ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE LAW
"I got my rights and this is a free county. I pay taxes and I can dig there if
I want to----I've been doing it for years and nobody cares. I ain't bothering
nobody. I got my rights! If I can't dig here I might as well go to Russia". (excerpt
from an interview with a looter, Big Cypress National Preserve, 1981)
THE LEGAL STRUCTURE FOR THE PROTECTION OF
John M. Fowler
Laws for the protection of archaeological resources have existed in the United States for over a century.
Early enactments to protect specific Anasazi sites in the Southwest led to the Federal Government's first historic
preservation statute in 1906, the Antiquities Act. Since then, archaeological protection laws have evolved within the
broader context of the program to protect all aspects of the historic and prehistoric patrimony (see Friedman, Cheek,
Neumann, and Rogers this volume for further discussion of historic preservation law). As a result, the legal
framework today reflects a variety of forces and considerations, only a few of which are strictly related to the inherent
nature of archaeological resources.
The structure of preservation law in the United States is determined largely by the principles of federalism
and the traditional allocation of legal authority and political power to the various levels of government. As a result,
while a cohesive program of administrative structures and legal protections exists at the national government level,
the most stringent protections are provided for historic properties at the local level, the traditional repository of land-
use control authority. Indeed, it is important to note that no provision of federal law exists to prohibit the
destruction of a historic resource, unless it is in federal ownership.
Within this general constraint, the body of archaeological protection law has evolved in much the same way
other aspects of the national historic preservation program have. A threat is perceived to resources that a
constituency holds dear and legislative enactment of protective strictures follows. While the most far-reaching legal
activity has occurred at the federal level, recent years have witnessed an upsurge of state and local laws designed to
combat growing threats to archaeological resources beyond the reach of federal protections. The result is an
increasingly comprehensive tapestry of legal protections.
All levels of government have a role to play in protecting archaeological resources. Essentially, the Federal
Government sits at the top of the pyramid of the legal structure, focusing its powers on those resources in which there
is some national interest, either through ownership, significance or involvement with federal activities. The states
participate in many of the federal protective systems and add their own layer of state law to the tools available for
archaeological resource protection. Finally, local government, with its ability to directly regulate the use of private
property, offers legal tools to protect the widest range of resources.
Federal Programs and Protections
At the outset, a distinction must be drawn between those federal laws that apply to federal and non-federal
lands. Not surprisingly, the most stringent protections for archaeological and historic properties apply only to those
properties in government ownership. It is also important to note that the broader provisions of laws concerning all
kinds of historic properties are augmented by several federal laws that are designed specifically for the protection of
The keystone of federal preservation law is the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of l966 (l6
U.S.C. 470). It establishes the basic elements of the national historic preservation program and strongly influences
the shape of state and even local preservation laws. The NHPA creates a comprehensive system for the identification,
evaluation, protection and enhancement of historic resources. It also provides an administrative structure to carry out
At the center of the program is the National Register of Historic Places. This embraces the buildings, sites,
districts, structure, and objects that are significant in American history, archaeology, architecture, culture, and
engineering at the national, state and local level. Listing on the Register, or meeting the criteria of eligibility for it, is
a basic prerequisite for a property to benefit from the NHPA's protections and assistance. The National Register is
administered by the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the National Park Service.
The Register caps a nationwide inventory process for identifying significant historic properties. Conducted
primarily at the state level through individual State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) in accordance with federal
standards and criteria, surveys are ongoing to develop a nationwide data base for planning and resource allocation
decisions affecting historic properties.
Properties meeting the Register criteria are afforded protection through Section l06 of the NHPA. This
requires that a federal agency "take into account" the effects on such properties of activities which it carries out,
funds or otherwise assists or approves. When a historic property is affected, the agency must obtain the comments
of a cabinet-level historic preservation body, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (Council).
The Section l06 process, set forth in regulations as 36 CFR Part 800, is the basic protection in federal law
for historic properties. It applies to all properties on or eligible for the National Register, regardless of ownership, as
long as there is some federal involvement in the action affecting them. In practice, it is a conflict resolution process,
bringing together the project sponsor, preservation experts (the Council and the SHPO) and interested members of
the public. Agreement is sought on measures that will preserve significant features of the historic resource but also
allow the project to go forward.
While agreement is reached in the vast majority of cases, failure to agree results in the Council issuing
formal comments to the head of the federal agency proposing the project. The agency is obligated to consider the
comments in reaching a decision, but is not required to follow them. It is important to recognize that this system
provides no final authority to veto a federal action that might destroy a historic property, regardless of the importance
of the resource.
A related program provides for the recovery of historic and archaeological data that is threatened with loss
as a result of a project with federal involvement. Under the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act of l974 (l6
U.S.C. 460), an agency must notify the Secretary of the Interior when significant data will be lost. The agency or the
Secretary is authorized to undertake recovery of the data, in accordance with specified standards, and project funds
are allowed to be used for this purpose. This program is administered by the National Park Service.
For archaeological resources located on federal lands, substantially greater protections exist. The
Archaeological Resources Protection Act of l979 (l6 U.S.C. 470aa-ll) prohibits the unauthorized excavation of
archaeological sites and artifacts on federally-owned lands and establishes civil and criminal penalties for violations.
A permit system regulates the conduct of legitimate scientific investigations.
A final provision of general application to federal agencies is Section ll0 of the NHPA. This obligates
federal agencies to manage historic resources under their control in accordance with professional preservation
standards and policies. In l988, the National Park Service issued "Guidelines for Federal Agency Responsibilities
under Section ll0 of the National Historic Preservation Act" (53 Fed. Reg. 4727). These complement the "Secretary's
Standards and Guidelines for Archeology and Historic Preservation" (48 Fed. Reg. 447l6), which generally apply to
governmental activities affecting historic properties.
As previously noted, there are particular provisions of federal law and regulation that deal with the interests
of Native Americans in historic resources. The regulations implementing Section l06 make special provision for the
involvement of Indian tribes and Native Americans in the project review process. Likewise, the Advisory Council
has adopted specific policies regarding the treatment of human remains and grave goods in Section l06 cases.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (l6 USC l996) declares it to be the policy of the United States
to protect the free exercise of traditional religions by American Indians and provide access to sacred sites and the use
of sacred objects. A second provision required federal agencies to evaluate their programs to accommodate this
policy. While this has not provided specific legal protection to traditional sites and objects, it has influenced the
implementation of other federal preservation laws, such as the NHPA, and is occasionally referred to in regulations
and guidelines relating to archaeological and historic preservation.
In summary, the federal program provides for the identification of archaeologically and historically
significant resources and ensures their careful consideration in the planning of federal and federally-supported
projects. Likewise, federally-owned archaeological resources are given stringent protection against vandalism and
looting. However, the reach of federal law to privately-held resources is limited and its strictures only apply to the
actions of federal agencies that may harm such properties.
State Historic Preservation Laws
The role of the state government is essentially threefold: partner with the Federal Government in carrying
out the provisions of Federal law; implementor of state preservation laws; and authorizer for the conduct of
preservation regulation at the local government level. The first role is embodied in the state historic preservation
program, through which the SHPO participates in the survey and inventorying activities related to the expansion of
the National Register and plays an active role in the conflict resolution process of Section l06.
The second role varies greatly from state to state. A number of states have project review processes similar
to Section l06 of the NHPA, covering activities where there are state agencies involved. These are often tied to state
inventories of historic properties, similar to the National Register but usually embracing a larger number of
properties than the state has nominated to the federal list. Only a few states, though, extend these protections to
private actions that have no governmental involvement.
Closely related are state environmental policy acts, requiring consideration of the impacts of state and local
government-sponsored projects on the cultural and natural environments. These laws customarily mandate the
preparation of environmental impact statements and often provide a mechanism for rejecting projects that have
unacceptable impacts. They are often used to protect historic and archaeological resources.
Most states have enacted special laws for the protection of archaeological sites. Most common are laws that
parallel the protections for federally-owned lands. They establish a permit system for excavation on state-owned
lands and often place the administration of the system under a designated State Archeologist. A few states have
extended protection to private lands, requiring the consent of the owner before anyone disturbs an archaeological
A related area of state activity to protect archaeological resources extends to those resources located
underwater. With authority from the Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of l987 (43 U.S.C. 2l0l), states now have
title to historic shipwrecks within their jurisdiction and can issue permits to regulate salvage. The l987 law clarified
state authority and is expected to generate a number of new or revised state laws.
Another somewhat arcane area of law is also used for archaeological protection; that is legislation enacted
to protect cemeteries. While not always specifically directed at historic cemeteries and burials, their stringent
prohibitions on the disturbance of grave sites offer a legal tool that can be quite effective. Cemetery laws are also
found at the local level.
Finally, under the United States Constitution, those powers not given to the Federal Government are
reserved to the states. As a result, the exercise of such authorities as the police power by local governments, which
are creatures of the state, must be based on delegations of authority from the state government. Accordingly, the
basis for local government regulation must be found in state constitutions or legislative enactments. Thus the state
plays an important role in shaping the protection of historic resources at the local level.
Local Regulation of Historic Properties
It is at the local level of government that direct regulation of private activity affecting historic resources
occurs. Consistent with state enabling legislation, general zoning authority or constitutional provision, a local
government may enact a system that requires approval from a governmental body before a private action is allowed to
modify or destroy a historic property. This has been done in hundreds of communities throughout the nation (see
Kearns and Kirkorian this volume for a discussion of site protection at the local level).
Essentially, the protective process requires formal designation of a property as a local landmark and then
establishes a governmental commission to review and approve proposed alterations or demolition. While this process
can be used for individually listed properties, it is most often found applied to historic districts. The extent of
control may vary from simply delaying the proposed action for a period of time to allow negotiation to outright
While these techniques have been primarily used to protect historic structures and neighborhoods, they have
also been employed in some jurisdictions to protect archaeological resources. When so used, a similar kind of public
agency review of proposed private action which may disturb a recognized archaeological site occurs, leading to
approval or disapproval.
A Private Law Approach to Preservation
The foregoing discussion has focused on public regulation to protect historic properties. One of the most
effective tools for long-term preservation of historic and archaeological resources comes from consensual
arrangements among private parties and government agencies. Through the use of easements or preservation
restrictions, private properties are voluntarily removed from the threat of development.
An easement essentially is the surrender of certain development rights by the owner of a property, usually in
exchange for money or some tax benefit. A holding organization, either a governmental body or non-profit
organization, is given the legal right to review proposed changes to a historic property or alterations are prohibited
These restrictions "run with the land," that is, bind successive purchasers in accordance with the terms of the
easement. As they are not imposed on an unwilling owner by a governmental body, they tend to be more successful
in achieving their preservation objective. Easements are widely used to protect open space and archaeologically
Protecting historic resources in the United States relies upon the interplay of three levels of government.
While the standards for deciding what is significant are largely derived from the Federal Government, their
application and the most effective imposition of controls occurs at the state and local levels. Only at the local level
does the authority exist to absolutely prohibit the destruction of a privately-owned historic property. However, the
integration of historic preservation concerns into the planning of public projects is highly developed and achieves
substantial success in accommodating development and preservation goals.
This segmented system does not necessarily result in a lesser level of protection for historic properties, but
indeed dictates the political dynamics of establishing and administering protective programs. Recognition of where
the effective legislative and administrative decision making occurs is essential to the effective creation and use of
legal tools to protect historic resources. That is the real challenge confronting those who advocate a more effective
system of archaeological resource protection.
16 U.S.C. 470 (1966) National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
16 U.S.C. 460 (1974) Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974.
16 U.S.C. 470aa-II (1979) Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.
Federal Register (1988a) Guidelines for federal agency responsibilities under Section 110 of the National
Historic Preservation Act, 53 Fed. Reg. 4727.
Federal Register (1988b) Secretary’s standards and guidelines for archaeology and historic preservation, 48
Fed. Reg. 44716.
16 U.S.C. 1996, American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
43 U.S.C. 2101 (1987) Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987.