WPA Archaeology: Legacy of an Era

By Vanessa N. Hanvey, M.A.
Transportation Archaeology Review Liaison
Kentucky Heritage Council

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a part of the massive infrastructure program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide employment during the Great Depression. Part of a set of programs called the New Deal, the WPA was an agency funded through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (1935) to offer “some skills training and almost 8 million jobs to the unemployed” (UK Research Guides).

The WPA philosophy was to put the unemployed back to work in jobs which would serve the public good and conserve the skills and the self-esteem of workers throughout the U.S.

Lou Ann Speulda and Rhoda Owen Lewis, 2003
WPA crew members preparing a water canister at an archaeological excavation in Boone County, Kentucky, on April 6, 1940. A water sprayer remains an essential part of the archaeology toolkit!
A WPA crew investigating an archaeological site in Ohio County, Kentucky. In the foreground, you can see two men excavating a deep feature, potentially a trash pit or postmold of a structure. Above them, along the wall of the trench, appears to be a shell-laden deposit.

Public buildings and transportation networks were constructed across the United States along with the development of arts, literacy, and cultural heritage programs. Public works projects focusing on cultural heritage included massive archaeological excavations. There is no community in the U.S. that is not effected by the works of the WPA, as the staff of the Kentucky Heritage Council recently found out!

A WPA crew excavating a prehistoric mound at an archaeological site in Montgomery, Kentucky, on February 5, 1938. Note how the crew has mapped excavation squares with stakes across the entire mound. It was typical for mounds to be fully excavated during this time, though the practice destroyed these sacred cultural places.
Photo taken of a WPA crew in McLean County, Kentucky, on July 20, 1938. These men would have been local to the area.

WPA archaeological projects were conducted across the state of Kentucky! Though many may not be aware of the impacts of the WPA, its contributions to the Commonwealth are still felt today. While going through archival boxes at the Kentucky Heritage Council (KHC), the author of this blog found a CD mysteriously titled “WPA Video 02-19-2002.” On this CD were 212 old photos named after archaeological sites across the state of Kentucky.

The deprivations of the Great Depression continue to influence those born decades and decades after that very desperate time.

Janie-Rice Brothers, 2017
Excavated post molds and features from two rectangular structures in Johnson County, Kentucky.
A WPA crew excavating at an archaeological site in Montgomery County, Kentucky. Here, you can see how the mound was built through the different layers of soil.

It took KHC staff a little bit of snooping to figure out what all these photos of WPA archaeological projects in Kentucky were doing on this forgotten CD! This CD is likely associated with the short documentary WPA Archaeology: Legacy of an Era. This 25 minute video was produced in 2002 by KHC to showcase the impacts of the WPA across the state of Kentucky. Have you seen it yet?

WPA crew members excavating at an archaeological site in Butler County, Kentucky. These types of projects were often massive and complex, as is exemplified by the multitude of units open in this photo.
Training was a key component of the WPA, as is shown here in Johnson County, Kentucky.

The photos on the CD are from the William S. Webb Museum WPA/TVA Photograph Archive. Though there are significant reminders of the WPA across the state in the forms of ferry crossings, bridges, national parks, and state parks, we should not forget the impacts this initiative had on our understanding of Kentucky’s history! For more information on the WPA and its impact across Kentucky, check out the resources below or watch WPA Archaeology: Legacy of an Era

Almost every community in the United States had a public building, road or bridge created by the WPA.

UK Research Guides, 2019
The remnants of a prehistoric structure with the postmolds outlined in Boone County, Kentucky, on January 18, 1941. This structure may have looked like the one reconstructed below!
A WPA crew member demonstrating how a post of this prehistoric structure would have fit into the excavated postholes in Boone County, Kentucky, on January 31, 1941.
A recreation of a prehistoric structure excavated in Bath County, Kentucky.

Additional Resources:

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