Lesson Plan

Learn the Law: The Archaeological Resources Protection Act

Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

What is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act? How do you read a law?


Students will learn about the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and how to read a federal law.


Learning how to read a federal law is an important skill for Americans to know. This lesson plan will guide your class through the anatomy of a federal law, using the example of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). 

The Antiquities Act of 1906 was the first law in the United States to protect archaeological sites and collections. Over time, Americans realized that the law needed more specific language and a penalty for improper excavation of archaeological resources. As a result, the U.S. Congress passed a new law, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, in 1979. Congress amended ARPA in 1988 and 1995.

ARPA strengthened the permitting procedures required for conducting archaeological fieldwork on federal lands, originally mandated by the Antiquities Act. It also establishes more rigorous fines and penalties for unauthorized excavation on federal land.


This lesson plan provides a basic framework for learning how to read a federal law and understanding why the Archaeological Resources Protection Act is important.

Use the information and questions as you'd like, in ways that work best for your students. You may copy and paste the sections and questions into sheets to be printed out, guide the class through group work, or use other techniques as you deem best.


Lesson Hook/Preview

Suggested warm up questions:

  • What does it mean to "loot" an archaeological site? What do you think "prohibited act" means?
  • What measures might be put in place to protect archaeological sites at places like national parks, national forests, national preserves, or on Indian lands?

Multimedia options to play:


The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) is a federal law that is codified (meaning, in the U.S. Code) at 16 U.S.C. §§470aa-470mm. "16 U.S.C" is its title, a section where all related laws are put. "1B" is its chapter, a.k.a. the law itself, within the title. "§§470aa-470mm" are sections (the § is the symbol for section) that provide details on what the law is about and how to carry it out. ARPA can be found at title 16, chapter 1B, sections 470aa-470mm. Let's find it!

Tour the structure of the U.S. Code:
Show students the
U.S. Code title of contents. The U.S. Code is the official compilation of federal statutes - or laws - of the United States.

The USC contains 54 titles. What do each of these titles, or laws, have in common that might group them together? ARPA is at U.S. Code Title 16 - Conservation. Open
Title 16. What do the sections of Title 16 address?

Tour the Archaeological Resources Protection Act:

Find Chapter 1B - Archaeological Resources Protection. Work with the class as one group, small teams, or individuals to understand each section and the ways they work together.

The first section of a law generally lays out the purpose for the law.

  • Question: What does Congress explain to be the purpose for ARPA? Answer: ARPA's purpose is to protect archaeological resources on public and Indian lands against threats, while increasing cooperation.
§470bb - Definitions. 
The law defines particularly important terms or phrases. Read the definitions. Pay attention to "shall" and "shall not," as well as words that tell what to do. 
  • Question: What are archaeological resources, according to the law? Answer: Archaeological resources are "any material remains of past human life or activities which are of archaeological interest.”
  • Question: Why does it matter that paleontological resources - such as dinosaur fossils - are not archaeological resources? Answer: Paleontological resources are often confused with archaeological resources, but ARPA makes clear that it does not apply to the protection of paleontological resources, except in special circumstances.
  • Question: Why was “100 years old” used as part of the definition of an archaeological resource under ARPA? Answer: The law uses “100 years old” to mean very old. Other laws, such as the National Historic Preservation Act, apply to archaeological properties that are 50 years old or older (however, exceptions may apply to properties younger than 50 years). When someone disturbs an archaeological site without a permit, they are violating the law whether or not the site and its artifacts end up being 100 years old.  
§470cc - Excavation and Removal. 
Recall what the law seeks to do (hint: see Section 470aa(b)). This section establishes a process for permits to be issued for archaeological excavations and removal of archaeological resources in a way that complies (or, follows) with the law.
  • Question: What must happen in order for an archaeological excavation to take place on public lands? Answer: An applicant must submit a permit application to a federal land manager, who decides whether or not to issue a permit for the proposed excavation to take place.
  • Question: Infer what happens if a permit is not issued. Answer: If a permit is not issued, the investigation may be illegal. Federal land managers will know what other laws might apply that allow an archaeological excavation to go forward.
§470dd - Custody of Archaeological Resources. 
After an archaeological excavation takes place, the artifacts and any other recovered material is stored in a curatorial facility, like a museum or collections warehouse. This section directs the Secretary of the Interior to create regulations (or, rules) for what entity can claim the artifacts and other materials.
  • Question: What does the section direct the Secretary of the Interior to do? Answer: Develop regulations (or, or rules) for where archaeological artifacts go after they are excavated.
  • Question: What happens to the archaeological resources that were collected from public lands when someone breaks this law? Answer: They are seized as evidence and secured for the duration of the case. After the case is concluded, the resources are returned to the custody of the U.S. government or tribe.
§470ee - Prohibited Acts and Criminal Penalties. 
This section specifies acts that are criminal under ARPA, as well as the criminal penalties that someone who violates the law might receive.
  • Question: What does this section explicitly say you may not do? What are the penalties? Answer: If you do not have an approved permit, you may not: excavate, damage, destroy archaeological resources or attempt to do so. You may not sell archaeological resources found on public lands, whether or not you have a permit. The penalties are fines and/or jail time.
  • Question: Why is a federal penalty important? Answer: A federal penalty is important for two reasons: one, it deters illegal activities and two, it sends a message that archaeological resources are important enough that the American people are entitled to receive damages and justice when those resources are impaired. 
§470ff - Civil Penalties. 
Civil penalties are different from criminal penalties. This section establishes the kinds of civil penalties that might be incurred under violation of ARPA.
  • Question: What are the differences between criminal and civil penalties? Answer: The United States has two kinds of law: criminal law and civil law. In civil law, a civil “wrong doing” is when someone does something to cause harm, damage, or trouble to another person or entity. The party who files the legal complaint is called the plaintiff. The party responding to the complaint is the defendant. Civil cases are administrative and are dealt with by an Administrative Law Judge. In civil litigation, the plaintiff asks the court to right the wrong committed by the defendant. The court may award the plaintiff renumeration or compensation for the damages incurred. Usually, this involves a monetary payment or a court order to do something or not do something. In contrast, criminal law deals with actual crimes. A crime under ARPA, a federal law, is an act that is prohibited and punishable by the federal government (also known as "the state"). Regular citizens cannot file a criminal complaint, but they can report a crime. The case is heard in the federal court system. The case against the defendant is filed by a representative of the state, who is usually a state prosecutor. If the defendant is found guilty, they will incur criminal penalties. These penalties may include jail time and loss of rights, depending on the judge’s ruling. A civil penalty aims to compensate for the damage, whereas a criminal penalty aims to punish the wrongful conduct.
  • Question: Why is the calculation of cost and value so important? Don’t the intrinsic values – their basic characteristics - of the objects as scientific resources say enough? Answer: Our legal system creates dollar equivalents to the damage done to archaeological resources. When damages are determined, the court can determine penalties. ARPA requires that regulations be made to help the courts figure out the appropriate penalties. Until the regulations were promulgated (or, developed), there was reluctance to prosecute ARPA cases, because the courts weren't sure how to assign penalties.
§470gg - Enforcement. 
This section outlines ways that someone who reports a civil violation or crime can be rewarded; personal property can be forfeited; and disposition to Indian tribes.
  • Question: Can the government seize my property, if I am convicted of violating ARPA? Answer: Yes! The government can seize anything that was used to commit the violation, such as metal detectors, cars, boats, excavation tools and other items.
§470hh - Confidentiality of Information Concerning Nature and Location of Archaeological Resources.
This section takes a different tack. It says that the location of archaeological sites must be protected and cannot be shared with the public.
  • Question: How does not sharing the location of archaeological sites protect them? Why should sharing site locations be against the law? Answer: If someone knows where an archaeological site is, they can find it and loot it. It is against the law to share a site location, because then the sharer may help a crime to take place. 
§470ii - Rules and Regulations; Intergovernmental Coordination.
Once the law was passed, federal land managers needed help figuring out how to apply it to archaeological resource management and law enforcement. This section assigns responsibilities for creating rules. It also, importantly, directs federal land managing agencies to establish a program to educate the public about archaeological resources. 
  • Question: Who is responsible for creating the rules? Answer: The Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Defense and the Chairman of the Board of the Tennessee Authority, after consultation with public groups and Indian tribes, states, and others are directed to develop the rules.
  • Question: Why do you think the Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Defense were charged with these responsibilities? Answer: The Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Defense manage huge swaths of federal lands. Archaeological resources are found on land, but also underwater. As a result, these departments carry the bulk of responsibility for caring for archaeological resources.
  • Question: Why do you think Congress thought that establishing a public education program was important enough to put it in the law? Answer: Archaeologists want the public to care about archaeological resources as much as they do. Education programs help the public to learn about why their stewardship is essential. By requiring federal land managers to develop education programs, Congress is reinforcing that archaeologists need the public's help to care for archaeological resources.
§470jj - Cooperation with Private Individuals. 
People who are not federal land managers may still be involved in the management of archaeological resources from federal lands. This section lays out ways to include them.
  • Question: Why would the federal government want to coordinate with private collectors and professional archaeologists over the protection of archaeological resources? What might Congress hope to achieve? Answer: By working with people who collected archaeological resources before the law was enacted, we hope to fill gaps in our knowledge. Federal archaeologists want to coordinate with other professional archaeologists so they can develop projects, share information, and work together.
§470kk - Savings Provisions.
"Savings" also means exemptions. This section clarifies a few areas where the law does not apply. 
  • Question: Why do you think the “savings” are included? Answer: These areas are not included to clarify what the law does. For example, archaeological resources are underground and mining resources are underground, but the resources being permitted to be mined are not necessarily archaeological. 
§470ll - Annual Reporting.
ARPA required federal agencies to submit a report to Congress every year. 
  • Question: This is a trick section! The Administrative Reform Act of 1996 removed the reporting requirement, when it was decided that Congress did not have the authority to ask federal agencies for this type of information. Why do you think Congress wanted the report? Answer: Reporting would provide Congress with data to make decisions about the effectiveness of the law as written and whether to create additional amendments to it, or make new laws.
§470mm - Surveying of Lands; Reporting of Violations.
This section directs federal agencies to survey the archaeological resources on their lands and create a way to report on them. An archaeological survey is an inventory of the archaeological resources within public lands. Archaeologists aim to find all the sites on a property and record them. Once archaeologists know where archaeological resources are, they are in a position to protect them and monitor them for disturbances.
  • Question: Why is surveying archaeological resources important? Answer: In order to protect archaeological resources, we need to know where they are and what they are.


Now we know ARPA is a law that law enforcement can use to prosecute those who excavate or disturb archaeological resources on federal lands. Go back to the U.S. Code table of contents. Look at Title 18 - Crimes and Criminal Procedure.
  • Question: Why do you think ARPA was put under Title 16 and not Title 18? Do you think it makes a difference to the way law enforcement officers consider the law? Why or why not? Answer: ARPA was considered at the time to have more to do with conservation than law enforcement. As a result, ARPA may not get the same attention by law enforcement as do other laws.


Archaeological resource: according to ARPA, "any material remains of past human life or activities which are of archaeological interest" at least 100 years of age

Code of Laws of the United States of America (also called the U.S. Code, the Code of Laws of the United States, United States Code, U.S.C., or USC:

U.S.C.: Abbreviation for "United States Code," or federal laws


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Last updated: May 27, 2020