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Archaeology Projects at the National Endowment for the Humanities: Past, Present, and Future

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner


In the 30 years since its founding, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has given 575 grants to more than 300 archaeologists in 158 institutions for work conducted in more than 35 countries worldwide. During this period, archaeological projects received a total of $16.5 million in outright funds and $17 million in federal matching funds for fieldwork, analysis, and publication. The projects have in common a focus on interpretation of archaeological data and what it means to be human in complex physical and social environments. Excavated and surveyed sites range from world-class monuments (Abydos, Athenian Agora, Carthage, Corinth, Monticello, Pompeii, San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlan, Teotihuacán, Tikal, Vijayanagara) to rural towns and villages, rockshelters and camp sites, sanctuaries and cemeteries in the United States and abroad.

NEH has supported work in every period, culture, and area of the United States, from analysis and publication of Paleoindian materials from Hell Gap to the excavation of a Chinese mining camp dump in Pierce, Idaho. NEH-funded projects in Americanist archaeology include Cynthia Irwin-Williams's excavation at the Salmon Site (1970-1978), Stuart Struever's study of agriculture and animal use in Illinois (1975, 1977), Dale Croes's work on Paleoindian occupation at Hoko River (1981-1988), Dean Snow's Mohawk Valley Project (1984-1991), Kathleen Deagan's work at St. Augustine (1978, 1982) and La Isabela (1992, 1995), and John Broadwater's investigation of the York River Fleet shipwreck (1979-1992). Projects in Mesoamerica and South America include George Kubler's work on the art of Tikal (1970-1972), John Hyslop's investigation of the Inka road system (1981, 1983) and site planning (1985, 1987), Thomas Charlton's work on Aztec state formation at Otumba (1988, 1991), and George Cowgill's study of human sacrifice and society at Teotihuacán (1990, 1995).

The distribution of projects is primarily in five world areas:

Area No. of PIs Grants Outright $ Matching $
U.S.73 110 $4,942,124 $2,427,218
Near East75 139 $3,372,215 $4,447,363
Classical & Preclassical 68 161 $2,772,563 $5,710,850
Mesoamerica26 45 $1,675,839 $1,613,016
South America 13 20 $ 431,594 $ 310,045

No single approach or discipline characterizes the projects or participants: they are as diverse as the current universe of archaeologists. In 30 years of project grants, project directors have come from the following disciplinary departments:

Department No. of Grants
Anthropology 216
Classics 133
Art History 70
NE Studies 48
History 45
Other 63


Until FY 1996, the annual budget for the Archaeology Projects Program was approximately $600,000 to $800,000 in outright funds and about $1 million in federal matching funds. Approximately 20 new grants were awarded each year. In 1996 the Congress slashed the agency budget by 37 percent and the Archaeology Projects Program deadline was suspended for the year. The program itself was then absorbed into a new Collaborative Research Projects Program. (The ongoing archaeology projects are being funded for their matching component with the reduced FY 1996 budget.) Although the FY 1996 budget battle was lost and the annual archaeology competition did not take place, the outlook for the FY 1997 is somewhat more optimistic. Unless something unforeseen happens, a competition will take place and funds will be available in 1997.


The good news is that the archaeology projects will be accepted into the general Collaborative Research Program. The bad news is that the Collaborative Research Program competition will consist of proposals that would have gone to six separate programs (Archaeology, Translations, Conferences, Editions, Humanities, Studies of Science and Technology, and Basic Research), and the projected budget for the new combined program is somewhat smaller than what would have been spent on archaeology alone in earlier years. The success rate for archaeology projects is expected to drop from 1:5 to 1:10 (the current rate of success in the fellowships program).

However, the money exists (presumably). If you don't apply, you won't get funded. If archaeologists do not apply in large numbers, the odds in favor of continued funding for archaeology will be considerably reduced. To improve your chances of getting funded, do the following:

1. Call the program officer, John Meredith, (202) 606-8218, email, and ask for the guidelines, the latest information on the budget, and an explanation of the evaluation process.

2. Look at a successful grant in your field. Ask for the list of funded projects for the last three years, select an appropriate project, and have John Meredith send you the proposal.

3. Seek the advice of colleagues who have received NEH grants.

4. Write a preliminary draft of your proposal and have it read by the program officer (John Meredith) and/or a friendly but critical colleague, preferably one who has served on a panel, reviewed grants, or received a grant. Pay close attention to the guidelines and elements for evaluation when writing your proposal.

5. Don't ask for too much money. Ask John Meredith for advice on how much to ask for. If you are asking for federal matching funds, try to get your donors lined up in advance. It makes a good impression. However, remember, it is not necessary to have the matching money before you apply for the grant: you only need to identify potential donors and sources.

6. Write your congressional representative to express your opinion about funding for research in the arts and humanities.

7. And remember to vote.

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner is a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution and can be reached at

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