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Old Digs and the New Deal

March 27, 2009

This link to New Deal archaeology was posted to the HistArch mailing list. It’s stuff from sites in Pennsylvania and I have yet to explore it properly, but I think it will take up the better part of an afternoon if I start now. And my to-do list is still spilling over from spending most of Wednesday making up funnies about Biffogate. Oops.

Anyway, the archaeology: there was a similar programme in Ireland, excavations run as part of the Relief of Unemployment Scheme. Among these projects were those run by Hugh O’Neill Hencken and Hallam Movius (and others) as part of the Harvard Expedition, which funded a whole bunch of research in archaeology and anthropology, and which not only created work for the unemployed, all of this marked the beginning of the professionalisation of archaeology in Ireland, and of the shift from antiquarian methods to modern, more scientific ones.

They excavated sites like Cahercommaun in County Clare, and worked with the National Museum in Dublin, providing some of the funding, while the Relief of Unemployment Scheme provided the workforce. It was still quite some time before the workforce in the trenches were really thought of as ‘archaeologists’ and not just shovelbums, but it’s a good example of opportunity being found in difficult circumstances.

It’s interesting that it was in the Great Depression and in Ireland of the 1930s that the modern field of archaeology was born, and that now, archaeologists have been among the first wave of the unemployed, especially in Ireland. This is due largely to the structure of the development-driven field of contract archaeology. The over-reliance of the discipline on the property boom means that you can’t necessarily blame the government, the lack of public interest, or anything like that: this is something that was brought on at least to some extent by poor planning and a lack of public engagement both within contract archaeology and academia. It’s not suffering quite as badly in other countries because there was more diversity in financial structuring of the field. In Ireland, it’s fucked.

It’s too bad, but at least now there’s some breathing room to deal with some of the incredible data backlogs from decades of excavations (or there would be, if there was staff left to handle it all). Even has some catching up to do. You’d think, of course, that of all people, archaeologists would be on the front lines when it comes to lessons from the past, about diversifying and letting people into the fold, but that would make too much sense. It’s probably no accident that there is little information about the history of archaeology in Ireland, or that ironically, the National Roads Authority website is among the few that provide any public information about projects that is anything like academically sound. They were forced to do this. Irish archaeology has never opened itself up by choice, which is why it’s so incredibly boring, and you’ll never see a decent archaeology documentary on Irish television. It’s sad, but when you close ranks the way Irish archaeology always has, your industry tanks and, because you were only ever talking amongst yourselves, there’s no one left to care.

But anyway, the point is, it’s interesting that archaeology was included the job creation schemes of the New Deal and in Ireland during the same period, and that it’s barely featuring on the agenda now, that archaeologists are the first against the wall. I don’t think it’s because we no longer care about the past, but because we’ve changed, and as a society, our priorities have shifted, partly out of necessity. Nations are no longer desperately grasping to identify themselves, the Republic of Ireland (which was still the fledgeling Free State in the ’30s) is well-established, if still a little overly obsessed with its own identity politics, and it is no longer a major national priority to seek the kind of solace in the past that would define a culture in the present. European countries are probably — we hope — not going to go to war with one another anytime soon. In general, the focus is on climate change and its effects on living people, working on green technologies, and looking at ways to restructure our economy so that we no longer require the endless-growth model that’s brought us to the edge. The old jobs employed people to excavate objects and places that would inspire the creation of a strong national identity. The new jobs will be in green technology that will help the people survive. The future is the new past.

But while it’s a myth to say that people in the past were somehow smarter, that technology and society have made us stupid, I do think there must be some lessons from the past for these new technologies. There must be some inspiration, where archaeologists and, say, industrial designers can be working together to develop cool stuff that will help us adapt to the world we need to be living in so that there will be a future generation of archaeologists.

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