Barbara J. Little
The National Register of Historic Places, kept by the National Park Service, is "the official list of the Nation's cultural resources worthy of preservation." Only about 7 percent of the nearly 70,000 properties listed on the National Register are archaeological sites. Does it matter that archaeological sites are underrepresented?
What is the point of listing archaeological sites in the National Register? Many archaeologists will answer quickly that there is no point in going to all the trouble of preparing a nomination and working with the State (or Federal or Tribal) Historic Preservation Office to nominate it. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the same protection is provided for a site that is determined eligible for listing as for one that is actually listed.
If the purpose of the National Register were to simply flag sites for mitigation or avoidance, then that would be a reasonable answer. However, the National Register, established 30 years ago by the same legislation that gave us the Section 106 process, has become much more than "a list of places worthy of preservation" and archaeology has become much more than it was in 1966 as well.
In an issue of CRM, which honored the 30-year anniversary of that very important piece of legislation, Hester Davis (1996, National Historic Preservation Act and the Practice of Archaeology, CRM 19(6): 4244, National Park Service) wrote: "Without the National Historic Preservation Act, archaeology might have remained a largely esoteric endeavor. With the National Historic Preservation Act, archaeology has been transformed into 'public archaeology,' and has changed the future of the past forever."
No archaeologist working in this country today is unaware that the "public" has become exceptionally important to archaeology: We are anxious to educate the public, to share the excitement and discoveries of the discipline; we are eager to point out the public benefits of our discipline, to reveal the wrongheadedness of those who would profit from the plunder of sites and the sales of artifacts; we want to protect archaeological resources and the legislation which addresses them and we want the public's help in doing so. We have been quite successful at enlisting public support. But we are not using an important tool at our disposal. I am convinced that archaeologists undervalue and under-use the National Register, which has become an essential component of the public memory.
"With the National Historic Preservation Act, archaeology has been transformed into 'public archaeology,' and has changed the future of the past forever."
I believe that it is relatively recently that the National Register has taken on a role as an essential component of public memory in the United States. I think that part of the reason it has done so is that it is now available as a searchable database. Now statistics can be compiled and interpreted.
The introductory materials to early editions of the National Register book provide little context on how the list might be used or perceived, although the bicentennial edition applauds the "evolution" of historic preservation from elitism to expanded representation. It is not until the latest edition published in 1994 that the anonymous authors (1994, National Register of Historic Places. Including properties listed through January 1, 1994: viii, ix) of the introduction write that listing in the National Register:
Has meaning that far transcends an honor roll of significant places . . . National Register documentation of historic properties becomes part of a national database and research resource available for planning, management, research, education, and interpretation. Listing furnishes authentication of the worth of a historic place and often influences a community's attitude toward its heritage.
The final point is important: Listing in the National Register serves to authenticate the worth of a historic place. It is this authentication that gives the National Register power in public perception. The preamble to the 1966 Act states that the historical and cultural foundations of the nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development to give a sense of orientation to the American people. I think that the implication is clear that the list of significant places is meant to be representative of American history. It strikes me that archaeological resources might account for more than 7 percent of actual historic places and should have a higher representation on this official list. I don't claim to know what an ideal proportion might be, but consider that history before European exploration and settlement lasted at least 20 times as long as history after that settlement began. Archaeology may counter the modern cognitive timeline that compresses 500 generations into a single word: "prehistory." I don't suggest confining archaeology to indigenous sites alone: Also missing is a fair representation of sites of the non-elite whose buildings and structures have not been carefully curated: African Americans, Chinese Americans, and the poor of many ethnicities.
The dearth of archaeological listings results in a deafening silence: a gap in the national memory. The National Register (and the National Historic Landmark Program) play an important role in influencing both public perceptions and policy decisions about what is significant in American history. Archaeologists have the opportunity to contribute to the "official" public memory, and to add many silenced voices to that memory.
Archaeologists may nominate sites as a way to confront the silence of an important part of the past. Archaeological sites listed and therefore acknowledged as "places important in American history" are then available to contribute to the creation of public memory. ·
Barbara J. Little is with the National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places.