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


What is archaeology? The Elevator Scenario

In what seemed a cruel exercise in futility at the time, at the beginning of my first semester of graduate school my professor gave all of the students the following scenario: imagine you’re in an elevator with a lawyer who has no clue what an archaeologist does and they don’t really care either; in 150 words, describe ‘what is’ archaeology without using any jargon. My professor called it a ‘thought experiment;’ I called it torture. No jargon? We couldn’t use words like ‘artifact’ or ‘culture.’ Since I couldn’t just write ‘we study dead people’s stuff,’ it took a couple of tries.

Here’s what I came up with (ugh, reading anything from graduate school makes me shudder):

“Archaeologists explore the past through artifacts, which include the art, buildings, and any other items made and left behind by humans. As a processual-plus archaeologist, I study past societies though various artifacts, like Egyptian mummies, and ask scientific questions to understand a society. Popular archaeological areas, such as Mesa Verde or Angkor Wat, offer a spectacular window into the lives of people from thousands of years ago. A physical reminder of the past allows the public to engage history and archaeology firsthand, sometimes without even realizing. Opportunities then rise for archaeologists to draw on already popular archaeological and recreational areas and further connect the public with the past. Educational programs created and implemented by archaeologists aid the public in understanding why preserving history matters. Allowing the public, particularly children, to look at and touch artifacts through educational programs, enable people to fully engage archaeology.”

Hardly a masterpiece. My professor absolutely hated it and I had to re-write the darn thing several times. But I now better understand what my professor was trying to do. He was trying to get each of us out of our own little box in order to relate archaeology to more than just other archaeologists. It’s easy to say, ‘I recently recorded a polychrome sherd and projectile point dating to the Pueblo III period.’ It’s far harder to break that down into laymen’s terms without inadvertently dumbing down the information. Beyond explaining what sherds and projectile points are, you’ll need to get into why you were recording those artifacts (what’s an artifact?!) in the first place, leading into a discussion of cultural resource management, law, and the necessity of protecting and preserving the past. Phew.

Discussing archaeology with a larger audience is difficult but absolutely necessary. The public isn’t going to learn about archaeology through osmosis. It takes practice. I know we’re busy. There are always courses to teach, places to survey, sites to dig, and reports to write, but we also have an obligation to educate the public in some way. Going into classrooms to give presentations, blogging, videos, lectures—there are many ways to engage the public. I love teaching kids using sandboxes full of artifacts and giving presentations to the public. My elevator scenario has changed over the years, but I hope it’s improved.

The Dangers of Survey


You wouldn’t think simply walking across the landscape looking for tiny flakes, bits of pottery, and the occasional structure, would be dangerous–well, you’d be wrong.  It is surprisingly dangerous.  Trees just appear out of NOWHERE!

Artifacts: What Keeps the Archaeology World Spinning

What is an artifact? Literally anything made by human hands: an arrowhead to a rusted out tin can. Without artifacts, there really wouldn’t be much for archaeologists to do. No beautiful projectile points to drool over, nothing to painstakingly record. And, perhaps most frightening, no Indiana Jones to steal golden statues from temples and wrench dangerous artifacts away from Nazis. And what would archaeology be without Indiana Jones, eh? When I’ve described the actual definition of an artifact to the public, I get completely different reactions depending on whether my audience consists of children or adults.

Kids really get a kick out of being told that anything made by human hands is an artifact—a pencil, a table, a plate! I had one young boy ask me, seriously, if his poop was an artifact, since he made it; after trying really hard not to laugh, I told him, that since his hands didn’t make it, that no, poop isn’t an artifact. Aren’t kids great? Adults, on the other hand, focus more on the necessary age something has to be to be considered an artifact. In the U.S., something—a tin can or pottery fragment—has to be at least 50 years old. That gets a few guffaws about how some of them could be considered an ‘artifact’ (although, not technically). I did send my dad the application National Register for Historic Places when he turned 50, quite the gag gift for a history buff.

*Please note: it is ILLEGAL to take artifacts from archaeological sites located on public lands (i.e. NPS, BLM, State Park, etc.). So, let’s say you’re walking along a lovely trail at a National Park and you see the coolest arrowhead or the most beautiful piece of ancient pottery. Is it okay to look at? Yes. Is it okay to take a picture of it? Yes. Is it okay to put it in your pocket and weasel away with that artifact? NO! Always—ALWAYS—put artifacts back where you found them.

Women in Archaeology Podcast: WHAT’S IN YOUR PACK, WOMEN’S EDITION – EPISODE 8 (August 21, 2016)

(Click Here)


I love being part of the Women in Archaeology Podcast group!  This was a fun one to record!  There’s some good advice, too, if you’re interested in becoming a field archaeologist.

Episode Summary: Today the panel discusses their essential field gear, How to Go in the field, what to do about Flo, and basic first-aid training and essentials.