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What is Cultural Resource Management?

Updated: Jun 12

Hey y’all!

Welcome back to Dig Deeper! Today, we’re launching right in with the first of our new series all about the actual work we do here at TerraX. Our goal is always to lead the future in recording America’s past, and part of that effort is sharing our knowledge with you! By recording and preserving American artifacts, documents, photographs, maps, research — basically anything and everything that can teach us about our shared cultural past — we believe we can pave the way forward to a brighter future.

An archaeologist conducts a shovel test in the middle of a wide open field.
Our fearless leader, Paul, out on a dig

That’s why we’re excited to bring you this new post, “What is Cultural Resource Management?” If you’ve never heard that term before, don’t worry — we get asked what CRM is all about all the time, and we’re always here to answer that question!

The truth is, Cultural Resource Management, or CRM, is a pretty broad field, and the people who work for CRM firms wear many different hats. We’re archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, scientists, curators, and writers. Some of us like digging in the dirt, and others prefer digging through archives. We’re academics, teachers, technicians, and — above all — lovers of history and passionate about expanding our understanding of the past to shape our future.

Yup, there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to CRM. Are you ready to dig deeper?

Anthropology Is the Study of Us

Let’s start broad, shall we? When we think about Cultural Resource Management, it’s important, first, to understand what we mean by “cultural resources.” (I mean, how are we going to manage them if we don’t even know what they are?)

A cultural resource can be just about anything. It might be a record album (Is that what the kids call them?), a piece of glass or pottery, a whole barn or house, that “arrow head” you dug up in your backyard when you were 12 (you are probably picturing a projectile point, but we’ll get into that later), or, yes, sometimes animal bones. Cultural resources range far and wide, and they come in all shapes and sizes. The thing that draws them together is us.

You may have heard the word “anthropology,” but do you know what it means? “Anthropology” is the study of humans. (Pretty simple definition for such a big word!) It’s all about how human societies form, grow, change, fall apart, form again, grow some more, keep changing … you get the idea. Anthropology is about everything that goes into making a distinct human culture and about how those cultures interact with each other.

A collection of artifacts including ceramic shards, glass bottles, and a metal handle sits on a box.
Cultural resources come in all shapes and sizes

Okay, let’s go back to cultural resources. Cultural resources are just objects, but the important thing about them is what they can teach us about ourselves and about our shared cultural past. Features or evidence of human activity such as a hearth, foundation, or well can provide information about how people used to live, work, eat, celebrate, and gather. Artifacts, or any human-made objects such as tools, jewelry, artwork, or even old, rusty nails can help us understand the economic status, life-style, and values of those who left them behind. Animal bones and shells are also collected because they can demonstrate cultural habits and aid our understanding of people groups’ resources and health. Cultural resources are how we do anthropology.

Now, you may be thinking, “Um, if pretty much every old object is a cultural resource, doesn’t that mean there are cultural resources everywhere?” Yup, it sure does. There is a ton of information out there waiting to be discovered — that’s why CRM companies are so important! We strive to find and protect our cultural resources before they are lost or destroyed, so we can better understand and appreciate the past. It’s not always easy, though, and that’s why we need something called Section 106…

The National Historic Preservation Act and Section 106 Explained

Let’s hop into our pretend time machine for a second and take a trip back to the distant past — the 1960s. At the time, there was a growing grassroots movement dedicated to preserving a specific national history and heritage. Concerned citizens and lobbyists alike campaigned for greater federal regulation into the preservation and conservation of cultural resources from small artifacts all the way to large historic estates, ultimately resulting in the National Historic Preservation Act.

Now, it’s important to note that standards and guidelines for CRM have changed and evolved over the years, but the NHPA — passed in 1966 — was the first time we created the official set of laws governing the processes for archaeological work here in the United States. It set forth the official policy that archaeologists and historians have been following ever since! And the most important part of that policy for CRM firms like us is Section 106.

A view up through tall grass at a series of powerlines.
Construction of all kinds requires CRM analysis

Whether you’ve heard the term “Section 106 Review” or not, you’ve been affected by it. Have you ever been to a building, driven on a road, crossed a bridge, or used a cell phone? (You’re probably reading this post on your phone right now, so we’re guessing you have.) Then you’ve been impacted by a Section 106 review!

Any time anyone wants to build, repair, or change a constructed feature like an apartment complex, state highway, or cell tower, they have to have a Section 106 review of the location completed first. That’s where CRM firms come in! CRM firms like TerraX can perform the necessary review by visiting the site, performing the required survey, and researching the area to see if there are any important cultural resources and, if there are, ensure they’re recorded, protected, or recovered before any construction that might damage them takes place.

By completing these Section 106 archeological surveys, TerraX and other firms like us can effectively manage the cultural resources we find (cultural resource management, if you will). By doing so, we learn more about our history, recover cool artifacts, and use the information we find to grow and protect our knowledge about the past.

History — It’s Way Cooler Than You Think

Now that we’ve established a little bit more about what cultural resource management actually is, let’s talk about what it looks like. When TerraX starts a project, one of the first things we do is start “digging” into the history of the project’s location. Our team of trained historians knows how to use all the resources at their disposal to learn the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys, and hows of locations all throughout the Southeastern United States reaching way back to when humans first lived here, and they’ve been known to uncover some pretty cool stuff.

Stop right there. If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking back to being in middle or high school with the world’s most boring history teacher and wondering how anyone could think history was “cool,” we encourage you to think again. The truth is, history isn’t just about dull textbooks and memorizing dates and names. We know it sounds cheesy to say that “history comes alive,” but the truth is, it does, and in some fascinating ways.

A young historian stands at a table in front of a series of drawers examining an archival record.
Our historian, Emma, digging through history

Our historians spend their fair share of time hunting through dusty old books, but they also get to compile the information they find in newspapers, family records, and sometimes even interviews. They get to have conversations with people about events that really happened. They get to learn who was born at a site, what they did with their lives, and often where they’ve been laid to rest, and as they do so, they can to piece together an increasingly complex puzzle — one that shows us how our ancestors lived and what they’ve passed down to us.

This historical research is incredibly important to preserving potential resources because three of the four NRHP Criteria rely on the history of a site. A site (or structure) has to meet at least one of four criteria to be eligible for NRHP listing (Look out for another post about these soon!). To prove that a site or structure is eligible, lots of historical research is required. And unlike what you may have been taught in high school, historians don’t just write chronological narratives without any thesis or argument. Historians use the primary and secondary resources they find — in archives, field work, and interviews — to argue for importance and demonstrate how those resources show us a culture’s values and perspectives.

A view looking up at an intricately designed wooden bridge.
Architectural historians look at bridges, too

And don’t even get us STARTED on architectural history! TerraX has a whole separate team just for checking out the historic houses, barns, sheds, bridges, roads, and other structures we find out in the field, and y’all, this stuff is cool. Our architectural historians can look at an old structure and tell you all kinds of things about the time period in which it was built or renovated. Which aids our understanding of that era’s cultural values and necessities.

Sometimes, when we find a structure or resource that provides us with new or particularly special information, we have the opportunity to recommend that a site be included on the National Register of Historic Places — we know you’ve seen those fancy signs on the side of the road — and that’s a whole other level of excitement. When a site is listed on the NRHP, we know that it will be protected so that all of us can continue learning from it in the future. It’s always a good day around here when we get to nominate a resource for the NRHP.

Archaeological Artifacts — Try Saying That 10 Times Fast!

While our history and architecture experts are hard at work establishing the historical and environmental context for our project areas, our field crews are outside doing the digging. With the right equipment and a plan in place, trained archaeologists can perform small shovel tests on a grid (basically a bunch of holes) or conduct large excavations to discover what lies beneath the surface. These are the people responsible for finding any artifacts and making sure they’re taken care of before they can be delivered to a laboratory to be cleaned, analyzed, and recorded as part of the broader historical context.

Here at TerraX, we tend to specialize in American archaeology. Our technicians, field directors, crew chiefs, and lead archaeologists are well-versed in the kinds of artifacts they’re likely to find in our region. However, archaeologists have different areas of focus all over the world! Some look for animal remains, others specialize in pottery, and still others are experts in recognizing the foundations of historic and precontact structures. The world of archaeology is wide, and the potential for study is nearly endless.

A color-coded 3D model of the data from a ground-penetrating radar survey showing numerous anomalies.
GPR mapping

Not only that, but advances in technology have allowed archaeologists to dig more deeply and efficiently than ever before. Have you ever heard of ground-penetrating radar or GPR? Using the right equipment, archaeologists can essentially scan an area and discover whether anything significant lies beneath the surface without ever picking up a shovel. GPR can’t show us exactly what lies underground, but it can help us find out where to dig! Similarly, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) helps archaeologists to discover and visualize unique land features. Metal detection allows for the discovery of — you guessed it — metal artifacts. All of these techniques and methods allow for greater efficiency in archaeology, which allow Cultural Resource Management firms to quickly find and preserve more cultural resources than ever before.

An example of a LiDAR map with colors representing areas of changing topography.
LiDAR mapping

That’s important because sometimes it’s just not possible to leave a site completely undisturbed. When need demands that an archaeological site be disturbed due to construction or some other event, CRM firms will perform what’s known as a mitigation. Essentially, they’ll “mitigate” the damage anticipated by excavating the site as completely as possible to recover artifacts and record what was found where. CRM is all about balance — it’s about preserving history as best we can while still allowing for greater progress and our current culture to grow. That’s why mitigations are so important — they allow us to record and protect our historical and cultural resources before they’re lost forever.

Welcome to the Mad Science Lab

Okay, maybe we’re not really doing mad science, but our laboratory is still pretty amazing!

The Laboratory is an essential part of any good CRM company. The lab is where artifacts are measured, analyzed, and tested before they’re ultimately labeled, packed, and taken to curation facilities for safe storage and future use for researchers. The lab requires many people with a variety of specific knowledge, but through the kind of detailed evaluation CRM labs are able to do, we can gain a whole wealth of information about the artifacts discovered out in the field and what life was like for the people who made or used them.

Take, for example, those projectile points we mentioned earlier. In the lab, our team will analyze them based on the raw material, physical traits, and function. Based on those characteristics, we can tell the time period in which the points were produced, what they may have been used for, and whether they were made locally or traded from a people group further away, which tells us so much more about the ways of life of the people who made them.

A T-chart showing that a projectile point is any pointed weapon head and an arrow head is specifically only used for an bow and arrow.

And that’s not all! Sometimes we can make even more sense out of the artifacts we can find by subjecting them to further texting. For example, the laboratory is responsible for preparing materials for further testing off-site, which can help us find more specific data such as radiocarbon dates related to specific objects. The TerraX labs also uses a technique called flotation to test soil samples and recover teeny tiny materials that would otherwise have been inaccessible.

What Would You Like to Learn Next?

At the end of the day, Cultural Resource Management is a team effort. It takes archaeologists, for sure, but it also requires soil experts, GIS specialists (map experts), historians, architectural historians, bioarchaeologists, field and laboratory technicians, and writers to make it all happen. Protecting and preserving history impacts all of us — that’s why we TerraX are so excited to do the work we do!

There you have it! We hope you enjoyed digging a little deeper into the field of cultural resource management. CRM ranges far and wide, and there’s room for everybody. Do you love investigating history and piecing together the stories of people who lived long ago? Do you want to be outside in the field using high-tech equipment and searching for artifacts? Or maybe you love the idea of performing scientific tests and analyzing those artifacts for all the information they contain. Whatever your favorite aspect of CRM, there’s a place for you!

So tell us — what’s your favorite part of cultural resource management? And what would you like to learn next time? Feel free to leave us a comment below, or reach out to us on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We’d love to hear from you!

Until next time, keep learning!

— The TerraX Team


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