Works Progress Administration and Archaeology

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was formed in 1935 by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his “New Deal” response to unemployment during the great depression. A large number of public works projects, including excavation of archaeological sites, were supported by the WPA. The WPA was a stepping-stone in developing the relationship between archaeology and government, and allowed us to broaden our knowledge of American Archaeology.

The WPA experience was “the central stimulus for making sure that modern archaeological research is problem-oriented, results in processed and analyzed collections, and generates a final field report” (Neumann and Sanford 2001). Introduction of WPA archaeology led to the ability for the Federal government and academic archaeologists to interact on similar levels, which is still seen today in Cultural Resource Management. However, the WPA was not perfect. Concerns brought about by archaeologists included

  1. a perception that government regulators and administrators impose inappropriate bureaucratic expectations
  2. the occasionally slovenly work that took place under deadline conditions
  3. excavation for the sake of excavation and not for the solution of research problems, and
  4. the lack of analysis and publication (Neumann and Sanford 2001).
Because the majority of workers under the WPA were not from archaeological backgrounds, work was developed to keep the unemployed at work, and the military personnel busy when they were not on duty.

Out of the WPA came vast improvements in the practice of archaeology. Professionalization has lead to requirements for archaeologists on both academic and agency fronts. A PhD is required in order to hold a professorship, and the minimum level of education and training deemed acceptable for practicing archaeology is a university degree at the bachelors lever or higher, as well as prior experience as a supervisor in the field. Because the archaeology of the past was poorly documented, work done under federal code requires a score of documentation, which can then be recalled later from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

The WPA helped advance the process of discovery in America, and urged us to learn about our past and document it before destroying it. It paved the way for communication between the government and the archaeological community, and it put people to work during the depression.


Sanford, Thomas W. and Robert M. Neumann "Practicing Archaeology : Training Manual for Cultural Resources Archaeology" 2001