[NPS Arrowhead] U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program
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Celebrating National Accomplishments
Spring 1997, vol. 2(1)

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*  Public Archeology in the 21st Century

(photo) Archeologist excavating site in Springfield, Georgia.

"In the Southeast alone the number of recorded sites has gone from under 10,000 in 1970 to over 200,000 today [and] while modern field crews only rarely approach those of the New Deal era in size, the quantity and quality of the data far exceed that collected in earlier times."

David G. Anderson

by Francis P. McManamon

Since the 19th century, American interest in archeological resources has been reflected in a public concern with how these sites are interpreted and treated. The Smithsonian Institution's first scientific publication was a careful recording of monumental ancient architecture in the Midwest. Later in the 19th century, alarm over the deterioration and unsystematic collecting at prehistoric sites in the Southwest caused the government to set aside the ancient ruins at Casa Grande in Arizona (1892) and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado (1906) for special protection. This same public sentiment resulted in a more general approach to the preservation of American archeology that emerged, in 1906, as the Antiquities Act. This bedrock assertion of the people's interest in archeology served as the basis for further policy and statutes.

A national concern for archeology has been expressed in a number of events throughout the 20th century. In 1916, archeological national monuments, along with important natural wonders and scenic areas, were put under the care of the National Park Service. In 1935, the Historic Sites Act expanded the scope of federal concern to nationally important archeological sites, historic structures, and places on private, local, and state land.

The 1930s also saw the incorporation of archeological investigations as part of an effort to reduce unemployment through the Works Progress Administration and other public assistance programs. In the late 1940s, concern about the effect massive water control projects would have on archeological sites led to the River Basin archeological salvage program, in which federal and state entities funded, administered, or conducted research. The same regard for archeology led to a similar program for the highway construction projects of the 1950s.

The 1960s and 1970s brought the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. The former included archeological resources among other kinds of historic properties. It also required that they be taken into consideration in the early planning stages of federal projects.

These laws resulted in an explosion of jobs for archeologists in public agencies. Today, the national program includes hundreds of archeologists in federal agencies throughout the country, as well as in one or more public agency in each state. A number of Indian tribes have also developed archeology programs. Many local governments have hired professional archeologists as well.

These laws and public programs manifest our national commitment to archeology. They are achievements to be acknowledged with gratitude. Recent political and cultural challenges remind us, however, that we must be eternally diligent. Fortunately, this need has been recognized by many in the archeological community. The Society for American Archaeology, the Society of Professional Archeologists, historical archeologists, and those in consulting firms and public agencies have worked over the past two years to identify improvements needed in our national program. This effort, "Renewing the National Archaeology Program," recommends a series of actions.

We must do better in the application of regulations. In themselves, they are adequate, but the true test of their effectiveness lies in how they are applied. There are examples of excellent use of the regulations, but there also are some that are dismal. Improvement will take more and better guidance for those involved in daily practice, something that the National Park Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation are committed to providing. In addition to this guidance, training in its application will be needed.

We need to find ways to take advantage of the wealth of archeological material, records, data, and information that have been collected as the result of public projects and programs during the past 30 years. Unfortunately, much is unevaluated, unsynthesized, and inaccessible. Enormous (and growing) collections of material must be managed better, made accessible, and require less expensive care and maintenance.

Public education and outreach continue to deserve attention. Striking advances in this area have been made in the last decade. Much remains to be done, and these kinds of efforts need to remain a part of archeologists' typical activities. This is especially so because not everyone views the archeological record from an archeologist's or preservationist's perspective. Those who would exploit sites for commercial or personal gain are one example. Another example is the perspective of some Native Americans who believe that archeology is of no use for understanding the past. Archeologists must counter these kinds of perspectives if preservation and study of the archeological record is to have public support.

We have a strong foundation to build upon. We need to consolidate our gains by improving how we do archeology. We also need to move forward, working for more widespread understanding of archeology and effective preservation.

MJB/EJL