New Deal Archaeology

Under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program resources were given to create jobs preserving the nation’s monuments to protect them for posterity. Thousands of people were called upon to conduct large scale excavations across the lower 48 states. Archaeological projects were first funded through FERA or the Federal Emergency Relief Agency and then the WPA or Works Progress Administration. Archaeological programs worked closely with the Federal Writers Project to create state guides that provided a historical, cultural, and archaeological view of each state, while employing more people and encouraging tourism.

Figure 1: A CCC excavation in Nevada’s “Lost City”

The archeology practiced by these teams was not always the best form but it ultimately resulted in an increased understanding of archaeology in the public sphere and exposed people to the archaeological process. The crews would enter a site and often end up destroying much of the critical context around the finds and removing them from their associated objects. This was partly because modern sampling strategies using parallel and intersecting lines and squares had not yet been developed and also because most of the workers had no professional training in archeological field work or theory. So significant amounts of data have been lost about many of the Native American sites and colonial ruins that were excavated under the New Deal.

The archaeology done under the new deal was a form of Processual Archaeology and part of the period known as the “classificatory historical period”. The goals were to create a chronological narrative of a region as was common in the time. The narrative element also lent itself well to the creation of the State Guides.

The Cover of the FWP State Guide for Illinois

The Cover of the FWP State Guide for Illinois

And through these state guides the history and archaeology of the country was opened up to the rest of the population instead of the elite intellectuals of the country. Among the programs of the New Deal the archaeological projects created more public awareness of the historical context of the United States and brought us more new information. Many other programs like the CCC and WPA just improved on existing things in the United States by restoring buildings, National Park maintenance, and building projects, but archeological programs took the bleakness of the Great Depression and used it to create opportunities for research and collecting knowledge from resources right outside our doors. And even if the processes were not perfect in the grander history of archaeology they widened the foundation of American Archaeology and made room for organizations like the Society of American Archaeology and other groups that serve to protect and preserve America’s archaeological resources.



Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn.Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, and practice. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 20102

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Unconventional or Contextual? The Power of the Present in Understanding the Past

If I told you to get a bunch of your friends, bring them to an old building, eat bones, drink blood, and kneel at the feet of a dead nail ridden body you would be taken aback.

What if I told you that your children were encouraged to hide their identities, visit strangers, and threaten those strangers to give them cavities?

These traditions sound unreasonable, when in actuality they are going to a Catholic mass and trick-or-treating. Their true meaning is lost when taken out of context and the same applies to archaeology. Although the field has improved from a time of speculation to one of evidentiary support, the discussion of some archaeological topics is still distorted. The Mayan civilization is an intriguing area of archaeological study, but how much truth is there in this civilization’s portrayal by popular media?

It is believed, by the general public, that the Mayans spread as far as Roatán, Honduras. This Mayanization began when early archaeologists used document sources by Christopher Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, to identify private collections of Roatán artifacts as Mayan. As Ferdinand depicted these Honduras natives as possessing Mayan watercrafts, the archaeologists misinterpreted their origins. This misinterpretation is substantiated due to the tourist attraction, Maya Keys. At this site there are replicas of Copán (Mayan) artifacts, and so the visiting public assumes that Honduras was Mayan as the island representatives have taken these artifacts out of context to increase tourism.

Figure 1: Mayan city Copán’s hieroglyphic stairway replicated in non-Mayan Maya Key, Roatán, Honduras

However, archaeologist Christopher Wells has been able to use modern tools to correct this geographic misconception. Through geographic information systems (GIS) he created maps and gathered environmental data to interpret the material culture found on the island and reveal that its artifacts fit the typology, or style, of the Pech and Miskitu Indians. These populations are indigenous to mainland Honduras, dating 600 to 1,000 years ago, and are not of Mayan descent.

Mayan civilization is also associated with the end of the world and black magic to maximize public interest. Yet when compared to present cultures and analyzed with modern techniques, these practices had a more mundane purpose. Due to volcanic activity, a natural formation process, archaeologists have uncovered well preserved art illustrating the Mayan’s use of rituals to prepare for war. This art shows tzompantli, or racks of skulls, were used not for dark voodoo, but to instill fear in their enemies much like current day burglar alarms do, and teotlacualli, or a paste made of poisonous insects for spirit communication, was used in order to be able to learn from the past when developing war strategies. Additionally, through examining the trash of the Mayan elite or artifact scatters of ceramic shards, which before the use of regional survey techniques could have been overlooked or lost to excavation, archaeologists have been able to determine that Mayan sorcery was simply a way of advancing political agenda demystifying the civilization further.

Figure 2:Mayan monument of royal woman conjuring deceased warrior spirit for aid with dispute between royal houses

Ultimately, to understanding the real Mayan civilization of the past the sampling techniques and context of the present must be applied.

Read More:

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Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (2010) Archaeology Essentials. 2nd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.
American Archaeology Magazine Vol. 16 No. 3 “That Old Black Magic” and “Revealing the Real Roatán”


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