The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, June 28, 2010

Super Happy Form Filling Out Time

I am, once again, in the desert, archaeologizing as I am wont to do. In this particular case, we are recording archaeological sites, which means filling out forms. Lots of forms. Lots of boring, repetitive forms.

I am also in the field with some new field technicians, meaning that these people have yet to grasp just how boring and repetitive the paperwork can be, and are therefore attempting to rebel against what is common practice. You see, every archaeological site recorded in California is recorded on a set of forms that are issued from the Department of Parks and Recreation and approved by the Office of Historic Preservation. These forms, known as the DPR forms, are not particularly well-designed. Rumor has it that they were designed by an architectural historian, which would explain why they aren't that great for recording archaeological sites. But they are what we have, and we're required to use them so whatcha' gonna' do?

At any rate, the new field techs have come to the conclusion that they are going to fill out the forms in such a manner that information regarding each site is only reported on one place in any given packet of forms. The problem is that the forms are designed in a way that indicates that information such as the vegetation surrounding a site or a site's condition vis-a-vis erosion should be (although technically doesn't need to be) in multiple places. And I have had to disabuse them of the notion that they are allowed to follow such a common sense approach. After spending several days lecturing them on the need for redundant information, I have finally found a more efficient way of getting them to do what I want them to.

First off, I explain that the hand-written forms are going to be sent to one of our other regional offices, where digital forms will be created by someone who may or may not have dealt with a site record before. This person will find the redundancy useful, as they will then be able to produce their new version of the form with a clear idea of which aspects of the site are important.

Second, and more important, the forms will be sent along with the report to the government agencies with which we are working for comment. Different agencies tend to hire different caliber of archaeologists. For example, the California Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Land Management, and the USDA Forest Service generally hire very good archaeologists who tend to know what they are about. On the other hand, one agency that shall remain un-named hired an archaeologist who once refused to provide me with agency guidelines for archaeological fieldwork until after fieldwork had been completed (apparently I was supposed to apply them after the fact, leading me to wonder if that agency secretly controls a time machine). An archaeologist from another agency that will remain un-named once demanded that my boss explain how a project would impact an archaeological site that wasn't even in the same county as the project, and therefore would not be impacted in any way shape or form.

Add to this that many clients will wish for reports and site records to be reviewed by people who don't know the first thing about archaeology. I have, on more than one occasion, had clients attempt to remove information from reports or site records because they didn't like it, even thought it was true. I have also had clients attempt to edit the records in ways that seemed wise and clever to them, but didn't make a damn bit of sense to the archaeologists. Again, simplification of language and redundant information on forms can often reduce the amount of stress one has to deal with from one's clients. My current client knows better than to get up to such nonsense, but many don't.

So, yeah. There are some truly excellent government archaeologists...and then there are some who seem to be trying their damndest to convince the world that the Libertarians are right about government being bad and inept.

But, what this means is that I can tell stories of the horrible agency archaeologists to the crew. I discovered this evening that simply explaining the types of things that some agency archaeologists can get up to is sufficient to convince the crew that, as frustrating as it is, redundancy and simplification of language may, in fact, be necessary. More importantly, the new folks came to understand that there is more to archaeology than simply being in the field and finding things. We have to work through large government and private corporate bureaucracies, and they often involve having our work being scrutinized by people who, at best, know nothing about archaeology, and at worst are arrogant about their ability to adjudicate on technical matters on which they have no knowledge. Filling out the forms correctly may be frustrating and boring, but it saves you trouble down the road.

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