by Bernard K. Means (

Online access to archived journals is certainly critical to my efforts to examine all New Deal archaeology survey and excavation efforts on a national scale. Granted, some of these sources offer vague and tantalizing clues to Depression-era work relief archaeology projects—but these clues have spurred further searches across the virtual wonder that is the internet.  I have uncovered many references to New Deal work relief archaeology through searches in databases such as JSTOR, using various obvious key words or phrases, and variations on those key words and phrases.  National Youth Administration (NYA) projects might be, for example, listed under the phrase “National Youth Administration,” or by the acronyms NYA or N.Y.A. (NYA and N.Y.A. turn up different search results, and are used interchangeably in many journals).  The same is true for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA/F.E.R.A.), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC/C.C.C.), Civil Works Administration (CWA/C.W.A.) and, of course, Works Progress Administration/Work Projects Administration (WPA/W.P.A.).

Map of sites excavated (adapted from Collier et al. 1942:8).

A search through American Antiquity for the 1930s and 1940s turned up numerous references to federal work relief archaeology, especially in the “Notes and News” section that was once a regular part of that journal.  One of these projects involved NYA labor to excavate sites in the Columbia River Basin to be flooded by construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state (American Antiquity 1940:177).  This one-paragraph mention did not provide information I needed for my mapping project, nor did a review of the final report obtained through inter-library loan (Cressman 1943). To find which specific counties were excavated with NYA labor, I contacted the Washington State SHPO’s office, but they were not aware that any work relief archaeology had been conducted in the state.  I’m not surprised that they were unaware of the Public Works Administration (PWA) work along the border with and extending into Oregon on sites to be flooded by construction of the Bonneville Dam.  The original report by Herbert W. Krieger was a mere four pages—of which two were devoted solely to photographs (Krieger 1935). Still, George Phebus (1978) later returns to the original field records for Krieger’s project and presents a much more comprehensive report (even if he confuses the PWA with the WPA).

NYA boys excavating a site for the Grand Coulee Dam project (Collier et al. 1942:plate 18b).

The original report on the Grand Coulee Dam project, however, is not a brief note, but a rather comprehensive and honest appraisal of the efforts of academic archaeologists to work with the NYA (also obtained through the magic that is inter-library loan, just this past week).  This work relief project saw many challenges in excavating sites in advance of the rising flood waters and working with young men during a winter “hampered by severe weather and frozen ground” (Collier et al. 1942:11).  The project ran from September 1939 to 1940 (Collier et al. 1942:3) and had four different directors during this time.  Collier et al. (1942:11) acknowledge that:

“It is obvious from the above brief history of the project that it did not operate under the most favorable conditions. Certainly the greatest difficulty, as revealed in the preparation of the results for publication, arose from the lack of continuity in leadership. Many of the sites worked during the first months of field work and flooded soon thereafter have never been seen by the senior authors. Even the most copious and accurate field notes seldom mean as much to a stranger as they would to their writer who can visualize the background for each statement.”

The project archaeologists also had to deal with maintaining permanent camps for the NYA workers who labored on the excavations, because the areas where the archaeology was being conducted were so remote.  In one case, the NYA camp was moved simply because of logistical challenges with supplying their workers with basic necessities (Collier et al. 1942:11-12)—and this, I’m sure, influenced which sites were excavated in the limited time that was available.

NYA camp for the Grand Coulee Dam project (Collier et al. 1942:plate 19a)

Collier et al. (1942) offer insight not just into the archaeology of the Upper Columbia region of Washington state, but also in the conduct of work relief archaeology. This report reminds me somewhat of the archaeology reports created for the Tennessee Valley Authority. I’m hoping this brief note will remind area archaeologists of this important research.

References Cited

American Antiquity
1940    Notes and News.  American Antiquity 6:174-180.

Collier, Donald, Alfred E. Hudson, and Arlo Ford
1942    Archaeology of the Upper Columbia Region.  University of Washington Publications in Anthropology IX.

Cressman, L.S.
1943    Review of Archaeology of the Upper Columbia Region by Donald Collier, Alfred E. Hudson, and Arlo Ford.  The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 34(3):312-314.

Krieger, Herbert
1935    Salvaging Early Cultural Remains in the Valley of the Lower Columbia River.  Explorations and Field-work of the Smithsonian Institution in 1934:53-56. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Phebus, George E.
1978    The Smithsonian Institution 1934 Bonneville Reservoir Salvage Archaeology Project. Northwest Anthropological Research Notes 12 (2):113-177.