Status: Vol. II, Episode 4 (30:00 min); original release 2002

“WPA Archaeology: Legacy of An Era” examines the economic, scientific and cultural impact of a massive work relief program conducted across Kentucky by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. This half-hour documentary features interviews with Dr. Lathel Duffield, former Professor of Anthropology, University of Kentucky, and John B. Elliott who served as a project supervisor for the WPA Archaeology program from 1938 to 1941. Interviews are combined with artifacts, rare archival film and dozens of WPA photographs for a compelling look at this unprecedented era of archaeological research.

In Depression-era Kentucky, people needed jobs. Roosevelt’s WPA programs did just that, funding hundreds of labor projects – from road construction and forest conservation to cultural programs in music, art and history. In Kentucky, the WPA funded large-scale archaeological excavations, which provided jobs for manual laborers in rural communities. From 1937 to 1941, over 70 archaeological sites were excavated across the state, including rock shelters, shell middens, mounds and villages. The analysis of fieldwork and over 300,000 artifacts greatly added to our scientific knowledge of ancient American Indian cultures.

Under the guidance of Dr. William S. Webb, this WPA project also trained a new generation of archaeologists. John B. Elliott, a WPA project supervisor, describes fieldwork at some of the WPA sites in Kentucky. This unprecedented archaeological project came at a price. During the mid 1900s, there was little regard for the cultural concerns of American Indians. Many ancient burial mounds were leveled during excavations. Dr. Lathel F. Duffield, former professor of anthropology, University of Kentucky, and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, describes the historical motivations, scientific impact and contemporary legacies of WPA archaeology. Using examples of artifacts from the state’s WPA collection, the program presents some of the historic findings generated by this research about ancient American Indian cultures. Before radiocarbon dating, WPA archaeology was instrumental in defining the relationship between various cultures in Kentucky. Archived at the University of Kentucky, scholars from all over the world come to Kentucky to study this archaeological collection.


WPA Archaeology companion website WPA media release (PDF) DVDs: The Kentucky Archaeological Council sells DVDs of this program at cost. Contact David Pollack (859) 257-1944, Kentucky Archaeology resources – Kentucky Heritage Council/KAS site


“WPA Archaeology: Legacy of An Era” was funded with support from the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Kentucky Heritage Council, Kentucky Humanities Council, National Park Service and Voyageur Media Group, Inc.