Archaeology in Black and White: Digging Somerset County’s Past During the Great Depression

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In 1994, a small team of archaeologists drove south from temporary lodgings in Somerset, in southwestern Pennsylvania, on State Route (S.R.) 219, to a point just north of Meyersdale, turned left into Indian Dig Road, and then left again onto Pony Farm Road. The archaeologists traveled a short distance up hill along this unpaved dirt road, before pulling their battered – and much maligned – field vehicles off onto one of its shoulders, Clambering out of their vehicles, they grabbed field packs, shovels, and sifting screens, and proceeded on foot along a narrow trail, across one corner of an abandoned farm field, and slipped and slid down a steep and rocky path to a small level area.

This level area – or “bench” in the parlance of archaeologists – dropped off sharply along its southern and eastern edges onto a heavily wooded slope and narrowed considerably to its west before it joined another small hillside bench. The northern edge of the bench was a crevice that sliced nine feet into the hillside.

The archaeologists were conducting limited excavations in advance of the destruction of an entire hillside by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for realignment of S.R. 219. They were searching for evidence of past human activities – fragment of Native American cooking pots, chipped stone tools, carved and shaped animal bones and, perhaps, even bits of crockery, glass bottles, and rusty nails associated with the European settlers who farmed this region since the 1760s. This time, though, their excavations had an additional and unusual goal – they were searching for traces of an archaeological excavation that took place in the twentieth century. The 1994 investigations were asking an important question: How much of the hillside bench was left untouched after excavations, in summer 1938, by a team of Works Progress Administration (WPA) archaeologists? This question was not asked to advance an esoteric quest for knowledge, but with a practical end in mind. Whatever portions of the hillside bench were excavated in 1938 would not need to be re-excavated in the nineties, saving time, effort, and money that could be devoted to other archaeological investigations before construction began on S.R. 219.

To address this question, it was essential to find field records describing the WPA excavations. The search led to collections kept by the archaeology section of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. The museum held on published manuscript and several stark black and white photographs of men working on the hillside bench, at a site identified as the Martz Rock Shelter. How much of the hillside bench had been excavated by the WPA could be determined by studying both the manuscript and the photographs. The cliff face in 1994 looked virtually identical to the cliff face of 1938, which readily enabled the WPA excavation scenes to be placed on a modern map. The 1994 and 1995 excavations of the hillside bench determined these estimated 1938 excavation boundaries to be reasonably accurate and, therefore, no additional or more extensive investigations were required.

The manuscript and black and white photographs discovered in the State Museum also contained a surprise – the existence of a second site excavated by the WPA crew on the bench to the west of the Martz Rock Shelter. This second site, Martz Rock Shelter No. 2, was neither mentioned in published records nor recorded in the official Pennsylvania archaeological site files. Investigations in 1994 confirmed that most the bench where Martz Rock Shelter No. 2 was largely untouched by the 1938 excavations. Further excavation of Martz Rock Shelter No. 2 in 1996 uncovered important evidence of human occupation dating back nearly ten thousand years. If the existence of Martz Rock Shelter No. 2 had not been revealed through archival research, this important site would have been lost, obliterated forever by the paved highway that now cuts through this location.

In addition to records documenting the Martz Rock Shelter, the archaeological collections of the State Museum also contain extensive field notes, artifacts, several unpublished manuscripts, and numerous photographs related to archaeological excavations conducted throughout Somerset County from 1934 to 1940 – during the Great Depression – and funded with federal relief monies. The more material covered prompted even more questions. How and why were excavations conducted in this relatively remote region during a period of grave economic distress? Who – and what – were the forces behind these excavations? Who were the workers? Can reexaminations of these archaeological investigations make new contributions to the understanding and appreciation of Pennsylvania’s past?

A quick look at the Great Depression explains why federal funds were allocated to support archaeology during this tumultuous period, and why some funding was directed toward excavations in Somerset County. With the crash of the stock market in 1929, unemployment swelled from one and a half million people to seven and a half million people in just eleven months. The resulting poverty and despair penetrated the lives and psyche of the American people. T.H. Watkins provides a chilling account in his book entitled The Great Depression: America in the 1930s. “In an Appalachian Mountains school, a child who looked sick was told by her teacher to go home and get something to eat. ‘I can’t,’ the girl replied. ‘It’s my sister’s turn to eat.'” As the crisis deepened, some Americans lost all hope. R.S. McElvaine, in The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, recounts that a Pennsylvania man asked in 1934, “Can you be so kind as to advise me as to which would be the most humane way to dispose of my self and family, as this is about the only thing I see left to do?”

President Herbert Hoover’s policy of letting the economy correct itself clearly did not set well with the American people, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who succeeded Hoover in 1933, quickly set himself toward the task of finding solutions to the daunting crisis. Roosevelt preferred the concept of work relief instead of what he saw as demeaning direct welfare payments, a position shared by many who had accepted work relief. The principal work relief program, the WPA, employed more than eight million people on nearly one and a half million projects – such as road construction, murals for public buildings, and archaeological excavations – during its seven-year existence. Officials believed archaeology was particularly well suited to the requirements of work relief programs. The necessary equipment cost relatively little and most funds could be spent on labor-intensive fieldwork. Archaeological projects also did not compete with existing private enterprises.

The availability of federal relief funds for archaeological fieldwork only party explains why excavations took place in Somerset County. Much of the explanation has its roots in the mid-1920s, when public interest in Pennsylvania’s rich archaeological heritage was burgeoning. With interest in history high, members of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, forerunner to the PHMC, moved quickly to conduct a series of archaeological investigations throughout the Commonwealth.

It was the keen interest of one individual, Flora Black, and not only public interest, that helped make the relief excavations in the county a reality. A leading member of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission and resident of Meyersdale, Black was quite knowledgeable about Somerset County’s archaeological potential and proved instrumental in securing the first relief funds for the excavations. Workers commenced relief archaeology in October 1934 by interviewing farmers and property owners about archaeological remains on their land. Investigation of the first Native American village site also began that month. For nearly six years, until June 1940, federal funding kept a field crew busy excavating sites.

The men who worked each day as part of these excavations were not formally trained archaeologists but possessed skills that proved to be assets. They were most likely coal miners, a common occupation in the area. Not only did the field workers provide labor, but they also had to “supply their own round pointed shovels and four inch pointing trowels.” Standardized field forms guided workers for recording appropriate information. The use of these forms, which became widespread during the Great Depression, continues to this day.

The project’s field director, Edgar Augustine of Addison, in southern Somerset County, just above the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, was a civil engineer who had developed a strong interest in archaeology long before the relief excavations began. He was given rudimentary training by Pennsylvania Historical Commission staff.

Augustine used his surveying expertise to accurately map the locations of each site’s features. Features are disturbances in the soil that sometimes result from human activities. These features are recognized as areas where the soil has different colors and textures than that which occurs naturally. Features may be holes dug for the posts of a frame dwelling, pits used for cooking fires, and graves to bury the dead. When feature locations are placed on the map of a site, they often reveal important information about the lives of the people who made them. For example, a circular arrangement of postholes might indicate the location a dome-shaped dwelling in which a family worked, ate, and slept.

The relief excavations drew on people of all ages, ranging from as young as twenty-three to an individual said to have had “eighty summers on his head” but who was, nonetheless, “hale and hearty.” Initially workers were paid an average twenty-five cents an hour and worked no more than sixty hours in a two-week pay period. Supervisors received one dollar an hour, while assistants received fifty cents. These wages, set by federal administrators and barely sufficient for survival, were intentionally established to discourage people from becoming indefinitely dependent on relief. Local industry owners argued that wages paid to WPA workers should not be set higher than they themselves were willing to pay. Eventually, the hourly rate for each worker increased slightly, when the biweekly pay period was shortened to fifty-two and a half hours, with no reduction in total wages.

The excavations in Somerset County were conducted to address two goals, both of which influenced the types of archaeological sites that were investigated. One goal was to demonstrate that there had once been a permanent and substantial Native American presence in Somerset County, which was doubted by some leading researchers of the day. The second purpose was to provide regular employment for Somerset countians. The dual nature of these excavations was clearly understood by Edgar Augustine. “We try to work the 52 and a half hour shifts to the best advantage of the excavators,” he wrote on December 21, 1936, “remembering that the first object of work is to provide for these men and their families, but we also make every effort to carry out the work to the satisfaction of the Historical Commission and the Works Progress Administration.”

The need to keep his men working was crucial to Augustine. If his crew could not regularly work their full quota of hours, the project would have been shut down. Photographs document his crew working in the snow, even in blinding blizzards, although these conditions are far from ideal for conducting archaeological investigations. During particularly blustery winter days, the men were instructed to dress warmly and to stand by a fire usually tended by the oldest crew number, as often as necessary. Canvases were hung to shield them from fierce winds while they worked and ate lunch. For some excavations, small shelters were built on site and the men spent part of the lunch hours scouring the countryside for firewood. Only when conditions threatened the health of the crew, such as heavy rains that soaked them to the skin, was fieldwork halted for the day. Even then, when possible, the men worked inside, washing, counting, and sometimes illustrating the artifacts they had uncovered. Despite these sometimes rough conditions, most of the men were dedicated to and interested in their work. They did have their limits, though. On the first day of deer season in 1935, only seven of the eighteen laborers reported for work.

The principal focus of the Somerset County excavations was the sites of Native American villages. Excavation of these village sites maximized employment opportunities, because each site usually had more than enough features and artifacts to warrant a lengthy and labor intensive field effort. These sites included concentrations of numerous dwellings made from a framework of wooden poles, which often left behind bewildering arrangements of postholes, and which took time to excavate and map. Augustine noted that overlapping postholes made it hard “to reconstruct these houses of men who lived in a stone age.” Storage pits, which were sometimes attached to houses, also left behind patterns of postholes. Augustine’s crew excavated so many postholes that he was once referred to as the county’s only known collectors of postholes. Graves, present on most of the village sites, too some effort to carefully and respectfully excavate.

Whenever he had an opportunity, Augustine scouted around Somerset County, interviewing farmers and examining their fields for signs that a Native American village had once been present. The telltale signs were usually areas of dark, organic soil and fragments of pottery turned over by plowing. “Taking advantage of the small crew, we loaded them in Flivver and proceeded to just about completely cover the County, making tests and interviewing the native sons,” he wrote on August 24, 1936, to Pennsylvania State Archaeologist Donald A. Cadzow. Augustine attempted to prepare two confirmed locations of village sites for investigation following completion of the current site’s excavation to ensure that there was constant work.

In many ways, Edgar Augustine became the driving force behind the Somerset County excavations and later non-relief excavations in Fayette County. He dealt extensively with federal administrators of the Works Progress Administration and local political leaders to guarantee that funds continued to support the Somerset County excavations. When the relief excavations shifted their focus from the Confluence area to Meyersdale and further east in Somerset County, Augustine drove four of the crew in his own car each day so that he would keep the most experienced workers for his project and keep them employed. He also interceded with farmers to obtain permission to excavate on their land, in a few cases hiring the farmers themselves to excavate village sites on the very farms that they had been plowing for years. Some farmers responded to Augustine’s energetic devotion to archaeology by providing him and several of his crew with room and board while they worked in different parts of the county. “Three of the boys and I live at the Powell homestead during the week, and we are full of sauerkraut and sausage,” he wrote in March 1938.

Somerset County’s relief excavations have made lasting contributions to an understanding and appreciation of Pennsylvania’s prehistoric past. The field results have been used to reconstruct what prehistoric Native American villages in the region once looked like. Even more important, based largely on these excavations, the Monongahela culture was first defined and described, as detailed in the only book devoted to the relief excavations, Mary Butler’s 1939 monograph, Three Archaeological Sites in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, published by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Archaeologists still use Butler’s characterization of the Monongahela culture to study and understand Native American village sites in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Ongoing research proves that the information collected during the Somerset County excavations can further contribute to the study of the past. The excavations are not merely historical curiosities. The sites were not randomly selected or carelessly excavated; instead, the investigations were conducted in a systematic fashion, following fairly standard and consistent procedures. Excavation data were particularly strong in presenting the dimensions and exact locations of post holes, storage pits, graves, cooking fire pit, and other features. While they excavated, field crews placed sticks in each post hole or feature, which helped make later mapping of each village site both easier and more accurate. This practice also helped keep track of postholes and features when they were blanketed with snow. In their painstaking recording of burial sites, workers photographed graves, which was especially important since most human remains were re-buried shortly after excavation. Analysis of the techniques and methods used during these excavations shows they were not that different from those used today to excavate village sites in Pennsylvania and throughout the Northeast.

Archaeologists can use the information collected by the Somerset County excavations to ask questions that were not even dreamed of sixty years ago. A recent reexamination of the results of the 1937 Peck No. 2 village site excavations near Meyersdale uncovered an interesting grouping of dwellings that may well represent several families or a large, extended family that joined together to give themselves an advantage over other families that lived in the village. Two clusters of graves in this village site may possibly represent formal cemeteries, perhaps for two families or clans.

When all of the village sites investigated by the Somerset County relief excavations of the thirties are re-examined, it will be possible for archaeologists to develop an accurate picture of Native American village life in southwestern Pennsylvania in the six centuries before Europeans settled the area. Because archaeologists do not know precisely how old village sites are, future research plans include obtaining radiocarbon dates from seeds or grains, burned residue on pottery fragments, and bits of bone in the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Related research opportunities will surely present themselves as the considerable amount of information generated by the Depression-era archaeological investigations in Somerset County is sifted through and analyzed. The continuing research potential of this data, collected sixty years ago for next generations of researchers, demonstrates the critical importance of storing and maintaining archaeological collections in Pennsylvania’s museums. In so doing, archaeologists and museum curators can help ensure that there is, indeed, a future for the past.


For Further Reading

Augustine, Edgar. “Important Research on Peck and Martz Rock Shelter Site in Somerset County.” The Pennsylvania Archaeologist 8 (4):83-88, 1938.

Butler, Mary. Three Archaeological Sites in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1939.

McElvaine, Robert. The Great Depressions: America, 1929-1941. New York: Times Books, 1993.

Means, Bernard K. “Archaeological Past and Present: Field Methodology from 1930s Relief Excavations in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and its Relevance to Modern Archaeological Interpretations.” Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 14:39-63, 1998.

____. “Monongahela Mortuary Practices in Somerset County, Pennsylvania: Observations and Implications.”Pennsylvania Archaeologist 69 (2):15-44, 1999.

Watkins, T.H. The Great Depression: America in the 1930s. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.


The editor gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Stephen G. Warfel, senior curator of archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, for his review of this manuscript and for providing illustrations.


The author’s research of archaeological investigations conducted during the Great Depression was advanced in 1999 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Scholar in Residence program. During his tenure as a scholar, he inventoried collections relating to the Somerset County relief excavations that are contained in the archaeological holdings of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. In addition to assessing their research potential, the author also expanded his study to examine documents held by the Pennsylvania State Archives. He drew on the results of his research efforts to reconstruct a picture of a time when some residents of Somerset County survived the Great Depression by working as archaeologists. This article is an outgrowth of that project.


Bernard K. Means, of North Beach, Maryland, is a research of archaeologist associated with Arizona State University and is serving as assistant collections manager for the Alexandria (Virginia) Archaeology Museum. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology at Occidental College Los Angeles, and is currently a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Arizona State University, Tempe. A scholar in residence at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, he pursued his interest in Depression-era archaeology in Pennsylvania, concentrating on reinterpreting data collected in the past using modern techniques and theoretical perspectives. His research interests include Native American village community organization, analysis of the built environment using archaeological data, and inter- and intrasite spatial analysis. His articles have appeared in archaeology journals and publications.