Archaeology and the WPA had proved to be the perfect match of dovetailing necessities: archaeology that needed labor to excavate prehistoric sites and the WPA for providing that labor. The Smithsonian Institution was well aware of the expanded possibilities the jobs program was providing, and pursued them eagerly. Marksville, Louisiana, where digging for a town swimming pool had shifted to excavating a Hopewell Indian village, was the first dig to use relief labor under FERA, but Smithsonian archaeologists were alert to other opportunities. When the CWA was created in the winter of 1933–34, the Smithsonian moved quickly, applying for grants and then setting up digs in warm-weather states where work could proceed without breaks for snow and cold and frozen ground. CWA excavations employing about 1,500 workers were set up in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and California under the Smithsonian’s supervision. The largest of these was an extensive mound site on the Ocmulgee River outside Macon, Georgia, and it and several other digs continued under FERA and then the WPA.
At the same time, the Tennessee Valley Authority recognized that its plan to flood vast parts of the river valleys in the Tennessee River system in order to build hydroelectric dams had archaeological implications. Major sites in Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky would be lost forever to archaeology once the dam floodgates closed and water crept up over the land, so by early 1934 the TVA had developed a program that was employing more than 1,000 CWA workers to excavate and remove Indian artifacts below those dams.
The head of TVA archaeology was William S. Webb, who by the WPA’s third year must have been the busiest archaeologist since Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb. A physicist who had turned an amateur’s passion for archaeology into a career, Webb had chaired the University of Kentucky’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology since its creation in 1927. In addition to that post and the TVA, in the summer of 1937 he shifted his attention long enough to submit a proposal for a major archaeological program in Kentucky. He and his colleague William D. Funkhouser had already redefined what was known about Native American cultures in the Southeast, which ranged from simple hunting, fishing, and gathering to moderately evolved societies that lived in villages, farmed, fired pottery, made weapons and tools of stone and flint, and constructed elaborate burial mounds. The valleys of the Ohio and its feeder rivers were particularly rich grounds for exploration, with evidence of cultures known as the Hopewell, Mississippian, Fort Ancient, and Adena all represented. Since relief labor continued to be available, Webb now envisioned excavations of sites throughout northern Kentucky. When the WPA approved his plan in August, Webb started sending cables and making phone calls.
He recruited a group of young archaeologists as supervisors, choosing those with field experience if he could find them. The man he put in charge, William Haag, had a master’s degree in geology from the University of Kentucky and a year of graduate work in vertebrate paleontology, and he had worked on TVA projects for three years. Webb’s plan was to have Haag organize a dig, then turn it over to one of the other supervisors, and move on to organize another. Late in the year, Webb contacted a young Chicagoan named John B. Elliott.
Elliott was among the fortunate students whose families could afford to keep them in college during the depression. His father was an engineer with the American Bridge Company and unlike the majority of engineers had retained his job. Elliott had earned an undergraduate degree in archaeology from the University of Chicago in 1933 and was working on his master’s when he contracted colitis. He was sick for a year, then transferred to the University of Illinois to study agriculture; his family owned land in New Harmony, Indiana, and he saw farming as something he would do eventually. But when his course of study was completed a year later, he realized he wasn’t ready to start farming. Archaeology remained his first love, but no jobs beckoned. Time passed and Elliott, spare and wiry and now twenty-five, found himself managing one of the Childs chain of restaurants that were popular in Chicago and New York, and wondering if he would ever find work in his chosen field.
His fiancée, Josephine Mirabella, was impatient, too. Like Elliott, she had graduated from the University of Chicago. She spoke French and Italian fluently, but had to take a job as a file clerk for an insurance company until her degree in languages finally landed her a job teaching French in the Chicago schools. When Chicago could again afford to pay its teachers, she made about $70 a month, as did Elliott. It was an income that many Americans caught in the depression would have envied, but not what the young couple thought they needed to get married.
Then, one night in early December, Elliott phoned Jo at home. His voice was quivering with excitement. He told her that a Western Union messenger had shown up at his parents’ door earlier that day with a telegram addressed to him. It came from a big-time archaeologist named William Webb. Years later, Jo remembered that John had sounded “as if the moon, sun, and stars had fallen in his lap.” As he reminded her, the two summers he’d spent at the University of Chicago’s archaeology field school in southern Illinois were the happiest times of his life. Now, not only did he have the chance to work in archaeology, but Webb was offering him the grand sum of $160 every month as a non-relief field supervisor, more than the two of them were making together. They would be able to get married.
Elliott spent $400 of his savings on a new Ford pickup truck. He celebrated Christmas at home, then left for western Kentucky without waiting for the new year, driving south through the winter countryside. He crossed the Ohio River at Evansville, Indiana, and continued south until he reached Calhoun, Kentucky, the McLean County seat.
Calhoun lay on the Green River, which meandered west and north from central Kentucky and spilled into the Ohio near Evansville. The town was the rough center of a scattering of prehistoric villages arrayed along the river. These villages were marked by shell mounds that their inhabitants had used as tombs and garbage middens, and Webb was interested in what they might reveal about Native American cultures during the Archaic period, roughly 8000 to 1000 B.C. He wanted to see how they compared with mounds already excavated in the Wheeler River basin in north-central Alabama under the TVA archaeology program, which were consistent with the Mississippian sites found throughout the Mississippi River valley.
Calhoun turned out to be a sleepy town, suspicious of change and wary of outsiders, especially those who had come to dig in the mounds. Its citizens thought of the mounds as their own: not only their heritage but also a potential source of income from the pots and other artifacts that an enterprising digger could sell on the open market for hard cash. This information Elliott learned from his dour, elderly landlady, who had carved two rooms out of her house and turned them into a makeshift apartment that she rented for $15 a month. She complained about the digging. “Doesn’t the WPA have better things to spend the government’s money on?” she demanded of her lodger. Nonetheless, she was happy to collect his rent in that winter of renewed recession.
There were half a dozen mound sites on the Green River in McLean County. When Elliott arrived in late December, work was just starting on one of them, the Read Shell Midden. Among the others were Indian Knoll, the Carlson Annis Mound, Chiggerville, and the Cypress Creek villages. He observed the efforts going on at Read, then in February 1938 moved to Cypress Creek to get the work under way there.
The Cypress Creek villages were a collection of several sites, as the name implied. Elliott was to start at Ward, named for the nearest community of any consequence. The site stood at the end of a rutted dirt track that gave way to an open knoll, part of a ridge that overlooked a valley two miles wide. Elliott assembled a crew of some twenty-five men, most of them farmers and out-of-work miners certified for WPA relief jobs. He needed to cover a lot of ground in a few months. Webb and Haag wanted to reveal the village structure, so they had ordered him to do a comprehensive excavation. But Elliott’s first test was to impress on the men the need to dig carefully, making sure they destroyed none of the artifacts that the excavation might reveal. The process was exacting. The men couldn’t dig as if they were sinking postholes; they had to “shave” the soil with light horizontal sweeps of the shovel in order to uncover any protruding artifacts. At that point, diggers took over whom Elliott had briefed on the special techniques of finer work. They used small trowels and even smaller tools for the painstaking work of extracting what they had found. Working through a cold winter and a rainy spring, his WPA crew picked up the archaeological work quickly. They impressed him from the beginning.
Weapons, tools, vessels, and bones—human and animal bones from ritual burials, bones shaped into crude fishhooks or spear and arrow points, a spear launcher called an atlatl, even bones that were the remnants of meals—would add detail and color to the archaeological picture. Elliott handled all these objects carefully, for removal later to the laboratory at the University of Kentucky. From them Webb would be able to determine that the Indians who had inhabited the site hunted deer, rabbits, wild turkeys, raccoons, and opossums, and gathered roots and berries. He guessed that they had lived there roughly 1,000 to 2,000 years before, during a transition from the hunting-and-gathering Archaic period to the more evolved mound building of the Mississippian, a time known as the Woodland Period.
Elliott worked at the Ward site into the summer. In July, when the school year ended for Jo, he returned to Chicago for their long-awaited wedding. Her Italian family almost succeeded in derailing the plan because of their objections to her marrying a Methodist who didn’t even go to church. But the couple fell upon the mercies of a sympathetic priest, Father Molinari, who married them in his offices at St. Michael’s, the Roman Catholic church in the Mirabella family’s West Side neighborhood. In exchange, Jo promised that she would raise their children in the Catholic Church.
Back in Kentucky, the newlyweds felt crowded in the two rooms that had been large enough for Elliott when he was on his own. His work routine governed their lives. Each weekday morning, they woke in the dark, and he dressed in his archaeologist’s wardrobe of khakis and work boots while she cooked breakfast. Her breakfasts—all her meals, in fact—were an adventure in those early stages of their marriage, since she had grown up in a wealthy home and never learned to cook. The landlady provided additional distraction, sometimes joining their breakfast conversations from her side of the door and indicating some resentment at no longer being asked to make Elliott’s lunch. Jo did it now, usually a sandwich that she wrapped in wax paper and put into his lunchbox. Carrying this, a thermos of coffee, and a large milk jug of water, he would climb into his truck and set off as the clock struck six.
He was gone for twelve hours on most days, and then he came in carrying the results of the day’s excavations. With space at a premium, he would roll up the findings in a blanket and store them under the bed, and after dinner, he would write up his field notes. Jo got used to the idea of sleeping over Indian bones.
But she did chafe at the lack of social life in Calhoun. The days were long and she had little to do, and when the weekends came he wanted to relax from his week’s labors while she wished that the small town had at least a movie theater. Church socials seemed to be the only diversion, but the Elliotts had not turned into churchgoers overnight. And while Owensboro, a larger town with theaters and a bowling alley, was less than twenty miles away, there was the cost of gasoline to think about. Jo was saving $60 a month from her husband’s salary.
Thus their chief social opportunities came on the one weekend a month when the field supervisors from the Green River and other Kentucky digs traveled to Lexington to report to Webb and Haag and present the artifacts they had unearthed for lab analysis.
They usually left for these weekends on Friday morning unless Elliott wanted to get in another half day of work, in which case they couldn’t count on reaching Lexington until well after dark. Kentucky’s rural roads, even those that had benefited from the WPA’s improvements, were twisty two-laners, and the drive in the pickup was slow and rough. Once in Lexington, they would throw their bags into the spare bedroom of whichever member of the archaeology faculty they were staying with that month. Nobody had money for hotels. Jo remembered sitting around kitchen tables talking with other archaeologists’ wives, happy to have a conversation that didn’t involve bones and arrowheads, while the men talked shop.
On Saturdays the field supervisors and faculty came together for all-day discussions of the prior month’s findings and what they signified. Then, after a large communal dinner—sometimes the group would splurge and eat at a restaurant in one of Lexington’s hotels—and one more night in the various guest rooms, the field men and their families would drive back to their scattered outposts.
Elliott finished his work at the Ward site in September and moved on to Kirkland, another site in the Cypress Creek villages group. Rather than hiring new workers whom he would have to train, he took most of his WPA crew to the new site with him; it was close enough to allow them to commute. Kirkland was another large dig, and he worked it from September 20 until after the elections in November before moving to a third site.
All the while, the Cypress Creek sites he and the other field supervisors were unearthing, and the artifacts they carried to Lexington, were helping Webb and Haag to enlarge and sharpen their picture of the life lived by the ancient Indians in what was now Kentucky. As they noted when they wrote of the site at Chiggerville, where a shell midden was excavated earlier in 1938, it could have been done only partially or not at all if there had not been WPA labor. With it, “it was possible to excavate so considerable a portion of this site that its whole history was revealed.”