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"

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

2 thoughts on “New Deal Archaeology

  1. You bring up a really interesting point about the relationship between site preservation and the accessibility of knowledge. As you said in your post, the former was sacrificed for the latter during New Deal archaeological projects. Archaeologists must negotiate between the two even today, although they undoubtedly must be more qualified and conscious of protocol to even begin a dig. At the same time, the impact of technology on archaeological research methods is making this relationship somewhat less contentious. For example, to excavate a Native American burial site would disturb of destroy a site likely considered highly sacred and culturally significant site by the people associated with it. Technologies such as ground penetrating radar (GPR) now allow archaeologists to “see” into burial sites, enabling them access to what is buried in a far less intrusive manner. This then simultaneously preserves and allows for research at the site.
    Technology also allows for greater public awareness of anthropological research in a manner that far surpasses the State Guides of the New Deal. The Internet not only allows for the easy dissemination of information of a massive scale, but also allows for a freer exchange of ideas related to the findings. Through comments or other formats, the archaeologist, the people studied and a plethora of other voices can engage in this exchange.

    To read more about the use of GPR in archaeological research, see:

  2. These imperfect excavations formed the foundation of American archaeology and the culture histories that were developed on a state-by-state basis, as if those state lines existed in the past. It was important work at the time but we need today’s archaeologists to re-examine these New Deal sites to test their conclusions.

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