Marking 100 years of the Antiquities Act

The tower rises on the cliff, elegant as any European castle, even after standing a thousand years.

“There may have been more people living in the Four Corners in 1250 than there are now,” says LouAnn Jacobson, manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the Anasazi Heritage Center.

SUSAN THOMASWow! That’ll make a person catch her breath, not from the climb up the mesa to the tower, but because she realizes whole cultures existed in the Four Corners before anybody thought of her.

She has time to ponder that thought because of a unique conservation law, the Antiquities Act of 1906. Signed by Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago, the Antiquities Act made possible an organized effort to preserve America’s important cultural and natural resources.

Under this law, the President of the United States may declare as national monuments “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands controlled by the Government of the United States….”

The Antiquities Act came about for several reasons, according to Dr. Larry Baker, executive director of the San Juan County Archaeological Research Center and Library at Salomon Ruins in Bloomfield, N.M.

Formal interest in conservation began with the Lewis and Clark expedition. At that time, people focused preservation efforts on the East. After the Civil War, they began taking an interest in cultural and natural resources in the West. Newly created organizations like the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of American Ethnology grew concerned about protecting these sites.

In 1900, President Theodore Roosevelt saw the need for a quick way to set aside important sites without wrangling protective bills through Congress. He asked for the power to create national monuments.

“The first was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming,” says Terry Nichols, park ranger at Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, N.M. “The second was El Morro, in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon was the fifth.” Aztec Ruins made the list in 1923, Canyons of the Ancients in 1999.

Canyons of the Ancients may have been late to the list of national monuments, but its cultural resources are unmatched in the country.

“We have the highest site density in the United States,” explains Jacobson. “About 110 archaeological sites per square mile in some parts of the monument.”

The Antiquities Act provided penalties for people caught vandalizing cultural and historic sites on federal land. And it did one more thing.

“The basic legislation doesn’t just set aside lands for no reason,” emphasizes Paul Reed, preservation archaeologist for the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson, Ariz. “(Land) is set aside to be studied in a scientific framework to lead to an understanding of …how to conserve (it.”)

Under the Antiquities Act, anyone excavating on federal land must obtain a research permit. “They would submit a research design,” explains Baker.

“They would need to spell out how much they would excavate, and why,” adds Jacobson. “They would have to show a curation agreement to demonstrate how artifacts and excavation records would be preserved in a museum.”

Besides research guidelines, the Antiquities Act spawned further conservation legislation and policy. The 1916 Organic Act created the National Park Service. “The National Park System grew quite a bit, after that,” says Nichols.

The Historic Preservation Act of 1966 supplemented the Antiquities Act, as did the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, and The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Each regulation further expanded and clarified the Antiquities Act.

States and municipalities use these federal laws to develop protection for sites in their jurisdictions, according to Baker. Some of these local statutes also guide research and resource development, such as subdivisions and gas exploration, on private lands.

“I think most of the archaeological research in the country relies on these laws,” muses Reed.

Very true. The Antiquities Act profoundly affected archaeology as a scientific discipline. To explain how, the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores has opened an exhibit called “Archaeology Grows Up: 1906-2006.”

“At the turn of the (20th) Century, archaeologists collected whole pieces,” says Jacobson.

Museums fought over artifacts. Researchers ignored small objects and didn’t take field notes.

That changed in the 1930s when Chicago’s Field Museum sent Martin to the Lowry Pueblo near Cortez. He took notes, and worked with an architect to discover the pueblo’s layout.

Next, archaeologists began paying attention to artifact layers in individual rooms, noting relationships of objects.

That led them to examine how rooms related within a community.

Today, the National Science Foundation and Washington State University have developed The Village Project. Archaeologists across regions examine how communities interacted. Researchers at Aztec and Salmon ruins, Chaco Canyon, and Canyons of the Ancients have joined this project.

“Archaeology Grows Up” includes many items that show this evolution, including some borrowed from the Field Museum and the Lowry dig. Other artifacts come from the collections at the Heritage Center. The exhibit contains historic photographs of digs around Canyons of the Ancients.

“People will see a nice variety of things. We have every kind of site,” says Jacobson. “Hunter gathers, pit houses, field houses, pueblos with 400 rooms. There’s limited evidence of paleo Indians from 10,000 B.C. “

She pauses. “And there’s still a lot to learn. With the Village Project we’re looking at the larger picture, of how people interacted with the landscape.”

The Antiquities Act of 1906 will ensure that the research goes on, for scientific advancement, recreation, and many other things.

“These are places where we can connect with people who passed before us,” says Nichols. “We can connect with ourselves.”

“It’s not about sites, it’s about cultural values,” adds Baker. “Preserving our national and world heritage.”

From May 2006.