People know appropriate behaviors for libraries, movie theaters and restaurants, but what about at a national park? Park visitors, even the most environmentally minded ones, should consider their potential impacts on archeological sites while hiking and camping because an archeological object or site could be right under their feet.
Objects older than 50 years are considered historic and can be significant pieces of our collective history. Cans found at a construction camp can indicate the number of workers and the length of stay at that particular camp. Chinese ceramics and imported food containers in refuse piles along the river reveal information about trade networks and the ethnic groups that were living and working in the park. This is not information that can be found easily in historical documentation. It can often only be discovered by careful scientific examination of archeological material.
If visitors come upon archeological materials, they should not remove them. Removal of artifacts from their location destroys essential information needed to understand who was here and how they lived. The interrelationship of objects or how they are situated on the landscape can often be more important than the objects themselves. Federal and state laws, in fact, protect archeological site location information to prevent unauthorized collection, vandalism, or other visitor-caused disturbances. The first congressional act passed to protect cultural resources on public lands was The American Antiquities Act in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Other laws that assisted include the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the 1979 Archeological Resources Protection Act, and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Follow Ways to Protect Archeological Sites
Be Aware of Mistaking Archeological Objects as Trash
Many stewards of the land make it a habit to pick up trash on the trail or in their campsite. Trash collection, however, can threaten historic artifact deposits when those artifacts are mistaken for modern trash.
Yosemite archeologists share this “trash vs. treasure” message with Facelift participants. The annual clean-up, hosting 2,000 volunteers over five days to pick up garbage, results in more than 40,000 pounds of debris, from old utility poles to other large items left in the park long ago. Yosemite archeologists, however, were alerted to potential impacts on archeological sites when volunteers unknowingly collected historic material in 2006 and 2007. Since that time, education has minimized impacts on cultural resources.
Archeologists emphasize that history doesn’t grow back; once disturbed, it's a permanent loss. For questions, contact the archeology office at 209/379-1314.