Why archaeology matters

By Leslie Sesler

Dexter Gill believes that ARPA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, should be revisited (Four Corners Free Press, January 2017). That may be a good idea. But first, a little history and background seems to be in order, so that we can all understand what we are talking about.

The history of archeological and historical preservation in the United States began in the early 1800s, when a number of historical associations led the effort to save Independence Hall in Philadelphia, an icon of our American Revolution, from demolition. In 1853, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union organized to save the home of George Washington. When a petition to Congress failed to generate federal interest in preservation, the group raised private funds and purchased Mount Vernon themselves.

A decade later, a group of local citizens began taking steps to preserve the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. In 1864, this group was granted a state charter to act as the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, with 522 acres set aside as a memorial. One of the reasons Civil War battlefields such as Gettysburg are so well-preserved, that so much is known about the momentous events that transpired there is that the citizens of the surrounding communities took steps to preserve the physical remains, the landscape, and the local knowledge of place that is so important to understanding this terrible era of U.S. history.

The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association dissolved after about 15 years, due primarily to financial burdens, and the memorial was turned over to the federal government under the care of the War Department. The government attempted to acquire land in addition to the original 522 acres that had been preserved (troop movements during the battle covered as much as 15,000 acres; the government wanted to acquire about 4,000 acres for preservation).

The problem was that Gettysburg, and nearly all Civil War battles, were fought on private land, and some landowners disputed the government’s authority to condemn private property for such use. The first lawsuit against the federal government’s attempt to condemn land for a battle memorial was filed by the Gettysburg Electric Railway, who built a rail line through the center of the battlefield, despite objections from veterans and other interested citizens. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal government. The ruling, “United States Government v Gettysburg Electric Railway Co.,” has been cited countless times since as a precedent in federal condemnation actions, and serves as the basis for the Antiquities Act.

The court said the preservation of our national heritage was in the best interests of the public, “for the benefit of all the citizens of the country for the present and for the future. Such a use seems necessarily not only a public use, but one so closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself as to be within the powers granted Congress by the Constitution for the purpose of protecting and preserving the whole country.”

I take the Supreme Court to mean exactly what it said. That historic preservation is for the benefit of all of the citizens of this country, and by extension, that includes the preservation of all of its citizen’s history, including Native American prehistory.

Ten years after the Supreme Court ruling, Congress enacted the Antiquities Act of 1906. It provided for the protection of historic and prehistoric remains and monuments on federal lands by establishing penalties for disturbance of antiquities, gave the President authority to declare historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest on federal land as national monuments, and established a permit system for conducting scientific archaeological investigations.

By the 1960s it was apparent that the penalties for looting and vandalism of archaeological resources on federal land established by the Antiquities Act — a $500 fine and three-month maximum jail sentence — were insufficient, and that many archaeological sites were being destroyed by such actions. (A study conducted for Congress in the 1980s documented that fully one-third of known archaeological sites on federal lands in the Four Corners states had been damaged by looting or vandalism).

There was also concern by the public over destruction of historic and prehistoric resources as a result of government- sponsored public-works projects and development. Congress began to rectify this situation in the 1960s. The 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) is the most comprehensive legislation, and requires, among other things, that historic and cultural properties are appropriately considered in planning any action involving federal land, federal money, or federal minerals.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was passed in 1979. As amended in 1988, ARPA significantly strengthens the penalties for looting and vandalism of archaeological sites on public and Indian tribal lands and places important protection and management responsibilities on federal agencies. In a general sense, antiquities legislation requires artifacts, structures, and culturally produced features to be preserved in place, where their makers and builders left them, whenever possible.

In order for an agency to manage a resource, any resource, they must have an idea of what the resource entails. That is why archaeological inventory is done for any development action that occurs on federal lands, such as timber sales on Forest Service lands, or gas and oil leases on BLM lands. These inventories are typically paid for by industry, who is reaping profit from public resources, and not by taxpayers.

And yes, archaeological inventory does include historic items such as old tin cans. Archaeological resources are assessed according to certain criteria established by the NHPA, as to whether or not a particular archaeological site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Archaeological sites assessed as eligible need to be protected from development or have other measures set in place to mitigate the damage or destruction of such sites. Sites that are not eligible for the National Register, and this would include most of the tin cans that Mr. Gill is worried about, do not qualify for any special protection measures.

Archaeological resources are finite. No more PaleoIndian camps are being created; no more Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings are being built; no more 15th century Ute wickiups or 16th century Navajo hogans or 18th century pueblitos are being constructed. Archaeological sites are lost to natural deterioration and erosional forces every day, and are damaged by natural events such as wildfire; they are lost to development on private land; and sadly, despite laws protecting cultural and historical resources on public land, destruction is still occurring in the form of looting and vandalism.

Archaeology is a resource. What Mr. Gill does not understand is that the use of resources does not necessarily imply consumption. Take his family’s Sunday afternoon gambol on BLM land to search for “arrowheads”. (We do hope that none of them ended up pocketing their pretties, as that would be thieving from the rest of us). They were undoubtedly using archaeological resources for entertainment. The desert Southwest is one of the few places on the planet where anyone can wander around on public land and look at archaeological sites for days and days, free of charge. Mr. Gill insinuates that this is all a thing of the past – that people can no longer access public land for public enjoyment. This is simply not true. Sure, there are roads that have been closed and maybe you can no longer just drive anywhere you please. But these restrictions, and they are certainly not everywhere, are on vehicles: four-wheel drives, four-wheelers, side-by-sides, motorbikes, etc., not people. Corporations may be people, but as far as I know, vehicles are not people. And unfortunately, some of the road closures are related to destruction of archaeological sites by careless off-roaders and those that use vehicles to carry their pot-hunting gear into remote archaeological sites.

Archaeological resources are also used in other ways that benefit our community. Take Mesa Verde National Park. This World Heritage Site draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world who spend money here. The park is one of the biggest employers in the county. Its existence is eminently tied to the Antiquities Act.

There are many other archaeological treasures in the immediate area that entice visitors to stay longer, maybe buy dinner, or spend another night. Places such as Hovenweep National Monument, Lowry Ruins, and oh, yeah, and that other one, NO National Monument, otherwise known as Canyons of the Ancients.

And then there is the Anasazi Heritage Center, a by-product of the Dolores Archeological Program, a multi-year, multimillion- dollar research project associated with the construction of McPhee Dam. Due to that persnickety antiquities legislation, action was required to mitigate the destruction of hundreds of archaeological sites that dam construction would require. The project brought hundreds of archaeologists and millions of dollars into Dolores and the surrounding communities. And yes, most of these people were young college graduates who needed jobs. The Dolores Archaeological Program had a mandate to hire local young people. For two summers, dozens of local youth were hired and trained to work on archaeological survey and excavation crews, and as lab technicians, under the auspices of the Youth Conservation Corps and the Young Adult Conservation Corps. (That is where my nearly 40-year career in archaeology began. A real, live government program success story!)

The Dolores Archaeological Program and subsequent projects related to the water produced many thick scientific volumes for scholars to ponder, and other worthwhile results: advancements in archaeological methods and theory, identification of the growth and demise of prehistoric communities at McPhee and Grass Mesa, and drawings and documentation of historic structures that were ultimately destroyed by McPhee Reservoir.

The Dolores Archaeological Program and related archeological projects also brought more tangible, if less visible, benefits. Many of those young archaeologists chose Montezuma County as the place where they wanted to raise their families. Many remained in the archaeological profession. Several started their own consulting businesses, drawing more archaeologists into the area. Some went to work for Mesa Verde National Park. And many became researchers and educators at Crow Canyon, a not-forprofit archaeological research and education organization. Crow Canyon brings many people into our area for hands-on experience; they provide amazing educational opportunities for students; they partner with Native Americans to create a more accurate and respectful connection between the past and present; and they are on the cutting edge of archaeological research.

Archaeologists are some of the movers, shakers, and doers of our community. If you attend any community event anywhere in the county, it is likely that archaeologists or former archaeologists will be there in support. Walk into any restaurant in Cortez for dinner, and an archaeologist will probably be there.

Preservation of our archaeological resources, which are uniquely visible and uniquely accessible, as compared to much of the world, has been and will be a key to our economic viability. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act and other antiquities legislation has been of significant benefit to the Four Corners region, protecting a valuable resource that we can proudly share with the rest of the world.

Leslie Sesler writes from Dolores, Colo.

From Guest Column.