Digging for Dollars: American Archaeology and the New Deal

By Kolb, Charles C. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Digging for Dollars: American Archaeology and the New Deal


Kolb, Charles C., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


New Deal. Paul Fagette. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. $40.00 cloth.

This 255-page volume contributes substantially to our understanding of economic relief in the form of employment during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the parallel need to conduct professional archaeological research. Fagette characterizes federal and state government New Deal projects and American archaeological field research, artifact analysis, and publication; he reviews nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientific institutions, details precursors to the New Deal, considers the interrelationships of archaeology to the federal government and academia, and then examines the practice of state archaeology across a spectrum of state and federal relief programs. The focus is nearly exclusively on personalities, politics, and major relief efforts in the southeastern United States, where there were few major museums or large anthropology departments to provide appropriate research infrastructures.

Using primary archival and secondary source materials and oral history interviews with major archaeologists from this era, Fagette demonstrates how the profession of archaeology was both nurtured and impeded because of federal funding and reporting requirements. He documents the changing roles of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service (NPS) during the 1930s and elucidates the creation of the Society for American Archaeology. Relief work during the 1930s, Fagette contends, had the dual function of data acquisition and public relations-attesting to the importance of archaeology for the retrieval of unique information and to popularize the profession by exposing "countless thousands" to archaeology. Although the relief effort emphasized the employment of unskilled laborers, skilled workers including anthropologists, artists, and engineers, among others, were employed in archaeological research. The decade was critical in the development of modern archaeology and how research is conducted today.

Fagette discusses the "alphabet soup" of the era-- the Civil Works Administration (CWA) which carried out Smithsonian excavations and TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) reservoir salvage archaeology projects fieldwork, which marked a "new age" in American archaeology. He proposes that, beginning with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in 1934-35, the power of the Smithsonian declined while university, museum, and state agencies' authority was enhanced. Research under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of 1935-1942 (renamed Works Projects Administration in 1939) is also related. …

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