Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

George A. Lidberg Jr. and Depression-Era Archaeology in Tennessee

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

George A. Lidberg Jr. and Depression-Era Archaeology in Tennessee

Article excerpt

Far-reaching transformations took place in Americanist archaeology in the 1930s throughout the United States (Means 2011). Despite the ravages of a severe, worldwide, economic depression, archaeology expanded in both practice and scope, largely through its inclusion in Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation for work relief. With the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933, the imminent impoundment of the Tennessee River (Kennedy 1999:148) gave rise to large-scale, multistate, archaeological salvage programs. The research operated within the context of a somewhat haphazard bureaucratic system that became institutionalized on the federal, state, and local level (Braly and Koerner 2010:17-22; Dye 1991; Ezzell 2009; Fagette 1996; Faulkner 2002:174-176; Futato 2007; Haag 1973, 1985; Lyon 1996:123-169; Milner and Jacobi 2006; Milner and Smith 1986; Stoltman 2006). Contemporary archaeology owes a great deal to these early, federally supported and state-run programs.

The Tennessee River and its tributaries drains some 40,600 square miles, including two-thirds of the state of Tennessee and portions of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia. Between January 1934 and May 1942, seven Tennessee Valley basins - Chickamauga, Guntersviíle, Kentucky, Norris, Pickwick, Watts Bar, and Wheeler - were scheduled for inundation and would constitute a major locus of archaeological salvage in the United States. These projects, together with federal relief efforts throughout the South (Fagette 1996; Lyon 1996) and much farther afield (Means 2011), would have a deep and lasting effect on the development of Americanist archaeology.

Critical methodological and theoretical orientations arose from these salvage projects, and archaeologists continue to debate and discuss, both in the literature and at conferences, many of the same problems confronting the various New Deal project sponsors. The issues they faced were both critical and fundamental to any archaeological endeavor, but theirs was compounded by newly mandated federal and state policies and unprecedented field and laboratory demands. In many respects these early "public" archaeologists, in the federal bureaucracy and at the state universities, were creating, evaluating, and implementing new concepts and demands in archaeology. As Haag (1985:278) has observed, there "never has been a greater revolution in American archaeology than that engendered by the New Deal period."

Biographies of archaeologists who were active during the federal work relief era are important for an appreciation and understanding of the development of modern archaeology (Givens 1992). Perhaps no other time in the history of archaeology has witnessed the massive level of federally appropriated funding and personnel mobilization that was committed to field and laboratory research. As a result of this intense emphasis on large-scale survey, testing, and excavation stemming from New Deal projects, modern archaeology came of age in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Understanding the practice of archaeology has often been overlooked in discussions of the rise of archaeological theory. What were the conditions under which they worked? What was the intellectual and scholarly environment in which they were educated? The men and women employed as federal work relief field and laboratory supervisors during the Depression between World War I and World War II were often graduate students and even advanced undergraduates who had too often only limited instruction, minimal training, and insufficient field experience for the tasks facing them. A better understanding of their work environment provides a more nuanced perspective of the conditions under which they labored and the world in which they lived and worked.

Such studies serve several purposes (Givens 1992). First, they document the activities of midlevel figures in archaeological history who represent a class of individuals. …

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