Antiquities Act

Antiquities Act of 1906 
Reproduced from Archaeological Method and Theory:

An Encyclopedia, edited by Linda Ellis, pp.33-35, Garland Publishing Co., New York and London, 2000.
Francis P. McManamon

The Antiquities Act (16 U.S.C. 431-433) was the first United States law to provide general protection for any general kind of cultural or natural resource. It established the first national historic preservation policy for the United States (Lee 1970:1 ff.)

Section 2 of the statute gives the President the authority to set aside for protection "...historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States..." These protected areas were then designated as "national monuments" and the federal agencies assigned to oversee them were required to afford proper care and management of the resources. This section of the statute provided an additional tool for Progressive politicians and their supporters to determine the uses of public lands and resources in the rational, conservation-oriented manner they favored (see Rothman 1989:52-71). Prior to the Antiquities Act, specific areas had been set aside as national parks or reserves, for example Yellowstone National Park (1872) and Casa Grande Ruin in Arizona (1892). However, each of these parks or reserves required an act of Congress as well as Presidential approval. Section 2 of the Antiquities Act made the establishment of national monuments an administrative action that was quicker and far more easy to execute.


Section 3 of the Antiquities Act required that "...the examination of ruins, the excavation of archaeological sites, or the gathering of objects of antiquity..." on lands administered by the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, or War be carried out only after a permit to do so had been issued by the Secretary of the department responsible for the land in question. The permits were to be issued only to institutions "...properly qualified to conduct such examinations, excavations, or gatherings..." Furthermore, the objective of these permitted activities was to be "...for the benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects." Finally, Section 3 required that the collections of materials from these investigations be placed in public museums for preservation and public benefit.


Enactment of the Antiquities Act required 25 years of work by individuals and organizations concerned about the preservation of American archeological sites. Interest in the archeological remains of the United States grew throughout the 19th century. As the final quarter of the 1800s began, much of the interest in American archeological sites was focused on the Southwest. Some of the interested parties were those who plundered the prehistoric ruins for ancient artifacts and other materials, including building stone and roof beams, to put to modern uses. Others, such as investigators from museums and other archeological organizations who wanted to examine and study the ruins, as well as make collections for their institutions and the public they served. Investigators who began to visit and report on the condition of prominent ruins noted the destruction that was occurring. Their descriptions moved the early advocates of government action to protect the archeological sites. One notable success along the path to the Antiquities Act was the setting aside of Casa Grande Ruin as the first national archeological reservation in 1892. During the 1890s major public exhibitions, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, exposed more of the American public to United States antiquities. Municipal and university museums in large cities throughout the country featured American Indian antiquities in their displays and investigators of the Southwestern ruins and archeological sites in other parts of the country and hemisphere published popular accounts of the sites and their exploits. The growing popular appeal of American archeology was accompanied by a commercial demand for authentic prehistoric antiquities which lead to substantial rise in the looting of archeological sites, especially in the increasingly accessible Southwest. Efforts to protect specific archeological sites, such as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, became more frequent and widespread. Finally these efforts culminated in President Theodore Roosevelt signing the Antiquities Act into law on June 8, 1906.


The Antiquities Act is important for many reasons, both specific and general. Specifically, it asserted wide and general public interest in and control over archeological resources on federal and Indian lands. This assertion of public interest and concern continues to the present and is the basis for the federal government's efforts to protect archeological sites from looting and vandalism. The act also permitted the protection and preservation a specific areas important for their archeological, historical, and scientific resources. The act also stands as an important achievement in the progress of conservation and preservation efforts in the United States. Its passage involved
a whole generation of dedicated effort by scholars, citizens, and members of Congress...More important, this generation, through its explorations, publications, exhibits, and other activities, awakened the American people to a lasting consciousness of the value of American antiquities, prehistoric and historic. This public understanding, achieved only after persistent effort in the face of much ignorance, vandalism, and indifference, was a necessary foundation for many subsequent conservation achievements. Among them were several of great importance to the future National Park Service, including the establishment of many national monuments, development of a substantial educational program for visitors, and eventually the execution of a far-reaching nationwide program to salvage irreplaceable archaeological objects threatened with inundation or destruction by dams and other public works and their preservation for the American people (Lee 1970:86).


Although the Antiquities Act proved to be a means of overseeing and coordinating educational and scientific archeological investigations on federal and Indian lands, it did not effectively prevent or deter deliberate, criminal looting of archeological sites on those lands. Problematic for many years, this situation became critical in the 1970s when several attempts by federal land managing agencies and prosecutors in the southwest to convict looters using the Antiquities Act resulted in disastrous court decisions. In two cases judges ruled that the terms of the act were unconstitutionally vague and therefore unenforceable (Collins and Michel 1985). This situation led to a concerted effort by archeologists and preservationists, their allies in the law enforcement community and several essential supporters in Congress to strengthen the legal protection of archeological resources. The eventual outcome was a new statute, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, rather than an amendment of the Antiquities Act.


Further Readings and Links
    •    Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 U.S. Code 431-433), statute text.
    •    Preservation of American Antiquities (43 CFR 3), regulation text.
    •    Managing Archeological Collections: Antiquities Act
    •    Antiquities Act 1906-2006: Centennial Commemoration
    •    Browning, Kathleen
    ◦    2003 Implementing the Antiquities Act: A Survey of Archeological Permits, 1906-1935. Studies in Archeology and Ethnography 2. Archeology and Ethnography Program, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
    •    Collins, R. B. and M. P. Michel
    ◦    1985 Preserving the Past: Origins of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. A History of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act: Law and Regulations, assembled and edited by J. L. Friedman, American Archeology 5 (2):84-89.
    •    Lee, Ronald F.
    ◦    1970 Antiquities Act of 1906. National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Washington, DC. Originally published 1970, electronic edition, 2000.
    •    Rothman, Hal
    ◦    1989 Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.
    •    Sellars, Richard West
    ◦    2007 A Very Large Array: Early Federal Historic Preservation—The Antiquities Act, Mesa Verde, and the National Park Service Act. Natural Resources Journal 47 (Spring 2007): 267-328.
    •    Thompson, Raymond H.
    ◦    2000 Edgar Lee Hewitt and the Political Process. Journal of the Southwest 42(2): 271-317.