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Archaeology jobs and the trickle-down effect

May 28, 2012

Units don’t dig themselves, and they don’t support local economies, either. Source: ArchaeologyAtCoastalCarolina.wordpress.com

It’s abundantly clear by now (to everyone but the money men and women) that austerity — draconian cuts in public spending, usually coupled with increases in taxes and fees — has utterly failed as a solution to the global economic downturn (see, for instance, here and here and here and here and here). That doesn’t seem to be slowing the mad rush to cut, cut, cut, and the latest victim is an exemplary organization in the field of heritage and archaeology, Parks Canada.

A report by the CBC notes that  1,689 Parks Canada employees have been warned they could lose their jobs, as 638 positions have been judged to be “surplus” by, not the parks staff or the public it serves, but the money men. Parks Canada administers 42 national parks, 167 national historical sites, and four marine conservation areas. Tim Rast, a Canadian archaeologist who runs the excellent Elfshot blog, gives updated details of the proposed cuts in this post. Some “highlights”:

  • Labs in Calgary, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Halifax closing, artifacts moving to Ottawa
  • One archaeologist will remain to cover the Canadian Arctic
  • Education Outreach Program killed
  • Quebec archaeology staff reduced from 27 to 1
  • Alberta archaeology staff reduced from 8 to 1 (an assistant)

This is not just an issue for Canada, for two reasons.

First, Parks Canada has a strong reputation in my particular subfield, historical archaeology, for producing important scholarship on historic-period material culture. If you’re researching historic-period British military glass, white ironstone “wheat pattern” ceramics, frontier blacksmith shops, British smooth-bore artillery, or dozens of other topics, you can find relevant guides and resources from Parks Canada, in English and in French. This type of basic research (basic in the sense that it’s about analyzing and describing things, with the goal of producing useful knowledge for the discipline) is utterly important, and every archaeologist of the historic period will encounter Parks Canada research at some point in his or her career. This is only possible when an organization is funded appropriately.

Second, the proposed cuts to Parks Canada illustrate the penny-wise and pound-foolish thinking that austerity engenders. Put another way: Cutting funds for heritage preservation and archaeology doesn’t save money, it costs money.

Dollars spent on archaeology, in the U.S. at least, and I presume it’s similar in Canada, overwhelmingly fund mandated cultural resource investigations that precede infrastructure work. Before you can build a new highway exit, for instance, you have to ensure the work won’t threaten a significant archaeological site. The way you do that is to hire archaeologists to survey the work zone ahead of the road crews.

The funny thing that happens when you give people money is that they spend it. Archaeologists are celebrated consumers of food and drink (particularly of the malted variety), goods like boots, trowels, gas for vehicles, sunscreen, shovels, and tape measures, and services like medical treatment (for everything from puncture wounds to Lyme disease), and motel and campsite lodging. All of those things are consumed through payments by working archaeologists to other working people, who make the goods or provide the services. What’s more, these spending sprees quite often take place in rural areas, where a dollar is maybe more rare and welcome than in a big city. I’ve spent money in places like Zuni Pueblo; Thoreau, New Mexico, Long Lake, New York; and Kingsley, Pennsylvania, that I never would have if I had not been drawing a paycheck as a working archaeologist.

That’s not even considering the dollar multiplier that tourists bring to heritage sites. Thing is, if a site is closed, there’s no dollar there. You need staff to, well, staff them. The proposed cuts in Parks Canada will crimp both archaeological research and heritage tourism.

And the false economy is compounded further when you’re talking about Canada, where the majority of the population lives along the U.S.-Canada border. There’s a lot of rural there, and these cuts will hit those areas harder.

That’s part of the line that the Society for Historical Archaeology takes in its letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (pdf) — these cuts will have a bigger effect on areas that can’t afford any sort of hit.

Increasing public funding for heritage preservation and archaeology won’t solve the global economic crisis, but neither will cutting it to the bone and beyond. Paying more archaeologists and historic preservation professionals, and paying them better, would certainly help, and these days, even a small help would be something to celebrate.

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