by Bernard K. Means, Virtual Curation Laboratory

Meyersdale Bypass under construction.

U.S. 219 Meyersdale Bypass under construction.

1994 excavations at Martz Rock Shelter

1994 excavations at Martz Rock Shelter

My original interest in New Deal archaeology was sparked by work related to highway construction around the town of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, in the early to middle 1990s. Planned improvements to U.S. 219 around that town were going to destroy several archaeological sites, including one recorded in t1938 as the Martz Rock Shelter. This site was excavated by a WPA crew under Edgar Augustine. I was tasked as part of my project with determining whether the site was completely excavated by the WPA relief workers, or if we would have to do additional work on the site.  I not only showed that we would have to do more work on the site as part of our 1994 excavations, but that there was another unrecorded site, Martz Rock Shelter No. 2, that was minimally excavated in the 1930s and needed extensive work in the 1990s.

I stopped in Meyersdale last week (on June 28, 2013) on my way to the Somerset Historical Center to give a lecture on the Monongahela Tradition.  The Monongahela Tradition is a term archaeologists assign to American Indians who lived in southwestern Pennsylvania from about A.D. 1100 to the 1630s, grew maize, squash, and beans–the later beginning around A.D. 1300–and sometimes lived in ring-shaped villages, consisting of a circle of houses around an open, communal plaza.

Illustration of a Monongahela village site shown in cross-section Copyright Laura J. Galke. Used with permission

Illustration of a Monongahela village site shown in cross-section
Copyright Laura J. Galke. Used with permission

My talk focused on how technological tools have changed our understanding of the Monongahela–especially in terms of radiocarbon dating and the creation of 3D models of Monongahela artifacts (and other sites in Pennsylvania). But, I also stressed that none of the work would be possible without the work relief excavations done in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.  These work relief excavations–from 1934 to 1940–were used to define the Monongahela Tradition concept, as I discuss in a chapter in Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America. This book, by the way, was the subject of a recent interview with me and posted here.

As many of us who do research on New Deal archaeology know, the findings from these work relief excavations continue to resonate today.  The work in Somerset County is key to my methodological and theoretical investigations of circular settlements across time and space.  And, as I emphasized to my audience, this new research on the Monongahela Tradition, gathered over 80 years ago, is used by scholars all over the world who are themselves trying to understand circular settlements.  Not a bad legacy for a scrappy band of men thrown together on New Deal funded projects who had little to no knowledge about archaeology–and less about circular villages!