Towards Strengthened Legal Protection for US Archaeological Sites

As we welcome the Obama administration into its first period, everyone at Sb is eager to see it restore science to its rightful place in US policy making and political culture. Now, from an archaeologist’s point of view, there is one area of US law where science is sorely lacking. And in this case, it’s not the second Bush administration’s fault. Actually, this is an area where US law has lagged behind that of the rest of the developed world for as long as there has been a developed world.

What is science’s rightful place in US cultural heritage management law? It should be everywhere, while at present it is only really there on federally owned land.

The US constitution emphasises the rights and freedoms of the individual and of each state in the Union. Unfortunately, this means that in the US, the fate of an archaeological site threatened by land development depends, quite haphazardly, on who owns the land it’s sitting on and in which state that land is located.

What the US needs, from the perspective of the science of archaeology, is a set of simple federal blanket laws to the effect that if someone wants to develop a piece of land with the slightest potential for an archaeological site on it, then the developer must pay for archaeological evaluation and possibly a rescue dig. This is how it works in most of Europe. Surely the mightiest country in the world can have no problem in attaining a similar level of protection for its cultural heritage.


4 thoughts on “Towards Strengthened Legal Protection for US Archaeological Sites

  1. There are many issues with the US attitude towards archaelogy and they aren’t going to change any time soon. To just name a another under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act the default assumption is essentially that any human remains are the property of the tribes that are in the area regardless of whether scientists think that there is any connection. This gets wrapped in all sorts of Native American religious views in a way similar to how young earth creationists think, but without the ability to use a legal cudgel. The classic example of this was Kennewick Man where the Umatilla tried to get control of the remains and they were quite explicit that their claim was based on their religious belief that the tribe had been in the area since the creation of the world. Moreover, it seemed clear to observers that one reason they wanted to control Kennewick was that they didn’t want further evidence that their creation myth was a fairy tail. The court did eventually rule against the tribe but it took a long drawn out court battle and it is not the only example of this sort of thing happening.

    Unfortunately, my impression is that the Democrats are more in favor of such legislation than the Republicans so a solution to this problem is not going to come any time soon.


  2. I agree that it’s high time archeology got a fair shake in the U.S., but I’ll faint dead away if it happens. Obama is putting many Nobel Prize-winning scientists in his camp, but I don’t know of any in archeology. I think physics, medicine, chemistry, and that stripe are more his style. Practical concerns are the order of the day. But at least he is open to reason, where a certain Shrubbery was not.


  3. Things are slowing changing. On what used to be my grandfather’s homestead in Montana, near the Missouri River where the explorers Lewis and Clark traveled, the government required the developers of a coal burning electrical generation plant to review the plant’s effect on not just the physical environment, but also the historical context.

    It was strange to read the study’s findings of the old garbage dump in the gully behind what was once the main house. It makes me wonder what somebody will think of the waste of today in a hundred years.


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