Digging the New Deal

Lost City Museum, Nevada

Lost City Museum, Nevada
Built by the CCC, the museum houses artifacts from ancient sites flooded by Hoover Dam. Courtesy, Lostcitymuseum.org.

The Living New Deal is like an archaeological dig into a lost civilization. Within just a decade, the Roosevelt Administration catapulted the profession of archaeology into the future, while leaving a trove of artifacts and field notes that researchers continue to mine eighty years on.

Archaeologists today still study what their predecessors of that period did. Excavating sites in the path of a new highway in southwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, Dr. Bernard Means’ researched documents and photographs he discovered in dusty cigar boxes in the State Museum that, he later said, “was like opening a whole new world” to him. That led Means to revive a now-robust professional group within the Society for American Archaeology to study New Deal archaeology, as well as to produce numerous articles, a book of essays titled Shovel Ready: Archeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America and an invaluable website on the legacy of Depression-era federal relief archeology.

Excavation near Boulder Dam, 1937

Excavation near Boulder Dam, 1937
Many of the Federal agencies supported New Deal archeology, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Civil Works Administration (CWA), Public Works Administration (PWA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Courtesy, Lostcitymuseum.org.

In the process of mapping archaeological digs, Means and his associates discovered that all of the many New Deal work relief agencies (CWA, WPA, FERA, CCC, NYA, TVA) conducted projects in at least three quarters of the then-48 states, employing in the process thousands of professionals, while training others to perform this exacting work.

“New Deal archaeology … radically transformed our understanding of America’s past” he wrote, and “led to the professionalization of archaeology [while generating] tremendous collections from significant sites that have enduring value to researchers. New Deal archaeology also represents the one time in history when ordinary American citizens were themselves closely integrated into the efforts to uncover the nation’s heritage.”

A WPA crew excavates a prehistoric mound in Montgomery, Kentucky, 1938.

A WPA crew excavates a prehistoric mound in Montgomery, Kentucky, 1938
Crews collected more than 3000 Native American artifacts, but such excavations often destroyed these sacred cultural places. Courtesy, 30daysofKentuckyarcheology.wordpress.com.

Among the innumerable project sites was the elaborate Irene Mounds, five miles from downtown Savannah. Before a WPA-built airport leveled the mounds, a meticulous investigation was carried out by a WPA crew consisting largely of African-American women directed by archaeologist Joseph R. Caldwell. It is the best documented such site in Georgia.

In Kentucky, similar salvage archaeology preceded the flooding of valleys by dams built by the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority. Diligent workers trained on the job could work up the ranks from “shovel men” to crew supervisors. Some no doubt went on to careers in archaeology and associated fields as many CCC boys did into forestry and soil conservation. The University of Kentucky’s WPA records remain its most requested research materials.

Map of U.S. showing New Deal archaeology projects

Map of U.S. showing New Deal archaeology projects
Counties having projects are highlighted. States shown in gray have no known New Deal archaeology surveys or excavations. Courtesy, Newdealarcheology.com.

The bounty of information about America’s past benefited more than professionals alone.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built a archeological  museum in Overtown, Nevada, to house artifacts recovered from local prehistoric sites, most of which were flooded when the Colorado River was dammed to form Lake Mead. On the National Register of Historic Places, the “Lost City Museum is itself a New Deal artifact. Its collection of Native American antiquities is open to the public.

Work: A Journal of Progress

Work: A Journal of Progress
The January, 1937 issue of the WPA journal features archaeological investigations. Courtesy, newdealarcheology.com.

The American Guides Series produced by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, according to Dr. Gloria Everson, professor of archeology, “provided the general  public with a window into the archaeological heritage of each state — and in many cases, even gave them driving instructions.”  

That we have such a window onto a past otherwise lost to us is not only thanks to those like Caldwell, whose names we know, but to those largely forgotten men and women whom the New Deal digs saved from destitution and despair and on whose shoulders we unwittingly stand today.

 

VIEW HISTORICAL FILM FOOTAGE OF WPA ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

One comment on “Digging the New Deal

  1. Great Article!! Another book will be coming out next year on the Western US archeology.

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New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.