A Brief History of the Antiquities Act of 1906

Click Here to listen to the ARCH365 episode on this topic through the Archaeology Podcast Network. You can also download the episode from iTunes.

There’s quite a bit of history that led up to the creation and implementation of the Antiquities Act, starting with the general interest of the American people in the past. While president of the American Philosophical Society, Thomas Jefferson asked the organization to record antiquities before such artifacts were lost to future generations. Examples of both government and civic preservation include the protection of ancient earthen mounds throughout the Midwest (Schroeder 2009:172). The Ohio Company designated ancient mounds and earthworks in Ohio as important public places for preservation. However, unlike modern legislation in cultural resource management, government intervention was minimal until the 19th century, when pressure was placed on the government by the concerned public over destroyed historic and prehistoric ruins.

By the mid-19th century, Americans were keen on historic preservation efforts. This effort was rooted in the need to preserve what civic leaders and middle-class professionals considered to be traditional American beliefs and cultural values. Groups like Sons of the American Revolution and Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities hoped to create a sort of shrine to the past, idealizing of the nation’s founding fathers and influential sites from the American Revolution (Durel 1986:230). Historic houses, such as George Washington’s home of Mt. Vernon, provided a window into the past, demonstrating a need for continued preservation of historic places and a place presenting history to the public.

Three major exhibitions brought Native American antiquities to the forefront: the Columbian Historical Exposition of 1892 in Madrid, Spain, the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s fair, of 1893 in Chicago and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Lous Worlds Fair, in St. Louis, Missouri. These exhibitions displayed the material remains of recently excavated regions of the American Southwest. The display of Indian antiquities romanticized the American west and generated a demand for Indian antiquities and art. Growing interest in archaeological materials led to looting of major sites in the American southwest such as the Mesa Verde Cliff dwellings in Colorado (Hutt et al. 1992:19). Railroad construction during the mid to late 19th century, allowed for the long-distance shipping of large fragile collections of archaeological remains—making it easier to send hundreds of thousands of artifacts across the united states.

Public concern with the destruction of antiquities and the growing professionalization of anthropology created a role for the government to step into. For example, in 1892, supporters of preservation sent congress petitions to protect and preserve Casa Grande, a prehistoric structure in southern Arizona. It became the first site to be protected by the feds. The need for federal legislation was brought to the forefront by archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett. Knowing key members of Congress and professional societies, Hewett was appointed a member of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to work towards creating antiquities legislation (Thompson 2000:236). Hewett’s work the AAA helped establish the language of the Antiquities of 1906 and the groundwork for future cultural resource management legislation.

President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, on June 8, 1906, establishing a basic federal policy to protect and preserve cultural resources on public lands (Green 1998:123). The Antiquities Act created criminal sanctions to prosecute looters, the act allows the president to create historic scientific and national monuments, and the act established a permit system to examine and excavate archaeological sites on federal lands, meaning no work can be undertaken without a permit (Hutt et al. 1992:21). Consequently, the Antiquities Act protects “any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States” (United States Congress 1906:1).

Without the antiquities act, archaeologists wouldn’t have the current legislation that backs-up our work and the public wouldn’t have the amazing national monuments like Bears Ears in Utah. The antiquities act is a crucial piece of cultural resource legislation in the United States, which shouldn’t be overlooked, overshadowed by economic incentives, or overturned by those who do not understand the importance or preserving and protecting the past for future generations.


-If you are interested in my cited sources, you can find the associated book on Google. Feel free to message me if you would like the full reference or suggestions on further reading.

-NPS: https://www.nps.gov/archeology/tools/laws/antact.htm

-Legislation: https://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/anti1906.htm


A Resource Law With Teeth: The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979


This is the script from an episode I wrote and recorded for the ARCH365 Podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network (APN) – Click Here to Listen!

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!

Arch365 2017


Remembrance of Things Past


Remembrance of Things Past

A glint of gold caught my eye while walking along the busy streets of Freiburg, Germany. Two small bricks situated in the sidewalk, just in front of a store, displayed names, dates, and place of death. These are known as the Stolperstein or ‘stumbling stones.’ Each stone commemorates the victims of the Nazi regime by placing their names in front of their former homes.   It is a form of keeping the memory of these people alive even though every physical trace of that individual is lost.

As archaeologists, we attempt to learn about the past by what is left behind. But what if those traces of life were systematically destroyed? How then can we learn about and from our past? When there is little to see above ground, reminders such as the stumbling stones are needed so that such atrocities are not repeated. Archaeologists can be called upon to find and provide evidence for terrible atrocities that happened in the past—no matter how hard a regime tried to erase the people and claim nothing was done, there is usually something to find below ground.

Archaeological excavations and lidar surveys at Nazi concentration camps, such as Treblinka, have revealed mass graves and gas chambers. As they uncovered the brick foundations of the gas chambers, the archaeologists noticed that the bricks had been stamped with the star of david. The Nazis had tried to disguise the gas chambers as Jewish bath houses, which is truly chilling subterfuge. The Nazis razed the camp to the ground, trying to erase the fact they murdered 900,000 Jews. But the excavations proved, without a doubt, what happened.

According to one of the archaeologists who excavated at Treblinka, uncovering the gas chambers was like ‘a window into the hell of what happened there.’ During the study of the Sobibor death camp in Poland, archaeologists used a combination of techniques, using low-altitude photography with a weather balloon to find the borders of mass graves and other features. And they found the gas chambers and personal items, showing how archaeology can provide an important part of history.

Archaeological techniques have been employed to excavate contemporary mass graves for the United Nationals International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and International Criminal Tribunal for Rawanda, to provide documentation—proof—of the acts of genocide that took place at each location. Work has also been conducted to assess human rights abuses throughout South America, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Archaeology can be a tool for the victims and a means to prosecute the leaders.

No matter how hard a group may claim that they did not commit any crime or how hard another group may say it was all a hoax, as archaeologists, we can find the evidence. Hopefully it is a way to provide closure to the families who lost loved ones. And, It is a small way of saying to the victims, ‘I see you. You matter. And I won’t forget.’

*Listen to the ARCH365 Podcast of this blog post.

*For more information: