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Studies in Archeology and Ethnography 2 Implementing the Antiquities Act: A Survey of Archeological Permits 1906-1935

Chapter 4: Summary and Conclusions

The Antiquities Act and the accompanying permit process played a vital role in advancing responsible archeological excavations and expanding government attention to site protection and ruins stabilization. The Department of the Interior assumed a new preservation role with passage of the act, although there was little or no administrative structure in place to address the challenges that came with the role. As a result, administrative developments to reconcile the new responsibilities were reactive and haphazard. Despite these problems, the Department instituted incremental procedures in an attempt to enforce the first federal statute protecting antiquities on public land.

A systematic approval mechanism for the permit applications was created by federal regulations within a year of the law’s enactment. The National Park Service was organized after 1916 to manage protected parks and monuments from vandalism, illegal excavation, and other forms of destruction. The archeologist Jesse Nusbaum was employed by the National Park Service as Superintendant of Mesa Verde National Park beginning in 1921. In 1927, Nusbaum received the additional assignment as Archeologist for the Department of the Interior to handle the increasing Antiquities Act permit applications, monitor permit holders, and investigate other archeological problems (McManamon and Browning 1999). By the mid 1930s, the number of permits had grown to more than 30 annually and federal archeological interests were increasingly expanding beyond the Southwest into Alaska and onto the Great Plains. The looting problem was not solved, despite complaints to Department officials and the more attention to the problem.

The Antiquities Act permit was closely associated with pioneers in American archeology, including Hewett, Cummings, Fewkes, Morris, de Laguna, Judd, Kidder, and other university faculty members, international universities, and museums. By the 1930s, a few female applicants completed their own research among the sites of the Southwest and Alaska. Between 1907-35, applicants representing more than 50 institutions, organizations, museums, and universities were granted more than 300 permits for archeological and palaeontological study throughout the western United States.

The Antiquities Act permit procedures were the first attempt to regulate public interest in the ancient American past. The procedure enforced a policy focused on protection, preservation, and public interpretation. Access to Department of the Interior archival documents indicates that small museums and civic organizations were able to collect antiquities alongside individuals representing famous museums from throughout the world, provided they followed the increasingly professional requirements of careful excavation, formal reporting, and public interpretation. Virtually unknown applicants made their contribution to proper Antiquities Act research and conducted work that launched early American archeological careers.

The Antiquities Act permit process played an important role in the growth and spread of proper excavation methods, scientific study, public display, and interpretation of the remains of the past unearthed on federally protected land. The commonality among all the applicants who received Antiquities Act permits was that they had convinced the Department of the Interior of their commitment to scientifically collect, preserve, and share collections and information with the American people derived from their excavations. Expanding public education and increasing understanding of ancient relics of past cultures remained one of the most important obligations of the archeologists to the public.

Despite generally ineffective protection due to inadequate field law enforcement, the Antiquities Act established essential public policies (McManamon 1996, 2001). Antiquities Act archives, in particular the rich permit information enables present day researchers to journey back to the Southwest when archeology was a young discipline and federal involvement with archeology was in its infancy. The permits provide an opportunity to rediscover the earliest federal excavations. These artifacts inform us about ruins stabilization techniques and materials of the past and aid us in rediscovering excavated collections. As the Department of the Interior continues to document the impact of the passage of the Antiquities Act, the information, reports, and correspondence arising from excavations both memorable and forgotten may be used to answer the lingering questions of the past and address problems of the present.

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