A Century of Debate
March 16, 2006
by Mark Rose
A new book documents the origins and at times contentious legacy of the Antiquities Act.
Just how exciting can a book about the Antiquities Act of 1906 be? Probably more so than you would think--certainly it was for me. It's not the history of an obscure, 100-year-old law; this is the story of fundamental questions of importance to all Americans. It is the story of visionaries trying to preserve a heritage that, even then, was vanishing. It is the story of bruising political battles that continue even to today. It is the story of how public archaeology came into being in the United States. Ultimately, it is the story of how we decided to treasure our nation's cultural--and natural--heritage.
The Antiquities Act is brief, and only the second and third of its four sections are important today. The second deals with the creation of National Monuments: lofty ideals, vague wording, and a sweeping presidential prerogative. The third provides access to the sites and artifacts found on the Monuments for scholars, museums, and universities, but this access comes with certain responsibilities. All this in some 269 words. It is an extraordinary document.
The book about all of this, The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation (University of Arizona Press, 2006; cloth $45.00, paper $19.95), is edited by David Harmon (conservationist, George Wright Society), Francis P. McManamon (archaeologist, National Park Service), and Dwight T. Pitcaithley (historian, New Mexico State University). The editors contributed an introduction and concluding chapter, but the main portion of the book is a collection of 15 chapters authored by various specialists and grouped according to four themes. A summary of these follows:
Part I. Origins and Architects
The first chapter is Ronald F. Lee's "The Origins of the Antiquities Act" (an abbreviated version of it can be found on the National Park Service's "Antiquities Act 1906-2006" website). This gives the background of the Antiquities Act--the social setting, looting in the Southwest, and disparate efforts to address the situation by such groups as the American Anthropological Association and the Archaeological Institute of America. The next three chapters examine the roles of three exceptional figures in the creation of the Act:
Edgar Lee Hewett, a scholar who was able to get all of the interested parties to work together to write the legislation. He was, the editors note, "one of those valuable behind-the-scenes brokers without whom most laws never get through the proverbial sausage factory."
John F. Lacey, Republican congressman from Iowa associated with several early conservation measures. A Civil War veteran, a Union adjutant-general, he wrote of his experience studying law during the siege of Mobile: "I found it good mental training, for if one could read a dry book under the fire of siege guns he could study law almost anywhere."
Theodore Roosevelt, who told an audience at Grand Canyon in 1903, "Keep it for your children and your children's children and all who come after you."
Part 2. Presidential Audacity, Discontent
In 1908, President Roosevelt created Grand Canyon National Monument, setting aside some 800,000 acres. It was a bold stroke, given the wording in section 2 of the Antiquities Act, which stipulates that the limits of Monuments "in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected." But Roosevelt's proclamation stood, setting a precedent for a large reading of the text. The vague wording, along with the president's power to simply "declare by public proclamation" monuments has led to many pitched political battles, and these are the subject of the book's second part, beginning with a chapter about the fight for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the 1940s. The next chapter, co-authored by Cecil Andrus, Jimmy Carter's Secretary of the Interior, tells how Andrus explained the Antiquities Act to the president and suggested he use it to protect 56 million acres of land in Alaska: "Can I do that," asked the president. "Yes sir, you can, you have the authority," Andrus replied. "Let's do it," responded the president. The 1978 monuments proposed by Carter stuck, despite strong protests from Alaskan legislators.
Some of the monuments created by President Clinton were even more controversial, as the next chapter records. Notably political was how the creation of the 1.7-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was announced. The press conference took place just two months before the 1996 election, with the Grand Canyon in Arizona as a backdrop. The monument, however, is in Utah! It was a political move--Clinton had no hope of winning Utah, but he did have a chance of taking Arizona, home state of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. It sparked a firestorm and there were calls for amending the bill, led by Utah's legislators. But again, the Act held. Later Clinton monuments were made with a degree of consultation with state and local interests, helping to defuse resentment caused by the Grand Staircase-Escalante proclamation. The final chapter here advocates even greater, mandatory consultation.
Part 3. More than Monuments
Section 3 of the Antiquities Act vests power in the relevant federal cabinet secretary to permit study and excavation of sites and the collections of artifacts, provided that these activities "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 should be made for permanent preservation in public museums." This is basis, one author argues, for public archaeology in the United States: the past is a matter of public interest and should be managed for public benefit (that benefit being scientific rather than commercial). And, the next author says, it also led to the Historic Sites Act of 1935, which set out a policy for the "preservation of historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States." For both writers, the Antiquities Act is fundamental document in the development of how we treat our archaeological and historic heritage. The question of who "we" are comes up in the third chapter. At the time the Antiquities Act was conceived and ushered through Congress, federal policy toward Native Americans was one of assimilation and dismantling of reservations. While proponents of the Act were concerned about the loss of Indian culture and the need to preserve sites, they gave that mission to "reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions" and made no mention of Indians at all, either as custodians and interpreters of their own culture or as part of the public in whose name the studying, excavating, and collecting were to be done. The final chapter here considers National Monuments and larger issues of preserving geodiversity.
Part 4. New Horizons
Most National Monuments are under National Park Service jurisdiction, but with the Clinton proclamations a new paradigm was created in which other federal agencies have sole or shared jurisdiction: 14 of Clinton's National Monuments are run by the Bureau of Land Management, six by NPS, two are shared by NPS and BLM, and the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each oversee one. The first chapter here looks at the BLMs mandate for multiple use of land under its supervision, asking can you have grazing and hunting, or oil and gas drilling, in a National Monument without compromising it? This is still new ground, and the answer may not be in yet. (Another author elsewhere in the book notes the controversial proposed logging in the Monument run by the Forest Service, and an expansion of oil and gas leases on a BLM administered Monument.) The second chapter is a case study of how NPS and BLM cultures are getting along at Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. It sounds as if what was described as a "shotgun wedding" will work out, although the authors (one from each agency) admit, "It's been a mixed bag of opportunities and successes, challenges and frustrations." Well, we can only wish them more successes. The final chapter looks at our watery National Monuments, from coral reefs in the Caribbean to the California Coastal National Monument (every island, rock, or reef above mean high tide along California's coast for a distance of 12 miles out to sea) and the issues particular to them.
The broad appeal of The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation should be apparent from this summary of its contents. Add the word "politics" to the subtitle though, for that's an important theme throughout the book. It's an interesting, at times volatile, mix. As a collection of papers, the book is far better than most. Often such compilations fall short--becoming less than the sum of their parts--because the quality varies or the subject is too loosely defined. But that's not the case here. In their concluding chapter, the editors review and discuss the individual contributions, bringing them all together. It's a great introduction to the Antiquities Act, how it came about, and how it affects all of us today. Reading it would be a fine way to mark the centennial of the Act.
Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America