Most countries have laws designed to protect their archaeological heritage, and the United States is no exception. The federal government's concern for the preservation of archaeological sites began in response to the destruction and looting of Indian ruins in the West.
The Antiquities Act, enacted in 1906, made federal officials responsible for protecting archaeological sites as public resources and for combating looting and vandalism. With its passage, archaeological sites on approximately one-third of the country's land were afforded protection—at least on paper. The 1906 act also gave the President the power to establish national monuments in areas of outstanding scientific and historical value. The scope of federal involvement in archaeology and the effects of federal activities outside public lands increased substantially during the massive public-works programs of the 1950s. Further public concern for archaeological preservation exerted itself in the archaeological rescue program associated with federal reservoir construction in the 1940s to 1960s and the inclusion of archaeological sites among those protected by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.
In 1979, in response to the failure of the Antiquities Act to effectively protect archaeological sites, preservationists successfully lobbied for enactment of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). This statute expanded the provisions of the 1906 act by establishing major criminal and civil penalties for violators. In 1988 ARPA was amended to simplify prosecutions and to make the intent to loot also a felony. In addition, the amendments required federal agencies to undertake surveys of archaeological resources and develop or expand public-education programs. Many state governments also have adopted statutes protecting archaeological resources and regulating archaeological investigations on their lands.
The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act also require federal agencies to evaluate their actions in light of the impact they will have on significant archaeological resources. The reviews and investigations undertaken to comply with these statutes have resulted in the preservation of substantial numbers of archaeological sites and important data.
In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. It requires federal agencies and most museums in the United States to inventory the Native American human remains, burial artifacts, sacred objects, and objects formerly owned communally by tribes and to offer to return these to Indian tribes that are clearly affiliated with them. As the law is implemented during the next decade, more consultation and cooperation among archaeologists, museums, and American Indians is likely to develop, to the benefit of all.
Most museums have adopted policies against the buying of illegally obtained archaeological objects. In reality, however, most antiquities laws are difficult to enforce, or the status of imported objects is ambiguous. Solutions to the problems begin with public awareness. Each individual must accept responsibility to help protect these resources. There is a vast difference between looters who dig for financial gain and avocational archaeologists who may not appreciate the public loss that results from disturbing a fragile archaeological site without adequate training, care, and recording. Thus, effective communication with the general public has become an increasingly important task for archaeologists.
An excellent example of how cooperation can work comes from Arkansas. There Charles R. McGimsey III and Hester A. Davis of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey have established an unusual certification program. Each summer the survey conducts an archaeological training program for amateurs. Individuals are certified by the survey when they complete the training, and they carry what they have learned to a local archaeological society to spread appreciation and respect for professional archaeology and its aims. This has served to reduce looting in Arkansas, a state now at the forefront in bringing archaeology to its people.
Meanwhile, the destruction of sites continues at an almost unbelievable pace as industrial plants, housing developments, and highway networks are built and as land is leveled for farming and other enterprises. Some hope for saving part of the past lies in the realm of law—legislation that balances the necessity for modern improvements and development with the preservation of archaeological remains. The achievement of this goal largely depends on the outlook of the federal, state, and local agencies that control such activities and on the attitude of private industry. Happily, individual contractors and other responsible persons in private industry are cooperating with archaeologists. As a result, instances of sites being excavated with funds from industry or public agencies have become more and more frequent in the past two decades.
In the end, archaeology depends on broad public understanding and support. For this reason, many of the tasks facing archaeologists today hinge on public relations—the communication of the relevance of archaeology to our lives.
Is the study of the past really essential? In terms of pure survival, of course not. Neither is music nor the appreciation of art—yet both enhance our lives in ways that are difficult to define. Archaeology has this capacity for enhancement as well, partly because it helps satisfy the basic human craving for self-knowledge, partly because that knowledge helps immensely in addressing the problems of the present. As we know all too well, these range from the threat of global environmental depletion to misunderstanding—or sheer intolerance—between vastly different cultures. What archaeology offers is at least a glimpse, and in some cases a fuller understanding, of how some who came before solved these problems—and how others failed in their effort. That is what archaeology is all about.
To learn more about topics covered in Chapter 5, visit these National Park Service Features:
National Capital Region, Regional Archeology Program: Learn about the role played by the National Park Service in the excavation and preservation of the public's archeological resources, our nation's patrimony, in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Vanishing Treasures: This grass-roots initiative tackles the loss of irreplaceable historic and prehistoric structures and the skills to maintain these structures in over 40 southwestern national parks. The program ensures long-term preservation of these sites through training a new generation of craftspeople, many with cultural and other close ties to these sites. Visit the VT web site and the affected parks to learn more about the efforts to repair and maintain these significant resources.
America's Landmarks at Risk: In PDF format, the report provides useful background information, then details those National Historic Landmarks that are currently threatened. It also includes a series of success stories of NHLs that were previously listed as endangered, yet were ultimately "saved" for future generations through the actions and resourcefulness of American citizens.