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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.