Antiquities Act 1906-2006 [link to homepage] Centennial Activities [link to centennial page]

Commodity or Culture?: The Department of the Interior and Archaeology on Public Lands at the Turn of the 20th Century
Francis P. McManamon, Chief Archeologist, Archeology Program, National Park Service
Session: "Examining the Historical Context for the Antiquities Act (1879-1906)", Society for American Archaeology Annual Conference, April 2, 2005


In the long effort to devise a means of protecting archaeological sites from looting and vandalism during the last quarter of the quarter of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century, the roles of scholars, scientists, and their supporters has been a focus (e.g., Snead 1999, 2001:76-82; Thompson 2000). The role of Congressional leaders, most notably John F. Lacey, representative of Iowa and chairman of the House Committee on Public Lands, who introduced the Antiquities Act as a bill in 1906 and shepherded it safely through hearings and votes in Congress, also is well recognized (Thompson 2000:301-303). Officials of the Department of the Interior, in particular the General Lands Office, also played important roles in shaping and promoting the archaeological preservation and protection legislation (Lee 2000:223-242; Thompson 2000:289-293). General Lands Office field agents played important roles in emphasizing the need to provide for protection of archaeological sites where they observed looting and vandalism occurring regularly.

DOI Activities Prior to 1906

Perhaps the earliest activity of DOI related specifically to antiquities was the care of Casa Grande Ruin in Arizona following the establishment of a federal reservation to protect the ancient structure and its immediately surrounding area by Executive Order on June 20, 1892 (Lee 2000:205-209). Subsequent appropriations to Interior were provided for the repair and protection of the site (Claus 1945:1). Conservation and documentation of the ancient structures was carried out by experts from the Smithsonian Institution: in 1891 and 1892 by Cosmos Mindeleff; in 1895 by W. J. McGee; and, from 1906 and 1908 by Jesse Fewkes (Matero 1999).

Evaluating Legislative Bill and Drafting Alternatives

Around the turn of the 19th century, efforts to preserve archaeological sites on public lands turned took what might be characterized as a more practical tack when professional and ad vocational organizations began to focus on producing draft bills that would accomplish their aims and submitting these drafts for consideration in the U. S. Congress. The ardent, but diffuse earlier approaches, such as the 1882 petition calling upon the Congress to save ancient ruins and sites, prepared by antiquities advocates in the Boston area and introduced to the Senate by Senator Hoar of Massachusetts (Lee 2000:202-205), was replaced by direct work with members of Congress and officials in the Department of the Interior on specific legislative bills (Lee 2000:223-242; Thompson 2000:284-286). In 1900 three pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress (one by Representative Dolliver and two by Representative Shafroth) providing for a general law for the protection of archaeological sites on public lands. Representative Lacey asked the Secretary of the Interior to review these bills and offer advice or suggestions about them. From this point onwards until the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, officials at the DOI were involved in evaluating proposed laws and drafting substitutes on this topic.

Binger Hermann, Commissioner of the General Land Office provided the response for the Secretary to Representative Lacey's request. The commissioner's report on the bills endorsed the notion of enactment of a law to protect archaeological sites, and other objects of scientific interest on public lands. He criticized some of the means by which the bills would accomplish this and offered a substitute bill.

The text of the commissioner's substitute bill contains a Section 3 that is remarkably similar to Section 3 of the Antiquities Act itself. It may be the prototype for the final text (DOI 1900). Section 3 of the DOI substitute bill in 1900 and of the final Antiquities Act in 1906 describes the permitting authority assigned to the land managing departments and gives general guidance for how permits are to be used to regulate archaeological investigations. In a middling size paragraph it packs an important set of policies that established the approach public agencies would take in their treatment of archeological resources from 1906 onwards.

The text of Section 3 in the 1900 DOI substitute bill reads:

Sec. 3. That the Secretary of the Interior be, and is hereby, authorized to permit examinations, excavations, and the gathering of objects of interest within such parks by any person or persons who he may deem properly qualified to conduct such examinations, excavations, or gatherings, subject to such rules and regulations as he may prescribe. Provided, always, that the examinations, excavations, and gatherings are undertaken for the benefit of the Smithsonian Institution or of some reputable museum, university, college, or other recognized scientific or educational institution, with the view to increasing the knowledge of such objects and aiding the general advancement of archaeological science. (emphasis added; DOI 1900)

Section 3 of the substitute bill provided by Hermann establishes several important policies about how the government regards and treats archaeological resources. First, it establishes that it is a matter of public interest that government officials regulate the treatment of archaeological sites on public lands. These kinds of resources are claimed for the American public and the Secretary of the Interior is authorized to use a system of permits to direct and oversee how they are used. Second, only persons who are "properly qualified" will be permitted to conduct investigations, etc. There is an immediate assertion of the need for special capability, expertise, and experience in treating these kinds of public resources. Third, that the object of the investigations—excavations, gatherings, etc., are to advance knowledge; their goal is to improve understanding of the past using archaeological methods.

Between 1900 and final passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, several versions of the bill were presented and debated back and forth. Disagreements about whether or not to give the president authority to create national parks or set aside public lands as national monuments, and if so how large these should be were a major topic. Another matter of concern was the role of the Smithsonian Institution, whether it should be the agency that managed archaeological sites that would be protected by the act, or whether the protectors and managers should be the land-managing agencies. These matters eventually were resolved and the outcomes articulated in Section 2 of the act (Lee 2000:223-242; Rothman 1994; Thompson 2000:284-318).

The fundamental policies articulated in the text of Hermann's Section 3 seems not to have been contested and in the final version of the act Section 3 again appears covering much of the same ground, taking into account administrative differences that had developed since the 1900 version:

Permits for the examination of ruins, the excavation of archeological sites and the gathering of objects of antiquity upon the lands under their respective jurisdictions may be granted by the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and Army to institutions which they may deem properly qualified to conduct such examination, excavation, or gathering, subject to such rules and regulation as they may prescribe: Provided, That the examinations, excavations, and gatherings are undertaken for the benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or education institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums.

A century later, we have become so certain of the basic policies about the public interest in archaeological sites, the need for qualifications to conduct archaeological investigations, and the fundamental commemorative, educational, and scientific values of archaeological resources that we sometimes forget what might have been. What if, for example, the purpose of these permitted excavations and gatherings had been to collect items for sale to the highest bidder with some portion of the proceeds going into the government's coffers? What if, the permits had been based on which institution could provide the largest commercial return from the excavations or gatherings? What if the main purpose of the excavations had remained the collection of objects with little concern about context, archaeological recording, analysis, or interpretation? Fortunately, such commercial initiatives and values were opposed by the advocates for public protection of archaeological sites and their views were supported by administration and political leaders. It is the text of Section 3, in the 1900 alternative bill provided by Hermann, and a similar Section 3 in the final act that makes this very clear.

Collecting Information about Archaeological Sites

Another activity undertaken by DOI officials in the development of antiquities protection legislation was the collection and distribution of information about archaeological sites in the Southwest and the need for their protection. In 1904, W. A. Richards, who had replaced Binger Hermann as Commissioner of the General Land Office, moved to provide an official report on the overall situation regarding archaeological sites in the Southwest, For information on the situation, Richards turned to Edgar Lee Hewett (Lee 2000:237). Sizing up the contested situation in Congress with a number of competing bills, Richards took the opportunity of another request for the Department's opinion on the bills being considered in 1904 to submit a detailed description of the archaeological sites in the Southwest that were endangered by looting and vandalism (Thompson 2000:291-293). Hewett submitted the report requested by Richards in September, 1904. Before the end of the year, Richards had Hewett's report printed (DOI 1904). The report

…for the first time…provided the General Land Office and eventually Congress with a comprehensive review of all the Indian antiquities located on federal lands in four key states…Better than any other single document, Hewett's memorandum clearly foreshadowed, in remarkable detail, the system of archaeological national monuments established in the Southwest following passage of the Antiquities Act (Thompson 2000:237).

The General Land Office pamphlet with Hewett's report also included addenda containing copies of letters and additional material, apparently supplied by Richards describing in detail the activities by Department of the Interior bureaus related to the preservation of antiquities (DOI 1904:12-17). The GLO published the report and addenda as an official Department of the Interior report (DOI 1904), entitled, "Circular Relating to Historic and Prehistoric Ruins of the Southwest and their Preservation" later in 1904. By publishing the information, DOI officials identified the department as having expertise on the topic of American antiquities and the steps needed for their protection and preservation. The report suggested that DOI was able to handle this kind of activity and was the proper government agency, as opposed, for example to the Smithsonian Institution, to be assigned this responsibility in any legislation considered by Congress.

Withdrawing Specific Areas and Sites Prior to the Antiquities Act Enactment

Following the setting aside of Casa Grande ruins in 1892, the General Lands Office used administrative actions to protect other archaeological sites by removing them from lands available for homesteading or other kinds of uses. A list of the sites set aside for protection is included in the 1904 report published by the DOI. The listing of areas temporarily withdrawn was sent in a letter from W. A. Richards, Commissioner of the General Land Office to E. L. Hewett on 5 October 1904. It is printed as one of the appendices to the report on Southwestern archeological regions and sites by Hewett in DOI (1904:12-13):

  1. in New Mexico, the Pajarito cliff dwellers' region, the Jemez cliff dwellers' region, and the tract known as El Morro, or Inscription Rock;
  2. in Colorado, the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers' region;
  3. in Arizona, the track containing the petrified forest and the greater portion of the Rio Verde region, containing among other sites Montezuma Castle.

It is interesting to note that among the sites listed are three of the four National Monuments proclaimed by President Roosevelt in 1906: El Morro, Petrified Forest, and Montezuma Castle. Also on this list is Mesa Verde, a portion of which was established as a National Park by statute in June, 1906, shortly after the enactment of the Antiquities Act.

DOI Antiquities Activities as Part of Progressive Scientific Land Management

In his often-cited history, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920, Samuel P. Hays (1999) presents a wealth of information about how Progressive era political leaders and civil servants developed and applied scientific information and methods for the management of a wide range of natural resources, in particular, water, forests, grasslands, and minerals. Scientific and hydrographic recording in the West by U. S. government expeditions and survey parties since the 1880's extended into a variety of kinds of natural resource management. First, irrigation, then forest management, then grazing were incorporated into a coherent policy. Eventually, Gifford Pinchot, Frederick H. Newell, and other agency leaders among those espousing scientific management of resources combined all of these management schemes into an overall approach to Federal land management.

These leaders were especially enthusiastic about the possibilities of vast economic growth in the West if the federal government planned the development of its resources on a large scale. By 1906, Pinchot, Newell, and other officials had formulated comprehensive land management concepts which during the remainder of Roosevelt's presidency they tried to apply to the public domain (Hays 1999:66).

The elements of scientific land management, according to these officials, required a revision of the standard way in which the public lands had been dealt with under the laws passed by Congress up to that point. These earlier laws were modeled on homesteading. They focused mainly on distributing public land to private individuals who would develop the land according to the requirements of the land laws (Hays 1999:67-73). In the fall of 1903, President Roosevelt appointed a Public Lands Commission that reflected the desire for a more orderly and planned approach to use of the public lands.

Hays summarizes four aspects of the new orderly, rational, and scientific approach to public land management as it developed in the early years of the Roosevelt administration.

First, scientific land management required that federal agencies had control over the resources and could regulate their use. Requiring permits by resource users provided a means of control. By issuing permits of limited duration, the government could control use. By setting conditions with the permits, limits of use and scientific management principles could be enforced. For example, grazing should not exceed the carrying capacity of the vegetation (Hays 1999:71). Section 3 of the Antiquities Act, and the bills back to 1900 from which it derived, asserts a federal interest in the control of American antiquities and includes such a permitting requirement.

Second, scientific management required that the appropriate uses of resources be determined and applied objectively. Decisions had to be made consistently about who would be allowed to use the public resources (Hays 1999:70-71). For example, regarding uses in the forest reserves:

the administration never set down a definite code but did assume a rough system of priorities in attempting to resolve specific use conflicts. In the national forests Pinchot granted top priority to domestic use of water, followed by irrigation and power;…On agricultural lands homesteading should precede grazing…The conflict between recreation and commercial use Pinchot found to be extremely hazardous to resolve, but he firmly argued that commercial uses of the public lands should precede their use for recreation. Reservoirs for municipal supply of water, for example, should be permitted in national parks (Hays 1999:71).

Regarding archaeological sites, Section 3 of the Antiquities Act directs that permits are to be used to carefully examine and record sites and provides that the information and items collected will be cared for and interpreted in public museums.

Third, scientific management required expertise in handling resources. "…The new land management entailed administrative innovations. Experts rather than politically appointed officials, for example, should take charge of the program (Hays 1999:71)." Pinchot, for example, had long stressed the need for properly trained foresters and the use of civil service exams to select them. "…The Roosevelt administration constantly increased the number of trained foresters, range specialists, and geologists in its public lands program (Hays 1999:72)." Again, Section 3 of the Antiquities Act requires that permits be given only to qualified institutions that can carry out the proper kind of examination and subsequent duration and public interpretation.

Finally, scientific land management involved understanding the resource. Information about the resource was gathered, classified, summarized, and used in making decisions about how the resource should be used. Hays notes that in 1878, John Wesley Powell proposed that western lands be classified according to their relative values for minerals, timber, coal, irrigation, and grazing. By the early 1900s, the Forest Service was classifying areas within the forest reserves as "…watershed, timber production, grazing, or wildlife areas (Hays 1999:70). Richardson's use of Hewett's 1904 report on the archaeological areas and sites of the Southwest represents an attempt to show that the GLO had a systematic understanding of these public resources. Richardson may have provided this information, from the GLO as a means of showing that the DOI was the appropriate government agency, as opposed to the Smithsonian, for example, to be given the responsibility for protection and regulating the use of archaeological sites on public lands. The inclusion in the report of a series of letters from DOI officials describing activities the agency already had taken for the protection of archaeological sites as appendices was intended to show that the department and its field offices could take responsibility for American archaeological sites on public lands in the West.

Hays does not mention the preservation of antiquities or the creation of National Monuments in his history. The Antiquities Act is mentioned only once and national parks only a few times in the book. Yet Section 3 of the act calls for three of the four components of the scientific land management approach that Hays describes as part of Progressive conservation and the Antiquities Act certainly can be considered as part of this national movement.

Concluding Remarks

In April 2005, we are 14 months away from the 100th anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt's signature enacting the Antiquities Act. One intention of this symposium, and the several other sessions like it at annual meetings of the George Wright Society, the Society for Applied Anthropology, and the American Association of Museums, is to bring attention to opportunities for commemoration activities over the next year and a half.

There appears to be a substantial need for education about the Antiquities Act itself and the achievements it has enabled. An informal electronic poll of National Park Services employees regarding their knowledge about the Act revealed sobering results, considering the population from which responses were drawn. Over one third of the respondents reported that they know "nothing" about the Act, or have never heard of it! One would think that NPS employees would be a group better informed about basic statutes related to cultural and natural resource preservation. Note that this is not a scientific poll and respondents are self-selecting, yet given the population from which responses come, the results indicate a substantial educational challenge.

The centennial of the Antiquities Act offers an opportunity to celebrate the dozens of splendid national monuments, encompassing resources of archaeological, cultural, historical, natural, scenic, and scientific importance that have been preserved for all the American people by presidential action authorized by Section 2 of the Act. In addition, the basic preservation policies about how cultural resources should be treated and valued summarized in this paper merit substantial commemoration. The centennial also provides opportunities for reflection on the challenges and differing views American's face in the 21st century, as population grows, development pressures continue, and the integration of Americans of a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds challenge national coherence.

As activities and programs are developed for the centennial, the NPS Archeology Program has developed a series of webpages that can be used to access background information and identify the activities being planned by others.

References Cited