A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Reaffirming U.S. support for archaeology
his column has often considered archaeological issues abroad. But what about right here at home? At the national level, who is responsible for identifying, studying, and safeguarding archaeological resources in the United States, and how well do they do it?
Federal interest in archaeological stewardship began with the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) was influential in the passage of this landmark legislation, the first of many efforts by the AIA to advocate on behalf of endangered antiquities. It was followed by the Historic Sites Act (1935), National Historic Preservation Act (1966), Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979), and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). These laws establish that archaeological sites and artifacts in the U.S. constitute a finite public resource that must be preserved by the government on behalf of the American people (for more on the laws, see Cultural Resource Magazine, vol. 17, no. 6, and vol. 19, no. 7).
Many federal agencies have archaeological or historic preservation programs, including the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Highway Administration, General Services Administration, and the armed forces. The secretary of the interior has overall responsibility for most of these, delegating them to the NPS director. Currently, there are about a thousand archaeologists on the federal payroll. All of this signals the government's goal of protecting the archaeological past. But what is the reality?
In 2003, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted down a measure that would have outsourced NPS archaeology as not "inherently governmental" (see "NPS Outsourcing Declared Stupid"). While Congress upheld the principle that in-house, professionally run archaeology programs are necessary to the NPS, park programs are threatened in other ways. A Spring 2004 report by the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees documented budget and employee cuts in a dozen national parks, including two Civil War sites and a pueblo in the Southwest (see "Battles Over Battlefields"). Cutbacks in preservation for historic structures and objects could result in irreversible damage to precious remains, and vacant ranger and law-enforcement positions could well jeopardize the policing of sites against looters. This is a very real threat, a fact underscored by two recent cases. In one, a ranger spotted men loading artifacts into their truck in Death Valley National Park. This chance detection broke up a ring of looters and led to recovery of more than 11,000 artifacts taken from sites in Nevada and California. In the other, two men were convicted after rock art taken from Nevada's Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest was found being used as lawn ornaments.
Cuts that affect the preservation and protection of our cultural heritage are shortsighted. The U.S. has a proud tradition of support for archaeology, and the American people have an abiding interest in keeping it that way (contact information for your federal representatives may be found on the Library of Congress website at thomas.loc.gov).
Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.