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Brief history of American archeology

[photo] Serpent 
                Mound, from Edwin Davis' and Ephriam Squires' 1848 book, Ancient 
                Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. (National Anthropological 

Serpent Mound, from Edwin Davis' and Ephriam Squires' 1848 book, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. (National Anthropological Archives)

Archeology in the U.S. is rooted in the 1700s when European settlers encountered and were intrigued by ancient mounds and earthwork complexes that had been known since the 1500s. Myths about ancient mound builders in the Midwest and southeast also spurred archeological research. During the 1800s, American archeology was linked closely with cultural anthropology, linguistics, and physical anthropology since Native Americans were seen as examples of what human life had been like in prehistoric times. Near the end of the 1800s, museums displayed American Indian antiquities and various investigators published accounts of their archeological discoveries, leading to popular interest in archeology and to the looting of artifacts from archeological sites for private use. Scientific reports on the destruction and looting of prominent ruins resulted in the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906.

With the Antiquities Act's passage, public awareness about archeology and public agencies' involvement in preservation increased. The first national monuments commemorating and preserving archeological sites were created throughout the U.S. while scientific professionalism in the field of American archeology developed. The National Park Service was established in 1916 by the Organic Act to care for outstanding cultural and natural resources. Concerns about site destruction and the need for public support to reserve sites continued through this period.

In the 1930s large-scale archeological projects escalated due to federal unemployment relief projects and programs funded by the Works Progress Administration and other public employment programs. These archeological projects focused on fieldwork and keeping large crews employed in excavating archeological sites. Although many of these projects were slow in producing and publishing descriptive reports, conducting artifact analyses, and curating the collections, they substantially increased the knowledge about American archeology, especially in the Southeast. Many projects also focused on the archeology of historic period sites, often done in coordination with architectural stabilization, reconstruction, and/or historical research on the historic structures at the site. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 mandated federal interest in a wide range of nationally important archeological sites and historic structures.

(photo) Missouri River Basin Surveys in South Dakota (NPS)

Missouri River Basin Surveys in South Dakota (NPS)

During World War II U.S. officials began to plan a post-war, national system of dams and reservoirs in many important river valleys. Efforts to include archeological investigations in these areas culminated in the creation of the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains that funded archeological surveys and excavations as part of new dam and reservoir construction. During the 1950s the salvage of archeological data in the face of construction extended into highway and pipeline salvage archeology. In 1966 National Historic Preservation Act was enacted to control the adverse impacts of federal development projects on archeological sites and historic structures.

Dissatisfaction with some effects of salvage archeology led to the development of cultural resources management (CRM) in the US During the 1970s, public agencies including the NPS began to employ professional archeologists to meet CRM responsibilities. Increased looting of archeological sites within national parks led to the passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in 1979. ARPA prosecutes those who illegally collect artifacts from federal land. Programs to improve the care and use of archeological collections, records, and reports also began to receive attention. Native American protests about the treatment of their ancestors and significant collections in museums resulted in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990.

Today, protection, preservation, and interpretation continue to be the goals of public archeology. Archeologists add about 2000 sites per year to the inventory of archeological sites in the national parks. Interpretation, public education, and stewardship of archeological resources are vital to park archeology programs and will continue to guide archeological research into the twenty-first century.

For your information

Public Archeology in the United States: A Timeline
Read about the history of archeology in the United States, including trends, important archeologists, and significant finds.

The National Parks: Preserving America's Past
See an online exhibit about the significance of archeology to the establishment of the NPS.

Preserving a Submerged Legacy
Find out about describes submerged cultural resources and provides links to online resources and case studies.

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledge (#2 of 9)

  • What are the goals of archeology in the National Park Service?
  • Why would you interpret archeology to the public?
  • Chapter 2 discusses “unexpected” archeological sites. Do examples exist in your park? How can you use them to encourage visitor stewardship?
  • What kinds of questions might you ask an audience to assess their preconceptions or misconceptions about archeology?