The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, September 4, 2009

How to Piss Off an Archaeologist

As I was preparing to leave for Taft again on Wednesday, I heard the familiar strains of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, the ringtone of my cell phone. I answered and was greeted by a man who quickly informed me that he was building an extension to his garage and that the City of Santa Cruz required that he have the land cleared by an archaeologist before he could receive the necessary permits.

"Unfortunately," I told him "all of our people are slammed with work at the moment. We don't have the manpower to help you out, but there are some other contractors in the area who will be able to do the work for you. But, if you want, I'd be happy to describe the process to you and answer any questions so that you'll be well-informed when you talk to other companies."

People living in the Santa Cruz area are often shocked at the number of hoops that they have to jump through to get building permits, and the regulations concerning archaeological sites can seem opaque and weird to outsiders (hell, they sometimes seem weird and opaque to me, and I'm a professional)*. Finding out what needs to be done to get building permits is often an unpleasant experience, so if I can help someone out by simply making the archaeology part a little easier, I will do so, even if I can't take the project and therefore stand to gain nothing by helping them - think of it as ethics in action.

"Well, I do have some questions" the man said.

"Great, I'll help you as best I can."

"Okay, first off, why is the city requiring this?"

This is probably the second most common question I get asked by small project proponents. "The city, like many municipal governments, is trying to comply with the standards set forth in the California Environmental Quality Act..."

"Oh," he cut me off with what I am guessing is the most condescending tone of voice he could muster, "now I need to find out what legislators were behind that and work to have them removed from office."

Ahh, one of these guys. Now, I don't have a problem with people disagreeing with current environmental policy, there's alot of it that I disagree with, and I'm usually open to discussing it, but the tone of voice and the words made it clear that this guy was interested in simply condemning it all and by extension those of us who make our living dealing with it.

I was happy to help this guy, but I wasn't going to let anyone walk on me, especially not when I was using my free time to help him out without payment. So, I spoke in as civil and diplomatic a tone as I could and said "well, there's alot of people who would agree with you. However, conservation is a value of mine, and I make a living doing this work, so I am unlikely to agree on this point."

"Well I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree."

"Fair enough," I tried to move the conversation along, "okay, so we would do two records searches - one with the Native American Heritage Commission, and one with the California Historic Resource Information System. After the results for this come back, we'll either take a look at the surface, or dig one or two small holes in the area to be disturbed to see the sub-surface depending on whether or not there is a site previously recorded in the area. After that, we'll write a letter report, and send you as many copies as you need for the permit application. If we find something, the city may or may not have additional requirements. If we find nothing, and in town we usually don't find anything intact, then you're good to go."

"Okay. so, how much will this cost."

There it was, the most common question I get asked. I told him our price.

He began shouting "that's outrageous!"

"No, look, consider that we have to do the records searches, survey..."

"It's outrageous! You should be ashamed of yourself! You want to charge THAT much for an hour's work?"

The fuck? Considering what we have to do in order to get one of these reports off - the work on our end, the fees we have to pay for records searches, and so on, our price is both reasonable and mainstream. I would have pointed this out, but this dickweed was a bit too busy screaming at me. This was especially annoying as we had already established that my company wouldn't do the work because we lacked the manpower, and I was answering questions free of charge knowing that it would not result in further work.

I remained calm and tried to explain "as I have already explained, it is much more than an hour's work..."

He cut me off again "I'm a Native American!"

When the hell did I buy a ticket for the non-sequitor express? He's a Native American? Even if that's true**, so what?

"So am I" I replied. While I don't generally identify myself as Native American, not having been raised as one, my ancestry is funky enough that I can make a plausible claim even if I tend to feel that this is somewhat dishonest. But, in this case, as this guy seemed to think that this would be a conversation stopper and he'd win the argument (which wasn't even an argument as it had already been established that I was just trying to answer his questions for free), I figured I'd feed it right back to him.


Ahh, I had him.

"As I said, it's more than an hour's work."

His silence was short lived, however. "No, it's less than an hours work! You want to charge me to just come and look at my goddamn vegetable gard..."

And at this, I hung up on the bastard. I am willing to help people out when they are confused by regulations. I am even willing to accept that they may be a bit testy and irate on having unexpected hurdles sprung on them. But when you become rude, abusive, and hostile towards me when I am trying to help you out, at that point you can go find new and exciting ways to copulate with yourself. I'm not putting up with this kind of bullshit.

* Add to this that the city and county governments in my neck of the woods tend to be a bit over-enthusiastic about requiring archaeological survey prior to construction. By over-enthusiastic, I mean that I have on more than one occassion been required to perform archaeological survey on land that had been graded down to bedrock decades earlier - thus removing any chance of a surviving archaeological site. Years back, I used to argue with city and county planners - on my free time without pay - on behalf of landowners over these sorts of things. It's a matter of ethics for me, as it is wasteful to require a study that can not have any meaningful result simply to follow procedures in a draconian manner. This enthusiasm probably comes at least in part from earlier episodes in which important sites were destroyed for stupid reasons, but it has nonetheless become excessive.

** It may be true, I don't know the guy and couldn't really say based on my interaction with him, but I am skeptical. For one thing, I know alot of Native Americans, you tend to in my line of work, and most of them don't pull their ethnicity out thinking that it will serve as a trump card in situations like this. Also, most of the Native Americans that I know describe themselves as Indians, and don't use the term Native American when talking about themselves. In fact, the only time I've seen anyone describe themselves as "Native American" thinkign that it would confer some privilege on them, it has been honkies like myself who have mixed ancestry and who want to feel special.


Evan Davis said... you helping him for free?

Anthroslug said...