Much of the archaeology carried out in the United States is done through federal organizations, with 1,180 full time archaeologists employed by the Executive Branch. There are 35-40 federal agencies that have some form of involvement in archaeology whether directly performing the service or managing lands it occurs upon. These agencies fall under three types, land managing agencies like the National Park Service, development agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and regulatory agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Over fifty five thousand archaeological activities are carried out annually under these federal agencies, covering everything from planning and overview, inventory and evaluation and data recovery. Each of these agencies and the various archaeological projects they oversee fall under the legislative guidelines presented by a series of acts developed through the 20th century. The first to come into play was the Antiquities Act of 1906. It was the first legislation to protect archaeological resources by prohibiting the excavation of antiquities without the permission of the Secretary of State. It also gave the Secretary of State the power to declare national monuments. Section 3 of the Antiquities Act is the most important part for archaeology. In this section the value of the excavations is in the knowledge we can gather from them. Permission to examine properties on federal lands will be given
“provided, that the examinations, excavations, and gatherings are undertaken for the benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums.”

In 1916 the National Park Service was formed and began to take over the care and management of some of the national battlefields. Then in 1935 the Historic Sites Act authorized the NPS to carry on work, document, acquire and manage a larger span of places important in the nation’s history. Within this act is included the National Historic Landmarks Program, which puts properties found to be nationally significant by the Secretary of the Interior under the management of NPS. Another important part of this act is that it designates these historic sites to be put to public use. The Archaeological and Historic preservation Act of 1960 provided protection to historic sites, buildings, documents, relics and other data that were in danger of being lost or permanently damaged. Specifically it protects archaeological and historical material that may be lost during the construction or after the implementation of a dam. In 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act was created and put into action and expanded the coverage of protection to traditional cultural places and landscapes. The National Register keeps track of historic sites, buildings, objects and other resources found to be significant in American history on the local, state and national levels. In this way it raises awareness about significant places in the public eye. Two of the most important sections within the National Historic Preservation Act are sections 106 and 110. In section 106 of the NHP act it is required that consideration be taken concerning the effect of a project on places included on, or eligible for, the National Register. Section 110, on the other hand, puts the accountability for cultural resources on the federal agencies managing the lands those resources reside upon. In 1974 the 9th circuit court of appeals challenged the Antiquities Act, setting a looter free on the grounds that the wording of what an ‘antiquity’ actually was, was far too ambiguous. The emergence of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in 1979 ended such ambiguities, clearly defining what was and was not to be considered an antiquity. ARPA stated that in order for an item to be considered an archaeological resource of antiquity it had to be at least 100 years old. Excluded from this, incidentally, were arrowheads found on the ground surface because President Carter was a collector. The purpose of ARPA was to protect resources deemed of archaeological interest, both on public lands and on native American lands, from pillaging and uncontrolled excavation or damage. To deter fortune hunters from this practice stiff penalties were applied for pillaging and illegal excavation. Instead of $500 fines offenders now faced felony charges, which was a much more effective deterrent.

In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed and the protection of native American resources was expanded beyond lands to burial items, including remains. Prior to this the final resting place of native Americans had not been held sacred by archaeologists and institutions seeking to expand their collections. Skeletons and ceremonial items were dug up and put on display for the entire world to see, something that enraged and deeply offended many native American groups. We had not treated the remains of white settlers in such a way, so why were native Americans exclusively made into display items? NAGPRA insured that graves would not be disturbed in the future and that remains and grave items that had been removed in the past were repatriated to their peoples. The requirements for repatriation were that they first search for lineal descent and barring that they go to either the tribe who’s land the remains were found on, the group with the closest cultural affiliation, or maintained by the federal agency under guidelines agreed upon with a native American council. NAGPRA continues to be a controversial act with the definition of what is native American currently being the debated point.

A final issue in the federal archaeology program, one that has worsened in recent years, is the maintenance of collections. Storehouses of archaeological collections are beginning to fill due to decades of archaeologists bagging everything found at sites and keeping it as important, regardless of quantity or quality of the material. In some cases over ten pounds of shell midden has been stored for one site, in others greater quantities of similar material or rocks, charcoal, etc. Compounding this situation is the belief that nothing should be thrown out because it could lead to further understanding down the road when new technologies become available. The larger issue is that much of the material that has been stored over the decades hasn’t been cataloged and analyzed, it is simply sitting there ignored. Although the National Historic Preservation Act required that agencies keep records and be accountable for their collections; there was one flaw in its design, the lack of a compliance deadline. Officials are currently working to write legislation that will require maintenance and/or disposal of the vast collections stored to make room for collections that are currently being gathered.

Childs, Terry. 2005 National Park Service employee. Collections Management Lecture at UMCP.

McManamon, Dr. Frank. 2005 National Park Service employee. Federal Archaeology Program Lecture at UMCP.

Seibert, Erika Martin. 2005 National Park Service employee. National Register of Historic Places Lecture at UMCP.

Thomas, David Hurst. 2001 Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. Basic Books.