Trump Exposes Hypocrisy of American Archaeology


Trump Exposes Hypocrisy of American Archaeology

By Richard M. Hutchings | January 22, 2017

We are stewards of the past; we are the caretakers of unwritten history. We have a job to do. Use your sites and projects to…illustrate [to] all of the people who made the U.S. the great nation that it is, and make certain that our elected representatives understand that our heritage is the greatest currency we have. Our history, all of our history, is what makes the United States what it is, is what makes us Americans, is what makes us great. Not Again. Then, Now, and Forever.
J. W. Joseph, President, Society for Historical Archaeology, November 11, 2016

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.
Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States, January 20, 2017

There is a surprisingly close association between American presidents and historic preservation.
Greg Werkheiser, Cultural Heritage Partners, Inc., March 29, 2016

The compliance process is far from perfect, but is it uniquely American.
Holly Kathryn Norton, Colorado State Archaeologist, November 10, 2016

…our world [is] under attack.
Holly Kathryn Norton, Colorado State Archaeologist, November 10, 2016

AS I DESCRIBE in Heritage in the Age of Trump, the election of Donald J. Trump on November 8, 2016 as the 45th President of the United States received a varied but emotionally charged response from American heritage experts, leading many to ‘speak their minds.’ Those fleeting moments of pre-inaugural truth-telling are drawn on here to demonstrate the hypocrisy of American archaeology.

I take as a point of departure on this matter Bob Muckle’s brave suggestion that we consider “the possibility that archaeology could thrive under a Trump Administration,” although it would not likely “be a kind of archaeology that most archaeologists or the public would want.” For Muckle,

Archaeology is political and it could be co-opted to support a political agenda. Authoritarians have done it before. Recall the Nazis had a significant archaeology program. And archaeology was highly valued by Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Kristina Killgrove highlights Trump’s focus on development, pointing to his US-Mexico border wall and estimating its construction would destroy hundreds of archaeological sites.

Most relevant here is American CRM expert Tom King’s conclusion (emphasis added):

Many people involved in managing and protecting ‘cultural heritage’—historic buildings, archaeological sites, antiquities, indigenous spiritual sites and landscapes, and other parts of the environment valued for cultural reasons by human communities—anticipate that the Donald Trump administration will quickly do away with many of the legal protections that such heritage enjoys. They also expect that many of the government systems set up to manage heritage, such as State Historic Preservation Officers and the National Register of Historic Places, will be transformed and cut back, if not eliminated. Many view these possibilities with fear; others think they present the opportunity to build better systems.

Rather than doing away with current laws, King predicts the Trump government will simply “bully the government’s employees into making the laws meaningless.”

The heritage industry’s response to Trump’s election on November 8 was swift and for many emotional. Patricia Markert took the news as provocation, writing “Where before I felt that our job was dialogic and weighty, I now feel that it is critical. It is potentially revolutionary. The world has changed overnight, and the role of archaeology along with it.”

So did J. W. Joseph, President of the Society for Historical Archaeology, who proclaimed “I will gladly defend the territory of American history, and that is a non-partisan tract that cannot be overrun.”

Markert described waking up “devastated,”  adding defiantly “I am going to bed ready to fight like hell the tools I have—from my trowel to my classroom—to make this world a place for everyone.” Yet, the global ecological crisis was unfolding on November 7 just the same as on November 9. What if Hillary Clinton had won? Would people still have such passion to save the planet, with or without trowel?

Writing in the royal ‘we’ or pluralis majestatis, Holly K. Norton, Colorado State Archaeologist and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, explained how “We woke on Wednesday morning to find our world under attack, in a very literal sense.”

The United States has just elected a man who has made promises to deport our friends and families, to destroy legislation that protects our health, and to eliminate safeguards on our environment. It is clear to all of us that we have a lot of work to do, and I have no doubt that we will each fight in whatever corner of the discipline in which we work. However, it is imperative at this time that we also stand together and consciously choose to understand and support each other’s work. I believe in the four fields of anthropology, and I believe now is the time we need to return to a more holistic approach to our broad discipline.

Problematically, the system Norton is so concerned about losing was corrupt and broken before Trump got elected, so why the concern now? As before, if Clinton had won the presidency, would any of these issues be raised? Or is it only because Trump was elected?

Remember, all of these comments were made before Trump took office January 20, 2017. Without having ever stepped foot in the White House, Trump was blamed for things he had nothing directly to do with. The question is why?

To be clear, I am sympathetic with those threatened by Trump. They have every reason to be fearful. My concern, however, is that this focus on Trump too easily distracts people from the bigger picture, in this case that all of these systemic and structural problems pre-date Trump. While his leadership may indeed pose a threat, the heritage-industrial complex was already in existential crisis (see also here and here) long before his election.

In this way, the heritage industry’s response to the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 is a clear-cut case of scapegoating. As shown in Figure 1, a scapegoat is a person made to bear the blame for the mistakes, faults or shortcoming of others, especially for reasons of expediency—that is, for reasons of convenience or practicality. Not only does the scapegoat take on the sins of others, they suffer in place of those responsible, leaving the guilty parties to continue on as usual.

Pinning all of archaeology’s problems on Trump is an easy way to absolve the discipline of its anxieties—a process related to Tom King’s “whitewashing.” But it is clear that cultural resource management has been toxic for some time, arguably always.

Figure 1. Scapegoat.

This toxicity is exposed in the way industry insiders have responded to Trump’s election, views starkly different than the idealistic visions of Markert and Norton above. Marion Werkheiser, Attorney for the American firm Cultural Heritage Partners, Inc., stated, for example:

In what could be a boon for CRM firms, President-elect Trump and Congress have expressed interest in passing a major infrastructure bill that would fund upgrades to roads, airports, hospitals, and ports. The new administration has also promised to open up public lands for oil and gas development, mining, and other activities. Development on public lands is subject to Section 106 review.

In this context, more Section 106 reviews mean more money coming into the industry.

J. W. Joseph of the Society for Historical Archaeology noted that while “Trump speaks against environmental regulation,”

many of the initiatives he will challenge and overturn are Executive Orders from President Obama that will not affect us. [Trump] calls for streamlining environmental review; I support that call, and the CRM industry has made great strides in the past decade. This is an area where we can all apply our acumen; I have no qualms with doing our work better and faster.

He added, “I am an eternal optimist, which is, I think, a characteristic of the American spirit. We are a nation of expansion and opportunity.”

Joseph’s words should be music to the ears of the commercial core of the American heritage industrial-complex, which includes approximately 1,300 CRM firms employing more than 10,000 professionals generating at least $1 billion dollars in revenue annually.

In this light, Trump’s presidency may well mean big business for archaeologists. As Marion Werkheiser summarized: “the Republican Party platform explains, ‘We will…modernize the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act so it can no longer invite frivolous lawsuits, thwart sorely needed projects, kill jobs, and strangle growth.’”

Yet more archaeology means more development and more destruction of places that matter. Hence, the hypocrisy of American archaeology: while trained to promote preservation of history in all its forms, archaeologists are likewise responsible for its loss on an every-day basis. Indeed, archaeology/CRM’s existence is dependent on the very development that leads to site destruction. While academic archaeologists may like to believe they are not integral to this project and the crises it produces, they are profoundly mistaken (see also here).

Alarmed by the potential for heritage disasters under Trump, Tom King sought a different model with his “Heritage After Trump” Award. King offered  “(US$1,000) to the person, consortium, group, organization, gang, or crowd that produces the best written description of the cultural heritage program the United States should put in place once the Trump phenomenon has run its course.”

With only a handful of entries, King declared himself “disappointed in all.”

Joseph was less concerned about the impact of Trump’s victory: “[W]e know that the U.S. is a hub of a global world, that the global world and economy was set in motion by European exploration of the 15th century, and that it cannot be undone by one man in four years.”

These are bold words from an archaeologist. After all, archaeologists are in a prime position to know that overextended states are prone to collapse. Perhaps this time, rather than interpreting its material signature, we’ll actually be witnesses to it. But whether heritage laws are repealed under Trump or the current model is simply allowed to go on, the continued destruction of life-sustaining heritage seems inevitable—a crisis that predates Trump by decades.


Richard M. Hutchings directs the Institute for Critical Heritage and Tourism, British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of Maritime Heritage in Crisis: Indigenous Landscapes and Global Ecological Breakdown (2017, Routledge) and numerous academic articles, including Archaeology as Disaster Capitalism and Why Archaeologists Misrepresent Their Practice—A North American Perspective.


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