The Historic Sites Act of 1935

The United States government established various work programs during the Great Depression. One major piece of legislation during that era, the Historic Sites Act (HSA), significantly affected cultural resource management. Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 21, 1935, the Historic Sites Act provided out-of-work historians, archaeologists, and architects employment in preservation (King 1998:14). Projects enacted through the Act included documenting local and regional histories, documenting and drawing historic buildings, and conducting archaeological excavations before major construction endeavors. Section one of the Act states (United States Congress 1935:12), “it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.” In order to document cultural resources, the Act established the Historic Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, and the Historic American Landscapes Survey. The Historic Sites Act also explicitly set provisions for public education through commemorating United States history and educational programs.

Section 2(b) of the Act provisions for the survey of historic and prehistoric sites to determine which of these sites or buildings best demonstrate the history of the United States (Unites States Congress 1935:12). From the survey and documentation, exemplary sites will “erect and maintain tablets to mark or commemorate historic or prehistoric places and events of national historical or archaeological [sic] significance” (United States Congress 1935:13). These commemorative plaques laid the foundation for the National Historic Landmarks program, highlighting to the public the importance of preserving cultural resources. The Act is the first major cultural resource legislation to mandate the development of educational programs. The Act states, in Section 2(j) the Secretary of the Interior through the National Park Service needs to develop “an educational program and service for the purpose of making available to the public facts and information pertaining to American historic and archaeological sites, buildings, and properties of national significance. Reasonable charged may be made for the dissemination of any such facts or information” (United States Congress 1935:14).

The Historic Sites Act, therefore, set a standard for public education through commemorative plaques and educational programs, the first legislation to do so. Rather than only preserve cultural resources for the benefit of the public and future generations, the public immediately benefits through education initiatives on significant prehistoric and historic properties. Policies allowed for funding opportunities to restore, reconstruct, or operate significant properties, as well as incentives to develop educational programs for the properties (United States Congress 1935:14). In the spirit of historic preservation, local governments began programs to protect historic buildings and districts (King 1998:14). The notion of preserving both historic and archaeological resources became a relatively accepted part of public policy.

King, Thomas F.

1998 Cultural Resource Laws and Practice: An Introductory Guide. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

United States Congress

1935 Historic Sites Act of 1935: 16 USC 461, August 21, 1935. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office.


The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)

The following may be a bit dry, but I love this stuff (i.e. I’m a huge CRM legislation nerd) . . .

What is the NHPA?

A major piece of cultural resource management legislation that provided laws for the protection of cultural resources and identified the need for increased public knowledge of cultural resources was the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The Urban Renewal Program launched by the Kennedy administration increased the destruction of natural and cultural resources (King 1998:15). City slums, which were once historic centers, were destroyed in the name of progress. As King (2000:16) notes, federal agencies “damaged or destroyed stuff that people valued because it embodied their history. . .This was sometimes necessary; the old often, maybe usually, had to make way for the new.” First lady Johnson coordinated a program during the Johnson administration to create a comprehensive report on historic preservation needs. The report recommended that Congress should create a national historic preservation program, outlining the legislative provisions in the National Historic Preservation Act (King 1998:15).

Signed into law by President Johnson on October 15, 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act established a process for preserving United States historic heritage, including historic properties. Congress declared in Section 1(b)(1)(3) that “ the spirit and direction of the Nation are founded upon and reflected in historic heritage. . . historic properties significant to the Nation’s heritage are being lost or substantially altered, often inadvertently, with increasing frequency” (United States Congress 1966:1). Government agencies would now have a compliance process that forced them to think and plan before inadvertently or purposefully destroy a property of significance on public lands. Such properties include both prehistoric and historic archaeological sites and historic buildings. Section 106 of the Act provides the specific compliance process for any Federal undertaking. As for public education, the Act sets provisions to not only protect and preserve significant properties for the benefit of the public, but also endeavors to involve the public.

NHPA and Public Outreach

Did you know that there is language in the law to provide education and outreach to the public? The language of the National Historic Preservation Act is explicit in stating the importance of preserving historic heritage for the public before it is lost through “progress.” The Act also states in Section 1(b)(2), “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people” (United States Congress 1966:1). Therefore, “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational . . .will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans” (United States Congress 1966:1). In order to pique public interest in historic heritage, Section 101(3)(G) states that designated State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) have the responsibility to provide the public information, education, training, and any technical assisted needed in historic preservation (United States Congress 1966:7). Section 401 describes the necessity of a coordinated National initiative to promote research, provide training, and distribute information on preservation (United States Congress 1966:43). Consequently, education is crucial for the public to understand the preservation process.

The Act does make provisions for public involvement during the Section 106 process to voice concern of the potentially negative effects of an undertaking on a significant property. Section 110(2)(E)(ii) of the Act notes that consultation with the interested public, including Indian tribes, is necessary in the identification and evaluation of historic properties (United States Congress 1966:21). SHPO developed education programs on historic preservation, as well as the National initiative to promote training in historic preservation, have the potential to provide the public with the necessary information to become a major voice during the Section 106 consultation process.  The public has every right to demand a role in the compliance process and expect the government to hear their voice, due to the process outlined by Section 106.

King, Thomas F.

2000 Federal Planning and Historic Places: The Section 106 Process. Altamira Press, New York.

United States Congress

1966 National Historic Preservation Act of 1966:16 USC 470, October 15, 1966. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office.



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