Archaeology and Roosevelt's New Deal for America

An Interview with VCU archaeologist Bernard Means

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When someone says “archaeology professor,” an adventure-seeking Harrison Ford, aka Indiana Jones, often comes to mind. Although archaeologist Bernard K. Means, Ph.D., may not run from booby traps or ride horses in his line of work, he certainly knows his stuff. Means, director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at VCU, recently edited and co-wrote the collaborative book “Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt's New Deal for America,” which was published and released this year. Means teaches anthropology and archaeology in the VCU School of World Studies, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Shovel Ready” illustrates the little-known role that ordinary citizens played in excavation and archaeology during the Great Depression.

Where does the title “Shovel Ready” come from?

As a response to the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt created a number of work relief programs under his New Deal to put unemployed men and women to work. The goal of these federally funded work relief programs was to put people to work quickly, so funds were directed to projects that could get started very quickly—thus, they were shovel ready. Archaeology projects, of course, were literally shovel ready, as shovels are used regularly to move soil during the excavation process. Incidentally, on some projects, workers had to bring their own tools, including shovels, as work relief funding focused on meeting labor costs.  
How was it sharing the pages of this book with so many other authors? Did you butt heads with anyone?

Sharing pages was not really a problem. I did end up writing one more chapter than I originally intended. I planned to have someone write the concluding chapter that tied together the preceding works by multiple authors, but that person did not complete the chapter in time, so I wrote it. I did have one author who very much exceeded their allowable page length, so I had to work with them to trim their manuscript quite a bit. But, the editing process was not too contentious—for the most part, I worked with authors who I have known professionally a number of years, and who I knew would adhere to my guidelines for the book.

You stated in an earlier interview that you were inspired to write this book because of letters written by people who worked on the New Deal archaeology project. What did these letters say that was so inspiring?

Many of the letters I’ve read were written by Edgar E. Augustine Jr. during the 1930s, when he worked on various New Deal archaeology projects in Somerset County, Pa. His letters focus not just on his important archaeology findings, but also give insights into the men who worked for him. These men were all unemployed, and Augustine clearly cared not just about the archaeology but also about the men. He worked in his spare time to make sure that he had archaeology projects lined up after the active one he and his crew were working on, because if the work stopped, his men would not get paid. Augustine also had a very, very dry wit, and his comments about working conditions and some of his men are amusing. I devoted a chapter I wrote for “Shovel Ready” to Edgar E. Augustine Jr.

What is your favorite section of the book that was written by a fellow author? Why?

That’s a challenging one for me to answer. I liked Janet Johnson’s chapter on historical archaeology in Pennsylvania under the New Deal because it gives insights into how multi-faceted historical archaeology needs to be—drawing not only on the archaeological record, but also historic documents. I’ve known Janet for a long time, and she works for The State Museum of Pennsylvania, where I do much of my research—and which, incidentally, has artifacts and records generated by Edgar Augustine’s New Deal excavations. I also liked Sissel Schroeder’s chapter on the Jonathan Creek site, partly because of its strong theoretical component and its focus on an American Indian village site. My earlier book, “Circular Villages of the Monongahela Tradition,” was a theoretical approach to, well, circular villages—most of which were excavated by Edgar E. Augustine Jr. and his crews. As you can see, my research has come full circle.

You said in a previous interview that watching Indiana Jones in high school attracted you to the archaeology field. Would your high school self be excited or disappointed to see you today?

I think my younger self would be happy. I’ve always been interested in exploring the world around me, and my job teaching and doing archaeology allows me to address this interest. My younger self would more likely be disappointed that we do not have bases on the moon, have not sent humans to explore the planet Mars and have failed to use the potential of dirigibles to move people and cargo efficiently across the globe—all things promised in the science magazines I read back in the day.

How long have you been a professor of archaeology at VCU? Have you taught at other universities as well?

I first taught at VCU beginning in 2004. This was actually my first teaching job, and my first semester I had about 800 students in four classes. I taught here until 2006, when I began a two-year visiting professorship at Washington and Lee University. I returned to VCU in 2008 and have been here since. Teaching at another, smaller university certainly has made me appreciate the diversity of the students and majors here at VCU.

Is anthropology a popular field of study among students at VCU?

Anthropology does seem fairly popular. I’ve never had an issue filling classes, and my “Death and Burial” class, which I teach in the fall, tends to fill very quickly. I get a fair amount of non-majors in that class, some of which actually then become anthropology majors. This class in particular exposes me to a fair number of students involved in the arts programs at VCU, which I find refreshing. I’m interested in visual and other media in communicating ideas about anthropology—especially archaeology.

With so much focus on technology and moving forward in recent years, how would you sell an incoming student on studying archaeology and anthropology?

Although focused on the past, archaeology involves quite a bit of technology, and archaeologists draw on physics, chemistry and geology on a regular basis—as does biological anthropology. In addition to teaching archaeology classes, I also manage the Virtual Curation Laboratory where I work with students to create 3D virtual models of artifacts—and printed replicas—that can be used for research and teaching, both with K-12 and college students … The undergraduate students who work in the Virtual Curation Laboratory do their own independent research projects, and some have presented at archaeology conferences and will be publishing their research in the next year or so.

Other archaeologists use radiocarbon dating to get at the age of archaeological sites, and various geophysical prospecting devices to see below the ground’s surface before excavation begins. So, for the student interested in technology and science, but with also an interest in heritage studies, archaeology meets their needs.

These archaeology digs are not necessarily well known among the public. What is the most interesting thing they have yielded/the most interesting thing that was found?

This is a difficult question to answer, because there were so many New Deal archaeology projects that were conducted across the nation, ranging from American Indian camps, villages and mound centers—some thousands of years old—to Colonial-era settlements like Jamestown. Thirty states had some form of New Deal archaeology … Overall, I think the biggest contribution of New Deal archaeology was exposing a wide number of scholars and general members of the public to the rich heritage of the United States, dating back many centuries. Prior to New Deal archaeology, the public usually only heard about excavation projects in exotic foreign lands, such as in the deserts of the Middle East or the jungles of Central America. But, with New Deal archaeology, the public themselves—everyday men and women—worked directly on archaeology projects, or knew someone who worked on an archaeology excavation.  And local newspapers would keep track of these findings as well.

The vast majority of the employees on these projects were participating out of Depression-fueled necessity. Were any of the projects dangerous because of the unqualified men doing the work?

Even today, archaeology projects are potentially dangerous to experienced workers, and those working during the Great Depression doing archaeology would have met those dangers as well.  However, although many of the men and women who worked on New Deal excavations were not specifically trained in archaeology, they often came from backgrounds where they worked in dangerous industries. Many of the workers were coal miners, or railroad men, for example.  There were also rules that the federal government developed for all New Deal programs, not just archaeology, that were designed to keep workers healthy and free from unnecessary dangers. Edgar E. Augustine Jr., for example, writes about needing to make sure his men did not get to cold or wet, especially during the brutal winter excavations in Somerset County, Pa.

For more information on New Deal archaeology and the New Deal in general, visit,,,  and

Means and his students maintain a website about their Virtual Curation Laboratory project at:

Means discusses the geographic coverage of New Deal archaeology at

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Bernard K. Means, Ph.D.
Bernard K. Means, Ph.D.