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Celebrating National Accomplishments
Spring 1997, vol. 2(1)

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*  The Southeastern Jumpstart of National Archeology

(photo) Archeologist excavating site in Springfield, Georgia.

"In the Southeast alone the number of recorded sites has gone from under 10,000 in 1970 to over 200,000 today [and] while modern field crews only rarely approach those of the New Deal era in size, the quantity and quality of the data far exceed that collected in earlier times."

David G. Anderson

by Judith A. Bense

Yes, national archeology started in the southeastern United States. Back in the Depression Era, government officials were experimenting with many new ideas to get people working and earning a living. The federal government hired unemployed people to do an astounding array of projects such as constructing roads, parks, and public buildings, recording oral histories of former slaves, and excavating archeological sites. One thing the South had a lot of was unemployed farm workers and big Indian mounds. A pilot excavation at Louisiana's Marksville mound center was so successful that there was an explosion of archeology in the Southeast. This literally forged a new generation of archeologists, who were able to excavate and study the contents of hundreds of prehistoric mounds and villages.

They learned enormously from this work and the supervising archeologists became the discipline's leaders in the post-World War II era, founding departments in universities and museums and teaching baby boomers like me and the other authors in this issue. We, in turn, became part of the next wave of national archeology.

Fresh out of graduate school in the early 1970s, eager archeologists in the Southeast such as myself found that while we were in school, Congress had passed a series of laws requiring that archeology be done before any federal construction project or private project requiring a federal permit. Each state had to hire archeologists; federal money was given for surveys. These changes caused a second explosion of archeology: cultural resource management. One of the most important things about this next wave was that any site over 50 years old had to be included. Almost all of us had been doing prehistoric Indian archeology, the older the better. It was a shock to have to deal with sites from the 17th to 20th century. What's more, there were requirements to generate not only scientific reports, but products for the general public, who was paying the bills.

In the South, this new national archeology had a "triple whammy" effect: more work than we had ever seen, a landscape covered with post-Columbus sites, and a public that had almost no conception of archeology. Over the last three decades, archeologists and the public in the Southeast have had to deal with the new laws and regulations that bring us together in totally unexpected ways. In the rest of this article, I will point out some highlights of what we have done and learned in the Southeast during this era.

First, there was the general effect of the explosion in archeology. The South is poorer than the rest of the country. We have an agricultural economy with some small industry; wages and the tax base are notoriously low (Florida is the exception, with a concentration of relatively wealthy retirees from the industrialized and richer Northeast). In the 40 years between the Depression and the rise of cultural resource management, archeology was generally limited to low budget projects done by university professors and their students. Well, that seemed to change in a flash. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, all of a sudden there were several huge federal construction projects along with extensive urban renewal in the South, all with archeology required as part of the program. Those of us who ran these projects were shoved into the new era. The construction projects included channelizing large rivers such as the Savannah and building the Richard B. Russell dam, the Little Tennessee River Tellico dam, and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway; Atlanta, with the help of federal dollars, built a rapid transit system and cities such as Savannah and Charleston revived their urban core.

The river projects were huge, especially the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, with thousands of acres of swamps to be surveyed and millions of dollars for archeology. I was in charge of a multimillion dollar 29project, and believe me, it was incredible! We learned to use heavy earth-moving equipment on fragile sites, manage multiple large excavations at the same time, and handle it all from tiny Southern towns hooked up to our mainframe computers by telephone lines. The accomplishments of these massive projects are many, some because of the scale, and others because certain people were in the right place at the right time. Among the highlights were the serious computerization of information, the deployment of methods developed in the Depression era, the first-time involvement of the earth sciences, and the discovery and excavation of deeply buried early sites (especially from the Early and Middle Archaic period, 8,000-4,000 B.C.). One of our major discoveries was that the post-glacial climate (at about 6,000 B.C.) had a profound effect on Indians and their way of life, even in the relative humid and rich Southeast.

Second, we did not expect such rich remains from the historic period, especially the 16th through 19th century. We knew in the back of our minds that the Southeast was the scene of the first encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, with the oldest historic settlements in the country including Spanish Catholic missions and a plethora of slave labor plantations and free tenant farms. But once archeologists were forced to deal with any site older than 50 years, we literally got our second degree in historical archeology. We began to "see" this record for the first time, and realize that historical documents could help us a great deal.

The third highlight is public archeology. Prior to the late 1970s, most archeologists had little contact with the general public. Southerners paid little attention to archeological sites except perhaps to collect artifacts or occasionally take the family to a park that had a mound or museum, where they saw elaborate artifacts taken primarily from Indian graves. The insistence of the national archeology program on including all types and sizes of sites from all periods and ethnicitiesócombined with the production of public productsóhas revolutionized the public's perception. The inclusion of African-American slave sites and poor independent farmsteads has probably been the single most important factor in communicating the reality of cultural diversity in the South. The combination of historical and archeological research of African Americans in cities such as Augusta and Mobile has revealed for the first time the changes that this group had gone through both before and after the Civil War. As a result, the people of the South are much more aware of the diverse roots of their culture. In a way, it has been a kind of civil rights movement in archeology. Videos, brochures, exhibits, craft days, and lectures highlight the contributions of all ethnic groups to the development of the southern way of life: Indians, Africans, Europeans. The public is being inundated with a "new" archeology that includes the material culture of all people, not just fancy Indian artifacts, big mounds, and plantation big houses. In the last 25 years, public products from the national archeology program have changed the focus of our museums from one that supported the myth of white supremacy and imperialism to one that reveals the true blend of cultures that is the South. What a difference it has made!

None of us anticipated the enormous change that has happened almost overnight. Never did we envision huge federal projects, larger than the Depression ones. Never did we think that computers would be so important. Never did we think that historical archeology would be so informative and rich. But most of all, never did we fathom that the public would be such an important element. Our careers are almost nothing like those of our professors, and national archeology is the reason. It is changing the South in many ways as the fruits of our labors became part of the mainstream.