brown--links them with the ebb and flow of the sites they studied, all of which were once hives of activity, now dormant. No doubt, in a field that preys upon itself, some future doctoral candidate will write her or his discretion on "the rise and fall of New England's Ivy League contract archaeology labs in the last quarter of the 20th century" as an exercised in studying America's fascination with get rich quick schemes. The passing of such a short lived profession is all the more poignant given its subject matter. Whether technicians or scientists scholars or vultures, contract archaeologists and academia's "commitment" to cultural research have proven vulnerable to economic and social trends just like the rest of us.

The point is that the study of settlement in the New World, particularly New England, should not be judged like a business. The present administration in Washington is not overly concerned with preservation, conservation, or cultural resource management. If academia is unwilling to serve as the repositories for our history past and present to whom can one turn 'Federal and state governments with limited public resources and political biases, are not obvious candidates.

Regional archaeologists are not likely to see the heyday that was the mid 1970s again. Those who, hopefully will remain committed to research in eastern New England most likely will do so as private individuals or in the guise of not for profit corporations, lacking the resources and supposed stature of the academy. Other institutions, and perhaps even private sector "scavengers, will attempt to fill the void but in the meantime sites will be ignored or destroyed. The field of contract archaeology, having lost two of its anchors in the region is suffering boom and bust phases just like cycles in the societies it studies. It appears that Harvard like Brown is not "committed" to studying the area beneath our feet. Contract archaeology is an endangered species in the era of Reaganomics--another field that may indeed bite the dust.

M.L. Rahn works in the Radcliffe Publications and News Office and has been studying the folk fore of contract archaeologists in New England for the past seven years.