On October 31st, 1979, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, otherwise known as ARPA, was signed into law by President Carter. You might be asking yourself, so what? What’s so important about ARPA? Before ARPA, there was very little archaeologists could do to prosecute looters of archaeological sites in the United States. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was the first real US cultural resource management law, but by the 1970s, it was, well, antiquated.
What is ARPA all about?
The need to better protect archaeological resources came to the forefront in several court cases that showcased how ineffectual the Antiquities Act was in prosecuting those caught looting archaeological sites. One case, U.S. vs Diaz pretty much declared the act unconstitutional. Something had to be done! People were getting away with damaging sites and stealing artifacts. In a later discussion on the development of ARPA, archaeologist Janet L. Friedman (Friedman 1985) wrote:
“The birth and growth of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act was a chronicle of self-righteous special interests, jealous turf-protectors, and conflicting value systems. For every archeologist devoted to protecting irreplaceable sites, there was a metal-detector manufacturer equally devoted to protecting the rights of hobbyists. For each conservationist dedicated to saving sites for all of the people, there was an enthusiast dedicated to making arrowhead collecting available to the individual.”
Fortunately, Congress took action with the help of the Society of American Archaeology, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense and the Tennessee Valley authority. And the law came into fruition.
The first sentence of ARPA really breaks down the law to its primary purpose: ‘to protect archaeological resources on public lands and Indian lands, and for other purposes.’ Public lands are anything regulated by the U.S. government, like the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and so on.
The key points of ARPA
- The law provides a variety of definitions, such as what is an archaeological resource, and what constitutes public lands.
- Outlines a rigorous permitting system to conduct archaeological excavations.
- Allows Native American tribes to issue or deny archaeological permits for work proposed on Indian lands.
- Mandates that all federal agencies must consult with Native American tribes before issuing permits.
- Provides clear and severe penalties for the looting and/or vandalism of sites. That can include a fine up to $20,000 and jail time for two years for first time offenders!
- And, outlaws the trafficking illegally obtained archaeological resources.
So, if you’re walking along on a nice National Park Service trail and you spot a really cool projectile point or pottery fragment—can you take it? Or, if you’re visiting someplace like Mesa Verde, can you sit on the walls or carve your name near some rock art? Or, can you conduct your own so-called excavation on some site you found on Forest Service lands? With ARPA, the answer is a resounding NO! Not only could you receive a fine, you could go to jail. And you don’t want to tell people you went to jail for taking artifacts or harming a site, now would you? Thanks, ARPA!