Archeology Law and Ethics

Archeological resources, both sites and collections, are protected by law on federal and state lands. Understanding these laws is an important part of what you can do to help protect archeological resources. While federal law is consistently applied across the nation, state and local law differs from place to place. We strongly recommend that you contact your State Historic Preservation Officer and State Archeologist (sorry, you'll have to cut and paste this URL into your browser: to find out about laws concerning archeology for your area.

You play an essential role in ensuring the ethical treatment and protection of irreplaceable archeological resources. Archeological stewardship refers to protecting and maintaining archeological sites. Although a number of laws target sites on state or federally owned property, many more are located on private property. This means that large numbers of our nation's archeological resources are not protected unless you make it your business to care for them. Strong public support and an ethical commitment to stewardship helps preserve the resources of our nation’s heritage for present and future generations. You can learn more about caring for sites.

Below is a brief outline of the preservation laws that affect archeology in the United States. These laws are intended to protect the heritage of all Americans.

The Antiquities Act of 1906

The Antiquities Act was developed during the late 19th century, a period of public interest in archeology and increasing concern for the preservation of sites in the United States. It establishes the protection of archeological materials on lands owned by the U.S. The Act sets up penalties for the unauthorized collection or excavation of historic or prehistoric ruins or monuments situated on federal land.

As the first U.S. law to provide general protection for cultural or natural resources, it was also the first national historic preservation policy. It empowers the president to set aside historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest on lands controlled by the federal government as national monuments. The federal agencies assigned to oversee them are required to offer proper care and management of the resources. This includes caring for the objects collected from sites in a museum so the public can view them.

The law also regulates and establishes a permit system for legitimate study of archeological resources. "Legitimate study" means that only people and projects that qualify under the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines may conduct archeological investigations. Permitted activities are for the benefit of the public through study and interpretation. The department overseeing the land, such as the Department of the Interior, issues permits. These requirements protect archeological resources from looting.

Historic Sites Act of 1935

The Historic Sites Act declared the preservation of historic sites, buildings, and objects to be a national policy. It authorized the Secretary of the Interior to obtain information, survey, conduct research, maintain, and preserve sites with archeological significance. This Act also established the National Park Service Advisory Council to advise on sites.

National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) is the law under which much of contemporary American archeology is conducted for environmental review purposes. It strongly supports historic preservation activities and programs, including archeology. The NHPA enables archeological sites to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This list provides additional federal protections for archeological materials. Section 106 is particularly important for archeology. It requires that all federal agencies provide the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation with the opportunity to comment on any undertaking that might affect a property listed on, or eligible for, the National Register.

Archeological and Historic Preservation Act (AHPA) of 1974

AHPA makes federal agencies responsible for mitigating the damage caused by their actions to important archeological sites. It is also known as the Archeological Recovery Act and the Moss-Bennet bill.

The AHPA builds on the Historic Sites Act of 1935. It expands the policy by focusing attention on significant resources, but does not require that they be of national significance. The impetus for the AHPA was the destruction of archeological sites throughout the country, frequently by actions funded or otherwise supported by federal agencies, that were not covered by the Reservoir Salvage Act, which required archeological salvage as part of dam building projects. The AHPA is the first statute since the Antiquities Act to mention the long-term care of archeological collections.

Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979

ARPA protects archeological resources and sites on public (federal) lands and Indian lands. It also calls for the preservation of objects and associated records in a suitable repository once recovered from a site. ARPA was enacted in recognition that archeological resources are an irreplaceable part of America’s heritage and they are increasingly endangered because of the escalating commercial value of some kinds of artifacts.

ARPA sets up guidelines for the proper procedures for obtaining permission and permits to excavate archeological sites on public lands by qualified individuals. For the purposes of ARPA, archeological resources include any material remains of human life at least 100 years old and of archeological interest.

ARPA also establishes penalties and fines for breaking the law. For a first offense, a fine of up to $20,000 and up to two years imprisonment may be imposed; for subsequent offences, the penalty may involve fines of up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to five years. Additional penalties based on the value of a damaged site and the cost to repair it may also be imposed on the offenders.

Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA) of 1987

The ASA establishes government ownership over most abandoned shipwrecks in the nation's rivers, lakes, and offshore in the ocean out three miles from the coast. The majority of the shipwrecks covered by the statute are significant historical resources that tell compelling stories about our regional, national, and international maritime history. Equally important, the physical remains of their hulls and super-structure are vital biological habitat for marine life and contribute to State heritage tourism by offering spectacular recreational and educational opportunities. For these reasons, the law places the resources under government management and says that neither the law of salvage nor the law of finds apply to the resources. This means the shipwrecks are protected from exploitation by commercial salvagers and makes the wrecks available for the enjoyment of the public.

Abandoned shipwrecks are those that have been deserted and whose owners have given up their rights to ownership. There are two important distinctions for shipwreck abandonment. The first case takes place when an insurance company pays an owner for the value of the sunken vessel. At that time, it effectively purchases the title, and thus has rights to ownership. However, the insurance company would need to demonstrate its intent to retain title, for example, by taking action to recover the vessel following its loss or maintaining the sunken wreck on an inventory of the company's assets. Without such declarative action on the part of the company, the shipwreck would be considered abandoned. In the second case, a sunken warship, although seemingly abandoned, remains the property of its nation unless formal action is taken to abandon or transfer the title.

The state governments play a key role in carrying out the ASA. Under the statute, the title of the vessel is transferred from the federal government to the state in which it is located. The federal government, however, reserves ownership of shipwrecks on federal lands and Indian tribes own shipwrecks on Indian lands over which the tribes have jurisdiction. Some states have established underwater trails and parks for the enjoyment of sport divers and many states and federal agencies work in partnership with avocational archeology and sport diver groups to map, study, and monitor the condition of shipwreck sites.

Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990

NAGPRA specifies special treatment for Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. NAGPRA stipulates that illegal trafficking in human remains and cultural items may result in criminal penalties.

NAGPRA has two major purposes. One is to require that federal agencies and museums receiving federal funds inventory holdings of Native American funerary remains and funerary objects. They must also provide written summaries of other cultural items. This helps to forge paths for federal agencies and native tribes to work together in the process of identifying and returning human remains and funerary objects.

The second purpose is to give Native American burial sites greater protection. NAGPRA requires that Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations be consulted when archeological investigations are anticipated, or when cultural items are unexpectedly uncovered.

Curation of Federally Owned and Administered Archaeological Collections (36 CFR 79)

36 CFR 79, issued in 1990, provides government-wide regulations for the curation and care of federal archeological collections required by NHPA, the Reservoir Salvage Act, and ARPA. These regulations establish procedures and guidelines to manage and preserve collections, including objects and associated records. They also identify ownership of collections and include terms and conditions for federal agencies to include in contracts and Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) with non-federal repositories.

36 CFR 79 is the first set of regulations to produce standards for determining a viable repository for federally owned and administered archeological collections. It provides guidelines for acceptable access and use of collections, inventories, and inspections.