Digging for Dollars

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Fagette, Paul. Digging for Dollars: American Archaeology and the New Deal. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996



In his book Digging for Dollars, Paul Fagette explains the role that the New Deal played in shaping American Archaeology. He argues that archaeological excavations and other programs set up through New Deal programs such as the Civil Works Administration and later on, the Works Progress Administration played a great role in unifying the discipline and establishing codes of conduct and procedures.

Fagette begins the book by explaining the state of Archaeology prior to the New Deal, at the end of the 19th Century through the beginning of the 20th Century. During this time, he argues, Archaeology was not an established, uniform, academic discipline. Instead, archaeologists are separated by various divisions, government archaeologists, academics at colleges and universities, state and local archaeologists, and amateurs. In addition, many professional archaeologists’ primary training and expertise is not in archaeology itself. Instead many of them had actually transferred over from Anthropology.

During the Great Depression, Fagette argues, archaeological excavations became a way for New Deal programs, such as the Civil Works Administration, to provide employment to those who were out of work. In addition to having historical and cultural merit, archaeological excavations were a popular method of providing work to people because the excavations required a small investment in training or equipment, thus allowing the bulk of the financial resources available to go towards labor costs. In addition to providing employment to those experienced in archaeology, many of the unemployed who physically were unable to perform more strenuous tasks were able to take part in the program.

Because of this consolidation of Archaeology, though these New Deal programs, with the Smithsonian Institution also playing a role, Archaeology became standardized through the federal government. This affected things such as: whether or not someone could be classified as an archaeologist, standards of conduct, and the methods of collecting and publishing data.


Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

What I found most interesting about this book was the mixture between Archaeology and the unemployment problem facing the United States during the Great Depression. While one often thinks of academic disciplines as something left only to a certain elite, I was impressed how something such as Archaeology was used, by the federal government, to help individuals, who may have little understanding of Archaeology or any other of the Humanities, find temporary employment during a national time of great need.

As for the role that the New Deal programs played in shaping American Archeology, I would agree with Fagette’s opinion, course I do not feel that is a exactly a controversial one, I would argue that the centralization of any academic discipline, such as History or Sociology, is going to become standardized if it is centralized and, to a certain extent, control by the federal government.

One problem that I had with the book was that the examples cited by Fagette were predominantly examples from the Southeast. I would have preferred to hear other examples of New Deal Archaeological expeditions from other parts of the country that could have contributed as well, such as the Northeast and the Midwest. I also am curious to know more of the personal/professional relationships between those professional archaeologists working on the project for the Works Project Administration, etc., and the laborers who worked for them, and who did not have experiences in Archaeology.

Pat Kelly, Fall 2007

This small book, 255 pages, contributes a great deal toward understanding the unique relationship between New Deal programs and educational institutions in the 1930’s. Author Paul Fagette clearly believes that the federal funding from the New Deal was what ignited professional unity among archaeologists. He bases this on a narrow study of archaeological digs in the southern region of the country. Although it is an interesting argument, he never looks at the costs that might come with federal funding such as dealing with new bureaucracies or if the unity among the archaeology profession might have come without government intervention. It was interesting to see how the partnership between the government and educational institutions evolved over the years from each other’s viewpoint.

Further, the book concentrates only on the southern and some eastern regions of the United States. What about the southwestern portion of the country which had long been a hotbed for archaeologists? The book has great oral interviews of major players in the field of archaeology, plus other primary and secondary sources. However, Fagette chose to write the book in dry academic style that doesn’t help the dusty subject matter. Also the reader has to keep track of all the abbreviations he uses throughout the book referring not only to the New Deal programs but the different archaeology organizations. Fagette looks at an interesting subject matter and sheds light on how the New Deal worked in an area not often examined by historians. However, it would have been better if he hadn’t attempted to put so much information in the book for the reader to digest all at once.

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