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Archaeology and the Legislative Process: How Things Have Changed Over the Last Twenty Years 

12-09-2015 17:35

Most historic preservationists probably envision archaeologists as scholars who dig in the dirt, not as lobbyists who walk the halls of Congress. Yet from the very beginnings of the preservation movement in the United States, archaeologists have played a significant role in the legislative process. The major difference in the past twenty years has been the nature of the issues with which they deal and the techniques they use. This article will present an overview of past efforts, recent accomplishments and changes that may affect future efforts.


Like most preservation advocates, archaeologists first became involved in preservation legislation by trying to save specific sites; they later broadened their efforts to include more generic protective tools. Indeed, the first major federal preservation legislation was prompted by a citizens` drive in the late nineteenth century to save sites on public lands, such as the Casa Grande Ruins in Arizona, from looting and vandalism. This effort led to enactment of the Antiquities Act of 1906 (P.L. 59-209,16 U.S.C. 431-433). The Antiquities Act authorized a permit system for investigation of archaeological sites on federal lands and established penalties for damaging historic or prehistoric ruins on federally owned lands. The Act also allows the President to establish National Monuments on federal lands in order to protect them.

During the 1930s archaeologists were involved with a public works program of the Roosevelt administration that hired archaeologists and laborers to excavate some of the great prehistoric mounds of the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. In 1960 the Reservoir Salvage Act (P.L. 86-523,16 U.S.C. 469-469c) codified federal requirements for reservoir salvage programs. It provided for preservation of historical and archaeological data that otherwise would be destroyed, and set in place procedures for conducting archaeological investigations and salvage before construction began on federal dams.

Although archaeologists apparently were not active in its passage, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 (P.L. 89-665,16 U.S.C. 470-470w-6) contains a number of provisions to protect archaeological sites. Among other provisions, the Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to maintain and expand the National Register of Historic Places, which includes "buildings, sites, districts, structures and objects significant in American...archaeology and culture." Under Section 106 of the Act, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation must review federal projects that would affect such resources.

Largely as a result of the efforts of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), Congress passed the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 ("Moss-Bennett") which expanded the Reservoir Salvage Act to apply to all federal projects, not just construction of federal dams and reservoirs (16 U.S.C. 469-469c).


Increasingly, archaeologists have joined forces with other preservation organizations to develop mutually beneficial legislation. Indeed, both disciplines have come to work together to protect the full range of resources. From the mid-1970s to the present, archaeologists--led by SAA and other archaeological groups such as the Society for Historical Archaeology and the Society of Professional Archaeologists-- have taken the lead on a number of key legislative actions. With increasing frequency they have collaborated with other preservation groups such as the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Preservation Action. Following are some examples of their accomplishments.

  • ARPA: To address the increasing problems caused by site looting and vandalism, SAA helped to develop and lobbied extensively on behalf of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979 (P.L. 96-95, 16 U.S.C. 470aa-470mm). ARPA regulates the taking of archaeological resources on federal lands and prohibits the sale, purchase, transport or entry into interstate commerce of items taken in violation of the Act. Civil and criminal penalties are provided.
  • Shipwrecks: The Abandoned Shipwreck Act (P.L. 100-298, 43 U.S.C. 2101-2106) transfers to the states title to abandoned shipwrecks which are listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or are located in protected coral formations. Prior to passage of this legislation. historic shipwrecks within state waters came under the purview of federal admiralty law and received little or no protection.
  • NAGPRA: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-601, 25 U.S.C. 3001 note) requires federal land-management agencies to consult with Indian tribes before disturbing Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, and to repatriate appropriate remains to culturally affiliated tribes upon request. Agencies and museums that receive federal funds must inventory and summarize their collections of human remains and cultural items and offer them for repatriation to culturally affiliated tribes. SAA worked particularly hard on this legislation and developed a coalition of groups to forge an acceptable compromise.
  • NHPA: The 1980 and 1992 amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act saw SAA taking an active role in development of both these acts, which increasingly recognize the roles and responsibilitics of federal agencies (and federally funded programs) in the management and protection of archaeological resources. The 1980 amendments were the first to specify archaeological provisions within the broader context of historic preservation. The 1992 amendments extended these to include a number of new provisions. They require professional standards for federal historic resource employees or contractors. They require the development of guidelines to ensure that federal, state and tribal historic preservation programs include plans to provide information to the owners of properties containing historic (including architectural, curatorial and archaeological) resources. They also call for a study to help control illegal interstate and international traffic in antiquities.


Things have indeed changed over the years. Archaeological legislation began with very site-specific protection efforts. It moved to an emphasis on salvaging sites during the development boom of the 1960s and 1970s. The 1980s and early 1990s saw another shift, this time to managing resources and developing new procedures to ensure that federal agencies give proper consideration to the impact of their projects on these resources. Our prediction is that the focus in the late 1990s will shift once again, this time to add ways to increase the public benefits of archaeology, not just government agency compliance. Issues related to site protection on private lands are increasingly important. Consultation with Native Americans is a growing concern. Site-specific resource issues are returning as subjects of consideration, from heritage areas to broader concerns for protecting cultural landscapes.

Integrated management with other environmental concerns, from wilderness to biodiversity and ecosystem management, is also increasing. Sustainable development-- an international environmental term--is becoming a by-word for other resource management, including archaeology and cultural resources protection. Historic preservation planning is broadening to become "cultural resource planning" which includes the full array of resources--not just sites and structures, but also documents, archives and sites important to cultural traditions.

In short, throughout time archaeologists have forged important partnerships with other specialists to provide an integrated approach to understanding the past. If past is prologue, the future is now. And the work has only just begun.

Publication Date: March/April 1994


Author(s):Loretta Neuman & Kathleen Schamel

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