Oh the Humanities! National Endowment for the Humanities Funding for Archaeology

Posted on February 17, 2014


On Thursday, May 6, 1937 the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded over New Jersey. Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness radio report has now become famous. Especially, his uttering of the phrase ‘Oh, the humanity!’ as the ship went down. While I am unease about making the comparison, as I don’t want to trivialize an event in which people lost their lives, the changing of  ‘Oh, the humanity!’ to ‘Oh, the Humanities’ is an apt description of the situation for funding archaeology through the humanities in the United States.

Hidenburgh burning. Image from wikimedia- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hindenburg_burning.jpg

Some of you reading this will be aware that in the US the Federal Government gives funding to the Humanities through the National Endowment for the Humanities. Though not usually labeled as a Humanities, Archaeology is usually considered a social science or just science, it is possible to get funding for Archaeology and Archaeology related projects from the NEH. Though as you can guess from my intro that funding stream has crashed.

It is possible, through the Data.gov website, to get access to all of the funds awarded through grants by the NEH since the 1970s. Though it is hit or miss in the 1970s and it isn’t till 1980 that the data becomes reliable. I took a look at all of Archaeology and Archaeology-related (more on that at the bottom) projects and this is what the picture looks like in terms of funding.

NEH Grant funding for Archaeology and Archaeology-related projects

NEH Grant funding for Archaeology and Archaeology-related projects

The picture dose not look that bad, right? There are problems in the mid-1980s and 1995 is a rough year but it looks like funding levels had since recovered before dropping again in the last few years. This actually follows the general funding for the NEH. The 1980s was the result of Regan’s attempts to cut funding for the NEH. The 1995 cuts was when the Republicans took the House and Senate. I am guessing you can figure out why the budget has fallen recently. This is a great article on the attacks on the NEH.

The real problem is when you take into account inflation and the number of projects funded. When those funding numbers are adjusted for inflation (to 2013 dollar amounts) we see that those budget cuts did hurt but actually the lack of keeping pace with inflation means that funds are now 1/5th of what they were in the 1980s. Moreover, in the early 1980s there were between 60-70+ projects being funded. That is now down to between 10-20. Not quit on the scale of the Hindenburgh but we can see funding crashing in a fiery inferno. Especially, if you remove archaeology-related projects and concentrate just on those that are in the NEH Archaeology Category.

NEH Grant funding for Archaeology and Archaeology-related projects Adjusted for Inflation (2013 amounts)

NEH Grant funding for Archaeology and Archaeology-related projects Adjusted for Inflation (2013 amounts)

Count NEH Grants for Archaeology and Archaeology-related projects

Count NEH Grants for Archaeology and Archaeology-related projects

Over the next couple of days I will post more information from the data I gathered from the NEH.


Now for the boring bits, or exciting bits depending on who you are. The data was gathered by down loading grant datasets from the NEH via data.gov for the years: 1970-79, 1980-89,1990-1999,2000-2009, 2010-2019. This was in the form of XML which I converted to Excel datasheets and then combined. Archaeology is listed as a catagory which accounts for the ‘Archaeology Only’ lines on the graph. However, that does not capture the true complexity of grants. Some clearly involved archaeology but were not listed in the Archaeology catagory. For example,  the IOWA’S P.A.S.T. (PROGRAMMING ARCHAEOLOGY FOR SCHOOL TEACHERS) is obviously a project that involves Archaeology even if it was not labeled in the Archaeology catagory. These other projects were found by search titles and descriptions of projects for the words ‘Archaeology’ and ‘Archeology’. They went into the Archaeology-related categories. I went through this projects by hand and removed some that appear to briefly mention Archaeology but did not appear to involve it. However, I was very liberal in my interpretation of Archaeology-related. Mainly because Archaeology can bleed into so many other subjects sometimes it is hard to tell were archaeology ends and another discipline like History or Classics begins. Here is an example of a project I included in the archaeology-related catagory:

African Americans in Massachusetts: From Slavery to Today– The African American Studies Program at Boston University requests funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of two Landmarks of American History and Culture summer workshops that will investigate the place of the African American community in Massachusetts. This program will bring together teachers in grades K-12 from across the United State to explore the many and varied ways in which African American culture has made an impact on the New England landscape. The workshops will focus on how slavery and abolition, citizenship, literature, and politics in Massachusetts have affected the lives of African Americans. The approach is cross-disciplinary, and will involve experts from a variety of backgrounds, including history, art, museum studies, anthropology, archaeology, and literature.

While obliviously this project is not all about archaeology it will include aspects of archaeology. Thus archaeology benefits from some, though not all of the funding. As such you should treat the Archaeology-related categories as both included full archaeology projects and multidisciplinary ones in which archaeology benefits. I have included the data below in an excel file. You can see the few projects I excluded and all the other data used. Inflation data was take from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this webpage specifically. I have left my calculations in, in case anyone finds an errors:

NEH Data

Essentially, this data is based off of the grants recorded as being given. Since grants are pretty much the only way for the NEH to support Archaeology it is probably an accurate portrait of funding. This may or may not reflect the exact amount of money given to Archaeology by the NEH. I personally view it as a close approximation. There might be a few grants not recorded. However, it is unlikely that there is a significant number of grants that area missing. Yes, the data from the 1970s appears to just be a few random projects but from 1980 forward it appears to account for most, if not all, of the grants given.

Not included in the numbers are some supplementary funds given to projects. This was for only a few projects and totaled less than 1% of the total amount.

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