Friday, May 29, 2015

The New Deal helped excavate our history

Above: The visitor center at Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia. The building was started by WPA and CCC work crews and then completed after the war. Ocmulgee National Monument protects Native American history and, according to the National Park Service, "The largest dig ever conducted in this country occurred here at Ocmulgee and the surrounding area. Between 1933 and 1936, over 800 men in Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, Civil Works Administration, Federal Emergency Relief Administration and later the Civilian Conservation Corps excavated under the direction of Dr. Arthur R. Kelly from the Smithsonian Institute...All together 2.5 million artifacts were found..." Photo by C. Smith, used under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
A new article by Dr. Bernard Means (Virginia Commonwealth University) highlights the New Deal's contribution to archaeology. In "Labouring in the Fields of the Past," Means argues that "With the New Deal, a new age dawned for American archaeologists and American archaeology."  He highlights how increased funding, increased manpower, and the experiences of managing new and larger operations were of great benefit to the developing science of archaeology.

All was not rosy all of the time of course. For example, sometimes record-keeping was less-than-ideal, sometimes excavation techniques did not follow best practices, and sometimes politics delayed or squashed proposed projects. Still, New Deal funding facilitated many excavations that otherwise may never have occurred.

Here are some interesting facts & figures from Means' article:

1. The WPA and the CCC contributed the most to archaeological work, but archaeologists also received assistance from the Civil Works Administration, the National Youth Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

2. Means reports that he has "accumulated information on approximately 1700 New Deal surveys and excavation projects" and he includes a map and a state-by-state table in his article.

3. Means also reports that there is "Sufficient show that New Deal archaeology of one form or another took place in at least 381 counties across 36 of the lower 48 states. In some cases, these were very minor efforts—a day’s work at best—and, in other cases, years were spent at the same site."

So, despite some problems here and there, we see--yet again--how New Deal policymakers connected the dots. People needed work, archaeologists needed help, history needed discovering - and so, they made it happen. Compare that to today, where, for example, our infrastructure is falling apart, 21 million Americans wish they had a full-time job but can't find one, and our Republican-led Congress delays & blocks every infrastructure idea that comes up - even their own (see yesterday's blog post, "Senior Republican on Infrastructure: 'The really more Republicans than Democrats.'")

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