A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Celebrating the anniversary of two important acts of Congress
This year marks the centennial of two significant acts in the history of American archaeology: in 1906 Congress passed the American Antiquities Act, the first major piece of legislation aimed at protecting and preserving archaeological sites and artifacts on federal lands; and two months later the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) was chartered by a special act of Congress. The charter defined the then 27-year-old AIA as "a body corporate and politic...for the purpose of promoting archaeological studies by investigation and research in the United States and foreign countries...." President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the greatest conservationist presidents in American history, signed both acts into law. They are intertwined in the early history of efforts to professionalize the practice of archaeology in the U.S. and to shift the focus of the discipline away from antiquarian collecting toward scientific excavation, promotion of knowledge gained from excavation, and responsible curation of finds, all for the benefit of the American public.
According to Francis P. McManamon, chief archaeologist of the National Park Service and consulting archaeologist with the Department of the Interior, the Antiquities Act made it U.S. policy that "archeological sites are most valuable for the information they contain or their commemorative associations, not as commercial resources like timber or minerals that have primarily monetary value."
From 1882, when the Antiquities Act was first proposed, until it finally became law 24 years later, a familiar debate between public and private interests played out. But it took a generation and a long fight championing the educational and scientific uses of archaeological sites against the commercial interests of developers and collectors before the bill was passed. In 1904, the AIA formed the Committee on the Preservation of the Ruins of American Antiquity with representatives from each of its then 17 local societies, and, working together with the newly founded American Anthropological Association and others, was active in drafting and promoting the bill that became the Antiquities Act. Ronald F. Lee, in his 1970 history of the creation of the act, notes that "by granting this (AIA) charter in 1906, Congress recognized the importance of citizen participation in archaeological programs."
The Antiquities Act has had a lasting impact on national policy, resulting in the preservation of many archaeological and historic sites such as Chaco Canyon and Fort Sumter National Monuments. It also served as the foundation for later antiquities laws such as the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act (1974), Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979), and National Historic Preservation Act (1966). And since 1906, the AIA, with help from readers like you, has continued and broadened its efforts to preserve and protect archaeological resources both in the U.S. and abroad and will continue to speak out on behalf of the world's archaeological heritage.
Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.