By Bernard K. Means

Over 79 years ago, in March 1933, federal work relief funding was first used to excavate an archaeological site—this was at the Marksville Mound site in Louisiana. For the next decade across the then 48 U.S. states, Depression-era New Deal programs focused their funding on providing laborers for locating, mapping, and excavating pre-Contact American Indian sites of all types, as well as historic-era sites associated not just with American Indians but also foreign colonists, largely from Western Europe and enslaved peoples from Africa. These historic-era investigations emphasized important places or homes associated with events and people critical to the foundation of the United States of America—especially if they were associated with people who were white and male.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been assembling data gleaned from old archaeology reports, journals, and books—making good use of inter-library loans—have spent time in sometimes dusty (but usually quite clean) archives, and have contacted people across the U.S. in an effort to create a detailed picture of ALL New Deal archaeology projects—excluding pure restoration work. This effort is still very much in a preliminary state, and I know I still do not have a good handle on how many sites were investigated using work relief labor. This is partly because the findings from many sites were inadequately or never published. The emphasis on New Deal archaeology projects was to keep people employed—these were work relief projects after all—and not writing up those pesky findings. This is a regrettable short-coming of some New Deal archaeology—but artifact collections and notes exist in museums and other repositories for us study today. (Certainly this continues to be a major issue today with both academic and private archaeological efforts).

What does three-eighty-three (383) have to do with New Deal archaeology? This number represents the total number of counties with some form of work relief archaeology that I have tabulated as of this writing. In some cases, these were very minor efforts—a day’s work at best—and in other cases years were spent at the same site. Tallying up the number of counties with New Deal work is certainly easier than figuring out the number of sites excavated. These 383 counties represent 12.5 percent of the 3067 counties (or parishes) in the U.S. that existed during the Great Depression. Determining work relief efforts by counts of counties certainly is not ideal, but does give a very rough indicator of overall effort.

The southeastern states, other than the anomaly that is South Carolina, saw varying degrees of work relief archaeology—this is largely, but not exclusively, related to survey and excavation associated with the construction of dams under the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the northeastern states, outside of Pennsylvania and New Jersey—both with dedicated state government archaeologists and very active avocational groups—little to no work relief projects were apparently conducted. As we move farther and farther west of the Mississippi River, the amount of New Deal archaeology decreases—especially west of the central plains states. These numbers are misleading, as significant work was certainly conducted in the west, such as at Pueblo Grande in Phoenix, Arizona, and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

There are complicated factors that determine whether any New Deal archaeology was conducted in a given state, and, even if it was, where in the state New Deal projects took place. Some of the factors include state and local political opposition to the New Deal in general, lack of an infrastructure or interest in archaeology, or simply a decision to cut back on archaeological efforts until the economy improved.

I’ll explore these issues on a case-by-case basis over the coming months.

In the meantime, on this Labor Day 2012, I salute all the hard working New Deal archaeologists!!