This Women’s Work: Women in WPA Archaeology in the Tennessee Valley

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 26

Michaelyn Harle
Tennessee Valley Authority

With the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, it was quickly realized that the impoundment of the Tennessee River would have a significant impact to archaeological sites across the Valley. Utilizing Civil Works Administration and Works Projects Administration (WPA) labor, hundreds of sites were excavated throughout the Tennessee Valley employing hundreds of laborers. These excavations also attracted a significant number of young professionally trained archaeologists to direct these excavations. These field directors would become a venerable who’s who in field of archaeology. The resulting work would shape our understanding of prehistory in the Tennessee Valley and help professionalize the field of archaeology.


Artifact analysis at the Central Archaeological Laboratory in Birmingham, Alabama. (unfortunately, there are no similar photographs of the Tennessee Laboratory). Photo courtesy of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, University of Alabama.

In the backdrop of this legacy are the contributions made by women, as both professional archaeologists and as laborers, in an especially male dominated field. The WPA/TVA excavations uncovered millions of artifacts that needed to be cleaned, inventoried, and analyzed and this work often fell to women. Both white and African American women were employed at the laboratories in Alabama and the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum. Their efforts would aid in the long-term curation of these important collections.


Crew photo from the Flint River site, Madison County, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, University of Alabama).

While fieldwork was seen as a man’s domain, some African American women would actively resist this sentiment by insisting on being allowed to work on field crews. Several WPA/TVA excavations in the Tennessee Valley, including the Flint River site in Alabama employed African American women within their ranks. Despite this, they were still burdened by gendered stereotypes. For example while men wore standard field clothes as seen in this photograph, women were expected to still wear dresses while they conducted heavy labor, and were not allowed to operate a wheelbarrow. Instead, they transported the dirt in bags on their heads.


Madeline Kneberg (Photo courtesy of the McClung Museum).

Unlike their professional male counterparts, female professional archaeologists were expected to be confined as laboratory workers and supervisors. Correspondences from this era show that evening getting a position within the field were difficult due to prevailing prejudices. Despite these restrictions, female archaeologists of the era such as Madeline Kneberg and Florence Hawley would make substantial contributions to southeastern archaeology. Like many other WPA-era archaeologists, Kneberg got her start in anthropology at the University of Chicago. With professional training in both archaeology and physical anthropology, Kneberg would become instrumental in the standardization and refinement of techniques in both fields. Her work along with her husband Thomas M.N. Lewis, director of the Tennessee WPA/TVA excavations, produced two of the most important monographs on Tennessee archaeology to come out of this era: Hiwassee Island: An Archaeological Account of Four Tennessee Indian Peoples and Eva: An Archaic Site. Similarly, Hawley would become one of the first archaeologists to champion the use of dendrochnonolgy (tree-ring dating) in the southeast. While Hawley would go on to have an illustrious career in archaeology in the southwestern United States, unfortunately, sexist attitudes would undermine her efforts in the southeast.

WPA/TVA Archaeology Photographs, 1930's-1940's

Florence Hawley studying dendrochronology sample from the Norris Basin (Photo courtesy of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture)

While gender inequities remain a significant issue in southeastern archaeology, female archaeologists have made great strides since these depression era trailblazers. Like Kneberg for bioarchaeology and Hawley for dendrochronology, these women would take these niches, perhaps seen as a pigeonhole, and refine and transform them. Increasingly since the 1970s, they would fight their way out of the laboratory and into the field. I would be remiss if I did not highlight one of this later generation, a “leading lady of Tennessee Archaeology” in her own right, Lynne Sullivan, retired Curator of Archaeology for the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. In many ways, Sullivan would ensure that Kneberg’s legacy was not forgotten. She would go on to edit and publish Kneberg and Lewis’s Chickamauga Basin Report, build on and enhance Kneberg’s research, and utilize the extensive WPA collections to continue to enhance our understanding of the prehistory of the region while encouraging her students (including myself) to do the same. Today, I am proud to play a small role in the legacy of these women as one of four female cultural resources specialists (sorry my male colleagues – we know you are important, too) employed at TVA who are responsible for the stewardship of cultural resources on TVA lands.

Photographs from the WPA/TVA excavations can be viewed here

Suggested Readings

White, N.M., L. P.Sullivan, and R. Marrinan, (editors)
1999. Grit-Tempered: Early Women Archaeologists in the Southeastern United States

Lyon, E. A.
1996. A New Deal for Southeastern Archaeology.

Sullivan, L.P., B.R. Braly, M.S. Harle, and S.D. Koerner
2011. Remembering New Deal Archaeology in the Southeast: A Legacy in Museum Collections. In Museums and Memory.