Submitted by Sammy Smith ([email protected])

Nationally, many archaeological resources in the USA are protected through federal ownership in national parks, national landmarks, and other preserves. The legislation commonly known as the 1906 Antiquities Act (original text below) is critical legislation in the protection of archaeological sites. Now, however, some congressmen contemplate changing provisions of this act and reducing the President’s powers.

The 1906 Antiquities Act gives the President the authority to set aside as a national monument, using an executive order, government lands that contain prehistoric and historic resources, including buildings and ruins. The law was in reaction to vandalism of ancient remains in the North American Southwest, and, early on, was also used to preserved battlefield sites in the Eastern US.

However, recent legislative initiatives seek to limit the President’s authority to use this act. Indeed, representatives of over sixty organizations, including the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sent a letter to President Barack Obama dated 8 April 2010 expressing strong concern regarding attempts to limit the 1906 Antiquities Act. They note:

Recent legislative initiatives that aim to restrict the President’s authority to create National Monuments under auspices of the Antiquities Act would diminish the President’s ability to protect “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.” Since the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, fifteen Presidents have used the Act to designate 124 National Monuments. Most recently, President George W. Bush used the authority granted in the Act to designate more than 139,000 square miles surrounding the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the largest national monument ever created.

The Antiquities Act mandates appropriate roles for both the President and Congress in the protection of important federal land values. It allows the President to act quickly to protect important objects and values on our public lands. Congress retains the ability to designate National Monuments legislatively, change monument boundaries, direct resources for monument management, re-designate monuments as national parks and even abolish monuments.

The Antiquities Act was signed into law in June 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. In part, it was intended to streamline a process for making national parks, which had previously necessitated approval by Congress for each park. The first national battlefields were set aside in the 1890s, including Georgia’s own Chickamauga Battlefield (managed with other resources as the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park). The Grand Canyon became a National Monument using this Act in 1908; it became a National Park later, in 1919.

The Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System, established in 2000, is intended to help protect some of the nation’s most remarkable and rugged landscapes, and most are in the West. The Antiquities Act was a key legislation that allowed these lands to be set aside initially.

The National Park Service notes on their website:

The Antiquities Act stands as an important achievement in the progress of conservation and preservation efforts in the United States. Its effects are still felt. The Act created the basis for the federal government’s efforts to protect archeological sites from looting and vandalism. It provided a foundation of public policy from which more specific public attention to and preservation of historic places and structures, cultural landscapes, and other cultural resources developed during the course of the 20th century. Today, many different organizations cooperate in diverse partnerships, including governments at the Federal, state, tribal and local levels; professional and scholarly groups; and communities. In shaping public policy to protect a broad array of cultural and natural resources, the impact of the Antiquities Act is unmatched.

Some people object that this Act has been used with the intent to preserve natural areas rather than merely “antiquities” having scientific value. What do you think about the 1906 Antiquities Act and the preservation of antiquities?

The Wilderness Society has prepared and offers online an informative 32-page bulletin about the Antiquities Act and how it has been used (appears to date to about 2001).

An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities

This is the original text from the National Park Service website. The Act has been amended since.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States, without the permission of the Secretary of the Department of the Government having jurisdiction over the lands on which said antiquities are situated, shall, upon conviction, be fined in a sum of not more than five hundred dollars or be imprisoned for a period of not more than ninety days, or shall suffer both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.

Sec. 2. That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation 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 to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected: Provided, That when such objects are situated upon a tract covered by a bona fied unperfected claim or held in private ownership, the tract, or so much thereof as may be necessary for the proper care and management of the object, may be relinquished to the Government, and the Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized to accept the relinquishment of such tracts in behalf of the Government of the United States.

Sec. 3. That permits for the examination of ruins, the excavation of archaeological sites, and the gathering of objects of antiquity upon the lands under their respective jurisdictions may be granted by the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and War to institutions which the may deem properly qualified to conduct such examination, excavation, or gathering, subject to such rules and regulation as they may prescribe: Provided, That the examinations, excavations, and gatherings are undertaken 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, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums.

Sec. 4. That the Secretaries of the Departments aforesaid shall make and publish from time to time uniform rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Act.

The 1906 Antiquities Act has been had minor amendments. The National Park Service has a download of (apparently) the current version (16 USC 431–433) on this webpage (scroll down).

Posted online on Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

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