Celebrating 60 Years of
Archaeology in the Southeast
Archaeology and the Great Depression
Southeastern archaeology as we know it today came of age during the great Depression of the 1930s. This period of economic crisisóbeginning in 1929 and continuing until December 1941, when the United States entered into World War IIóresulted in catastrophic unemployment. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1933, he initiated a New Deal that created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)...and a unique opportunity for archaeology.
One of the first archaeological projects under FERA was the excavation of an important Woodland site in Marksville, Louisiana. Directed by the Smithsonian Institution in cooperation with the city of Marksville, the project proved archaeology ideal for unemployment relief. Requiring only a large, mostly unskilled labor force and no sophisticated or expensive equipment, archaeology projects could be established almost anywhere unemployment prevailed. The Southeast, with its favorable climate, soon became an important center for year-round "relief" archaeology.
In November 1933, with winter facing economically desperate Americans, the newly created Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Smithsonian Institution launched projects in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and California. CWA archaeologists, assisted by some 1,500 new hires, excavated important sites, including Ocmulgee in Georgia and Peachtree Mound in North Carolina.
With the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, archaeologists recognized that many important prehistoric sites were threatened. The construction of large TVA dams would soon inundate huge tracts of land. Archaeologists and over 1,000 workers excavated many sites, from shell middens to large Mississippian sites.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), formed in August 1935, contributed to relief archaeology by combining resources with the TVA and the National Park Service to excavate sites throughout the Southeast. Archaeologists and over 1,000 workers completed major excavations, including those at Hiwassee Island in Tennessee, Crooks Mound in Louisiana, Robbins Mound in Kentucky, Town Creek in North Carolina, and sites in Georgia and Alabama. Thus, a generation of Southeastern archaeologists was trained. James Ford, Gordon Willey, Robert Braidwood, Jesse Jennings, and George Quimby were among those who made significant contributions to Southeastern, North American, and world archaeology in the years following World War II.
The basic chronology of Southeastern prehistory, which was established during the 1930s, is still used today. Depression-period artifact collections and project records, stored in museums throughout the Southeast, continue to provide valuable information to researchers. And archaeologists have once again excavated portions of sites investigated in the 1930s, including areas of the Green River Valley of Kentucky and the Marksville site in Louisiana. In this sense, Depression-era archaeology in the Southeast is not only important for its role in the history of archaeology, it remains a viable presence more than a half century later.
The Southeastern Archaeological Conference
ó Julian H. Steward and Frank M. Setzler, 1938
"Function and Configuration in Archaeology" in American Antiquity 4(1):10
Over sixty years ago, during the Great Depression, federal economic relief programs resulted in the investigation of some of the regionís most important prehistoric sites, including many of the ancient Indian mounds that dotted the landscape. In fact, the 1930s witnessed more archaeological excavation than during the entire previous century. The pace and volume of digging proved challenging. In this flurry of activity, young, hastily trained archaeologists were making new observations about Native American cultures at every new site explored.
These were exciting times for an emerging science, yet frustrating, for little prior knowledge was available to help archaeologists identify and interpret newfound traces of an unwritten past. To make sense of their many new discoveries, they needed a reliable means for dating artifacts and sites. Recognizing that this challenge was best met through the analysis of prehistoric pottery, James B. Griffin and James A. Ford organized a Conference on Southeastern Ceramic Typology. They invited sixteen colleagues to the Ceramic Repository of the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, in May 1938. Attendees agreed to a set of standards and nomenclature for pottery analysis. They also agreed to meet on a regular basis to share and discuss new finds and ideas. In November of that same year, in Birmingham, Alabama, Southeastern archaeologists and their students held the first meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC).
Except for a hiatus during World War II, SEAC members have convened annually in cities throughout the Southeast. Through its programs, publications, and fellowship, SEAC successfully integrates and focuses the work of professional archaeologists. The organization has regularly issued an annual bulletin, a biannual newsletter, and, since 1982, a scholarly journal, Southeastern Archaeology. SEAC continues to promote and stimulate quality research on Southeastern archaeology and pottery chronology, and, over the decades, its members have made many advances in the method and theory of culture history.
The years have brought much growth and diversity to the organization. In 1998, the nearly 1,000 members reflect the full breadth of archaeological inquiry in a variety of professional roles, from educator to government regulator, from field technician to museum administrator. Students and nonprofessional archaeologists add further depth to SEACís ranks.
The Southeastern Archaeological Conference has grown to become the premier organization of professional archaeologists in the region. On this, its sixtieth anniversary, SEAC, through its diversity of resources and strength of purpose, promises to continue sharing and preserving the knowledge of our mutual pasts while expanding the frontiers of archaeological inquiry for generations to come. SEAC welcomes you to join in this pursuit.
Visit the SEAC website for addresses and other information:
Authors: Edwin Lyon, Kenneth Sassaman, and Judith Bense, with contributions by Hester Davis, Karl
Steinen, and Stephen Williams.
Design and editing: Virginia Horak, Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service.
Artwork: front cover oil painting by Martin Pate; photographs, courtesy Southeast Archeological Center,
National Park Service.
Funding for artwork and printing provided by Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service.