CRM Journal

Book Review

The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation

Edited by David Harmon, Francis P. McManamon, and Dwight T. Pitcaithley. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2006; 320 pp., photographs, table, bibliography; cloth $45.00; paper $19.95.


The Antiquities Act cover

What is it that triggers the urge to mark centennials of beginnings—Alpha events as many call them—differently from other anniversaries, with books, ceremonies, exhibits, commemorative plates, and all sorts of other memorabilia? The late Jesuit priest and Arizona State Museum curator of ethnohistory Charles Polzer said that it has to do with Western culture's linear, as opposed to circular, sense of time. Even though 100th anniversaries are not beyond our experience (as are quincentenaries, for example), they are generally beyond our expectations (consider, for instance, our individual life expectancies), making it both easier and more important supposedly for us in Western societies to commemorate them.(1)

The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation looks at one of those Alpha events: the passage in June 1906 of the first law in the United States to preserve and protect sites of scientific and historic interest on lands either owned or controlled by the Federal Government.(2) The Act established penalties for the unauthorized appropriation, excavation, injury, or destruction of "any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity" on federal land and authorized the Secretary of the Interior and others to issue permits to qualified applicants for the excavation and study of ruins and archeological sites in the public interest. The Act is better known for the authority it granted the President of the United States to set aside, by proclamation, "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" on federal land as national monuments. As the book's many contributing authors demonstrate, the Antiquities Act deserves our special attention because of its impact on cultural resource stewardship in the United States.

Rarely has a single cultural resource law generated so much history and controversy and left such a robust legal legacy and system of protected natural and cultural sites as to warrant an entire book. Rarer still is a book about any single law that is informative, reflective, illustrated, and an immense pleasure to read. The Antiquities Act is divided into logical parts of three to four essays apiece. An introductory essay and a final section, consisting of a conclusion by the editors, a useful appendix of facts and figures on the nation's national monuments, and a bibliography round out the 320-page volume.

The essays in Part 1, including a portion of the late National Park Service chief historian Ronald Lee's 1970 administrative history of the Antiquities Act, trace the Antiquities Act idea from its origins in the third quarter of the 19th century, through passage of the Act in 1906, and beyond. Raymond Harris Thompson's and Rebecca Conard's biographical pieces on archeologist Edgar Lee Hewitt and Iowa Congressman John Lacey—the two kindred spirits credited with drafting, introducing, and revising the Antiquities Act legislation—effectively illustrate the personal drive, interpersonal communication, and political maneuvering involved in seeing even the tersest piece of legislation to passage in the United States Congress. A number of thoughtful insights into the Act's origins are embedded in Char Miller's provocative Part 1 closer, "Landmark Decision: The Antiquities Act, Big-Stick Conservation, and the Modern State," in which Miller anchors the Act in the paternalistic social idealism of the Progressive Era and the imperialistic temperament of Theodore Roosevelt's early-20th-century presidency.

The title of Part 2, "Presidential Audacity and Its Discontents: The Act's Legacy of Controversy," speaks for itself, and the essays remind us of the formidable political dimensions of most, if not all, major land conservation decisions. Hal Rothman, Cecil Andrus and John Freemuth, and Mark Squillace recount the controversial monument proclamations of Presidents Frankin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton and the lessons learned during their administrations. James Rasband offers a different view of the Act and the role of public participation in land conservation efforts.

National monument proclamations notwithstanding, the Antiquities Act was responsible for setting the ground rules for public archeology, historic preservation, and nature conservation in the United States, the focus of Part 3. Francis McManamon and Jerry Rogers ably tackle the first two topics, and David Harmon takes on the Act's overlooked legacy of ecological connoisseurship in reference to the third. The Act paved the way for resource stewardship laws of increasing scope and sophistication, including the National Park Service Act (the Organic Act) of 1916, the Historic Sites Act of 1935, the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It also resulted in high standards of ecological (and cultural) significance that Harmon notes are to account for the large number of U.S. national monuments inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

In his essay, "The Antiquities Act at One Hundred Years: A Native American Perspective," Joe Watkins suggests that the Act was equally responsible for seriously eroding, if not obliterating, American Indian control over their cultural patrimony. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), and amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act authorizing the establishment of tribal historic preservation offices have helped restore some of that control over material remnants. However, other issues involving sacred sites and traditional cultural expressions and practices on public lands remain unresolved.

The essays in Part 4, "New Horizons," touch upon some of the challenges resource stewards face in adapting the Antiquities Act to new circumstances. Case studies by Elena Daly and Geoffrey Middaugh, Darla Sidles and Dennis Curtis, and Brad Barr and Katrina Van Dine relate how the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies that are new to the national monuments game have approached their stewardship responsibilities. The studies also illustrate how the National Park Service has worked in partnership with other bureaus to co-manage new national monuments, and how the Federal Government is addressing the issue of marine monuments.

Regarding the latter, Barr and Van Dine's essay was prescient: In June 2006, President George W. Bush issued a proclamation establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Island Marine National Monument, the largest marine conservation area in the world. President Bush's February 2006 proclamation of the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan, an urban archeological site of immense cultural implications, attests to the enduring value of the Antiquities Act in the expanding universe of heritage stewardship today.

"In many ways," write the editors at the start of Part 5, "the central story of the Antiquities Act revolves around intentions. What did the architects of the Act intend?" An alternative central story of equal interest to this reviewer has to do with the pivotal role of interpersonal and other relationships in giving birth to an act for the preservation of American antiquities and keeping it alive for 100 years. Key relationships—among Hewlett and Lacey, the Executive and Legislative branches of the Federal Government, the Eastern establishment and the "uncharted" West, Native and non-Native Americans, federal and local authorities, different federal bureaus and agencies, and, most importantly, people and the land—cycle in and out of all the essays, making for an exhilarating, memorable read.

Now that the American Antiquities Act has made it into the century club, and the story of its origins and first 100 years has received formal recognition in an exemplary centennial publication, historians can work with renewed vigor towards placing the Act in an international historical context. Great Britain and France, for instance, arrived at definitive forms of their ancient monuments and antiquities legislation within 10 years of the American Antiquities Act (1912 and 1913), but the earlier iterations of those modern laws date from 1882 and 1887 respectively. Lee and other authors indicated that Congress had been briefed on European antiquities protections as early as 1900 but left this reader wondering what Congress had been told.

The European connection is tantalizing for a number of other reasons that merit closer attention. The authors mention a growing concern in the United States in the late 19th century over the great demand in Europe for American antiquities. They also mention the European explorers and pothunters who occasioned the American West and the many Americans, including Hewitt, who had studied at European universities. A year before the passage of the American Antiquities Act, the British fine arts professor G. Baldwin Brown published The Care of Ancient Monuments: An Account of the Legislative and Other Measures Adopted in European Countries for Protecting Ancient Monuments and Objects and Scenes of Natural Beauty, which, significantly, included an appendix entitled, "A note on the care of mountains, aesthetic control in cities, protection of natural scenery, etc., in the United States."(3)

Miller points out that Theodore Roosevelt linked the rational restraint of the Progressivism ideology to the writings of the 18th-century British statesman and theorist Edmund Burke, even quoting a passage from Burke's 1791 open letter to the French National Assembly in his 1905 message to Congress. A harsh critic of the violence and political extremism of the French Revolution of 1789, Burke warned the Assembly that men were "qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites," which Roosevelt and other Progressives later referenced in support of government regulation and protection of public lands and other resources in the public interest.(4)

There is a tinge of irony in Miller's recounting of Roosevelt quoting Burke in the context of the American Antiquities Act. During the French Revolution, that same National Assembly had established a monuments commission to compile an inventory of all property that the new regime had seized from the old one (namely, from the Catholic Church, the French nobility, and the Crown). That inventory is said to have served the dual purpose of protecting the newly acquired national patrimony for French citizens while also protecting that same patrimony against acts of anticlerical and antimonarchical ideological vandalism committed by those same citizens.(5) According to Miller, Roosevelt and Hewitt were of the mind that the time had come in the early 20th century for the United States Congress to, in Miller's words, "stop vandals from pilfering the nation's archaeological heritage" and pass protective legislation, which is essentially what France's revolutionary National Assembly had done in Edmund Burke's time and, presumably, to Burke's dismay.

The French example goes to show that state regulation of antiquities for the public and from the public has some very deep roots. Additional research and reflection on this topic may reveal that the origins—and the Alpha event—of the American and other antiquities acts are older than most people think.

Martin Perschler
National Park Service



1. Charles W. Polzer, "The Quincentenary and the Superbowl Sunday Syndrome," Five Hundred Magazine 1 no. 1 (May/June 1989),, accessed October 29, 2006.

2. American Antiquities Act, U.S. Code, vol. 16, sec. 431-433 (1906). See also Richard Waldbauer and Sherry Hutt, "The Antiquities Act of 1906 at Its Centennial," CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 3 no. 1 (winter 2006): 36-48.

3. G. [Gerard] Baldwin Brown, The Care of Ancient Monuments: An Account of the Legislative and Other Measures Adopted in European Countries for Protecting Ancient Monuments and Objects and Scenes of Natural Beauty, and For Preserving the Aspect of Historical Cities (Cambridge, United Kingdom: The University Press, 1905). This reviewer was unable to find any reference to Brown's book in any of the essays.

4. In "A Letter from Mr. Burke to a Member of the National Assembly in Answer to Some Objections to His Book on French Affairs" (January 19, 1791) Burke writes—

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity—in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

5. The constitutional bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire, first used the term, "vandalisme," during the French Revolution to describe the destruction of ancient royal and ecclesiastical monuments belonging to the state. See, for instance, Françoise Choay, L'Allegorie du Patrimoine (Paris, France: Editions du Seuil, 1992), Dominique Poulot, "Naissance du monument historique," Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 32 (1985), and Louis Réau, Histoire du vandalisme: Les monuments détruits de l'art français (1959; Paris, France: R. Laffont, 1994).