Antiquities Act of 1906

The Act developed from concerns in the last quarter of the 19th century for the preservation of America’s archeological sites and the artifacts and information that they contained. National and regional educators and scientists, including those involved in the developing profession of archeology, joined together in a movement to safeguard sites on public lands being endangered by haphazard digging and purposeful, commercial artifact looting.

On June 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law, thus establishing the first general legal protection of cultural and natural resources in the United States. The Act set important precedents, including the assertion of a broad public interest in archeology on public lands, as well as support for the care and management of archeological sites, collections, and information. The act linked the protection of sites and their appropriate, scientific excavation with public programs to care for and provide public interpretation of artifact collections and information from the study of a site and its contents.

An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities (the Antiquities Act) was the first law to establish that archeological sites on public lands are important public resources. It obligated federal agencies that manage public lands to preserve for present and future generations the historic, scientific, commemorative, and cultural values of the archeological and historic sites and structures on these lands. It also authorized the President of the United States to establish national monuments from federal lands to preserve their special natural and cultural features. Facts and figures for these national monuments demonstrate the impact of the Antiquities Act on our public lands.

  • Section 1 established a penalty for unauthorized excavation or destruction of archeological ruins or sites on Federal land. The penalty consisted of a fine not more that $500 and/or imprisonment for not more than 90 days.
  • Section 2 authorized the President of the United States "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected." It also authorized the Secretary of the Interior to accept lands covered by a bona fide unperfected claim or held in private ownership, if they are relinquished to the Government of the United States. Thus, presidents may use the Antiquities Act only to establish national monuments on Federal land. Since 1906, U.S. presidents have used Section 2 of the Antiquities Act to proclaim new national monuments or to expand existing monuments on public land over 200 times. Many presidentially-designated national monuments have since been designated as national parks or cultural sites of international renown. (Note: Congress may also establish national monuments, but these are not "Antiquities Act national monuments," but authorized by legislation.)
  • Section 3 established a permit requirement for properly qualified individuals to examine ruins, excavate archeological sites, or gather objects of antiquity on lands administered by the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, or War. The National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal bureaus manage or co-manage national monuments. Section 3 also had important implications for museums and collections. It noted that permitted activities were for the "benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects." This ensured that archeological collections and associated documentation would remain for the public's benefit. Visitors today benefit from professional archeological investigations when they see exhibits in visitor centers, read books about archeologically-known people in the past, and participate in ranger tours or educational programs.

The Act and its implementing regulations, Preservation of American Antiquities (43 CFR 3) impact archeological collections. First, they mandate that a permittee must submit a catalog of the collection recovered and photographs made during the field season and indicate if any items may "be available for exchange" (43 CFR 3.10). Second, federal land managers are authorized to seize materials recovered illegally from archeological sites on federal lands and place them in a national repository or other appropriate location (43 CFR 3.16). Third, they require that any collections be preserved in the public museum designated in the permit and be accessible to the public (43 CFR 3.17). Fourth, the Act mandates that, if a public museum closes or a collection is deaccessioned, the applicable collections must be transferred to another public museum or revert to the national collections (43 CFR 3.17), which at the time meant the Smithsonian Institution.

The Antiquities Act stands as an important achievement in the progress of conservation and preservation efforts in the United States. The Act created the basis for the federal government’s efforts to protect archeological sites from looting and vandalism. It provided a foundation of public policy from which more specific public attention to and preservation of historic places and structures, cultural landscapes, and other cultural resources developed during the course of the 20th century. Today, many different organizations cooperate in diverse partnerships, including governments at the Federal, state, tribal and local levels; professional and scholarly groups; and communities. In shaping public policy to protect a broad array of cultural and natural resources, the impact of the Antiquities Act is unmatched.

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Suggested reading:

Browning, Kathleen D. Study 2: Implementing the Antiquities Act: A Survey of Archeological Permits 1906-1935. Studies in Archeology and Ethnography #2. Archeology and Ethnography Program. National Center for Cultural Resources. National Park Service. Washington, DC. 2003.

McManamon, Francis P. "Antiquities Act of 1906." Archaeological Method and Theory: An Encyclopedia, edited by Linda Ellis, pp. 33-35, Garland Publishing Co., New York and London, 2000.

Rothman, Hal. America’s National Monuments. Originally published 1989, electronic edition, 2005 [2020].

Sellars, Richard West. "A Very Large Array: Early Federal Historic Preservation—The Antiquities Act, Mesa Verde, and the National Park Service Act." Natural Resources Journal 47: 267-328.

Squillace, Mark. "The Monumental Legacy of the Antiquities Act of 1906." Mark Squillace, Georgia Law Review 37: 473-607.

Squillace, Mark. "Presidents Lack the Authority to Abolish or Diminish National Monuments." Virginia Law Review 103: online, 2017.

Thompson, Raymond Harris. Edgar Lee Hewett and the Political Process. Journal of the Southwest 42(2):271–318. Originally published 2000, electronic edition, 2005 [2020].

Last updated: September 7, 2022