Antiquities Act of 1906

by Dustin Munroe

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, private antiquities collectors, known as “pot hunters,” began to remove historic artifacts from abandoned Native American settlements in the southwestern part of the United States.  Preservationists, such as Edgar Lee Hewett, urged the U.S. government to protect these fragile archeological sites against looting and vandalism.  Congressman John F. Lacey, chairman of the House Committee on Public Lands, travelled to the American Southwest with Hewett to witness the destruction of these sites.  Lacey’s report to Congress became the basis for the Antiquities Act,[1] which was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906.  It was the first legislation designed to protect and preserve historic landmarks, cultural sites, and objects of scientific interest within the United States.[2]

The Antiquities Act consists of four separate sections, each providing guidance on how the act is to be administered by various government agencies.  Section I describes the penalties for inappropriately excavating, damaging, or destroying historic ruins, artifacts, or any other object of antiquity.  Individuals convicted of committing such acts could be fined up to $500, imprisoned for a period of up to 90 days, or subject to a combination of the two penalties.[3]

Section II of the Antiquities Act authorizes the President of the United States to set aside areas of public land as national monuments, thereby giving the executive branch extraordinary power to preserve America’s cultural and scientific treasures.  Unlike national parks, which require congressional approval prior to establishment, the president can designate historic landmarks, structures, or other objects as national monuments.[4]  The act stipulates that the president can reserve parcels of land “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”[5]  Needless to say, this clause has been liberally interpreted by many presidents throughout the years.  In April 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the establishment of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, an area that encompassed nearly 331,000 acres in the Sonoran Desert.  The largest national monument was established in 2006, when President George W. Bush set aside 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.[6]

Section III of the Antiquities Act outlines the rules and regulations that must be followed when excavating, examining, or gathering historical artifacts from a national monument.  Only archaeologists or other qualified individuals may obtain permits through the Secretary of the Interior, Agriculture, or Army.  In addition, all excavation, examination, or collection of historical artifacts must be undertaken by reputable colleges or universities, museums, or other scientific or educational institutions.  Finally, all relics that are recovered from national monument sites are to be permanently preserved in museums.[7]  The guidelines found in this section of the Antiquities Act are very important to the preservation of the heritage and the education of future generations of Americans.

The final section, Section IV, gives authority to federal agencies to administer the provisions of this Act.[8]

Fifteen U.S. presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama, have utilized the powers granted to them by the Antiquities Act to create national monuments.  To date, approximately 130 different sites have been designated as national monuments.[9]

Further Reading

Collins, Robert Bruce, and Dee F. Green. “A Proposal to Modernize the American Antiquities Act.” Science 202 (December 8, 1978): 1055-1059.

Freeman, Ronald Lee. “An Old and Reliable Authority: An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities.” Edited by Raymond Harris Thompson. Journal of the Southwest 42 (Summer 2000): 197-269.

Hewett, Edgar L. “The Preservation of American Antiquities.” Science 21 (March 10, 1905): 397-398.

Hewett, Edgar L. “The Preservation of American Antiquities: Progress during the Last Year; Needed Legislation.” American Anthropologist 8 (January–March 1906): 109-114.

Righter, Robert W. “National Monuments to National Parks: The Use of the Antiquities Act of 1906.” Western Historical Quarterly 20 (August 1989): 281-301.

Rothman, Hal. Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Sellars, Richard W. “Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History.” New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.


[1] Richard Sellars, “A Very Large Array: Early Federal Historic Preservation—The Antiquities Act, Mesa Verde, and the National Park Service Act,” Natural Resources Journal 47 (Spring 2007): 288-293.

[2] The Antiquities Act of 1906, 16 U.S.C., §§ 431-433.

[3] Antiquities Act, 16 U.S.C., §§ 431-433.

[4] Francis P. McManamon, “The Antiquities Act—Setting Basic Preservation Policies,” Cultural Resource Management 19 (1996): 18-23.

[5] Antiquities Act, 16 U.S.C., §§ 431-433.

[6] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “About Us,” Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, http://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/about/welcome.html (accessed March 26, 2012).

[7] Antiquities Act, 16 U.S.C., §§ 431-433.

[8] Ibid.

[9] National Park Service, “National Monument Proclamations under the Antiquities Act,” National Park Service History E-Library, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/monuments.htm (accessed March 26, 2012).

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