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1930s: Boom Time for Archaeology in America

“Shovel Ready” details program under Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Former Alexandria resident and archeologist, Bernard K. Means’ new book, “Shovel Ready”, looks at the impact that ordinary citizens had on archeology during the Great Depression.

“Shovel Ready” is an edited volume by modern day archeologists examining the work done by federally funded archeology programs as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression.

The book “focuses on some of the some parts of the story that aren’t well known, like the archeology done in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Iowa," according to Means.

"To understand the history of the archeology that was done during the '30s, you really need to understand the people that did the archeology," he said.

Because of World War II and the economic boom following it, many of the citizens that worked on these archeological projects went back to their old jobs or better jobs and so their stories were never told.

Means noted that one man involved in the program went off to war and became a school textbook salesman when he returned.

Although the goal of the archeological program was "to keep people employed and not necessarily to do good archeology", Means said that more archeology was done in some parts of the country in the 1930s than has been since.

"There are people [archeologists] across the world [who] keep looking back to those old notes and artifacts," Means added.

While it was a challenge working with other authors, it was necessary in order to get personal perspective of the different areas of archeology covered in the book.

One of his favorite sections was a chapter on the history of historical archeology in Pennsylvania and the combined effort to tie that in with public education.

The inspiration for “Shovel Ready” came as he was doing some archeological research for an environmental consulting firm concerning a highway project in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"During my research, I began to see the letters [by] people who worked on the project writing home and the black and white photos of people working in the dead of winter and that sort of got me interested. And I was always sort of interested in FDR as a president." He said.

The book's title "Shovel Ready" also hints to the accessibility of archeology in past times and how “as long as you had shovels and you had people, you could go out there and do it.

In addition to documenting Roosevelt's vision to renew the country's economy through work programs like the archeology work program in the 1930s, Means also looks at the connections between the New Deal's archeology programs and some modern archeology programs put in place as a result of President Obama's stimulus plan. One such program is the Veteran's Curation Project that takes old archeology collections from the '50s and uses returning veterans to bring them up to modern standards and teaches them about Photoshop and other skills they can use outside of archeology.

"Shovel Ready" can be purchased at Amazon.com.

Similar to those citizens who picked up their shovels as a result of the New Deal, Means was attracted to the field after taking an anthropology course called Magic and Anthropology from one of the archeology professors at his college and seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in high school.

"I started thinking Indiana Jones is something you can do if you wanted to," he said.

Currently, he is working on a textbook for a course, Death & Burial, he teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. The book will examine the archeology and anthropology burial practices of societies around the world and the unique and creative things people do with dead bodies.

He received a BA in anthropology from Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Arizona State University.