April is archaeology month. It is a good time to reflect on the value of the archaeological record and our collective heritage. In this article we discuss how state and federal laws work to protect archaeological sites.
Treasure hunting has become increasingly glamorized in the last few years in light of television programs such as American Digger and Nazi War Diggers. These shows go beyond examining small collections of arrowheads collected in childhood and show targeted destruction of historic sites to collect and sell artifacts for profit. Archaeologists call unauthorized excavation of archaeological and historic sites “looting.” Federal agencies report approximately 1,000 looting events every year in the US, and only 14 percent of cases are ever solved. In Alaska, looting of archaeological sites occurs most frequently in coastal areas in northwest Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Kodiak Island, where sites are highly visible and easily accessible. Ancient burials, historic cemeteries, and historic ship and aircraft wrecks are the most commonly targeted types of sites.
It is illegal to excavate or vandalize archaeological and historical sites on federal and state owned land.
There are several laws that protect cultural resources such as archaeological sites or historic buildings or cemeteries that apply, depending on land ownership. On federally-managed lands such as Fort Wainwright, other Army land, BLM lands, and national parks, sites are protected by three main federal laws: the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.
The NHPA requires federal land managers to consider the effects of their projects on historic buildings, archaeological sites, and other cultural resources. It requires them to identify where these resources occur and to develop a plan to avoid sites or mitigate the effects of an activity on those sites. This law allows the Army and other agencies to fund research and data collection on sites located on their lands. ARPA was designed to protect cultural sites on federal lands by requiring archaeologists to go through a permitting process and by providing criminal and civil penalties for the intentional destruction or looting of sites. NAGPRA makes it a criminal offence to buy and sell Native American human remains and burial objects.
Alaska State law AS 41.35.200 makes it a criminal offense to excavate or vandalize any historic or archaeological resource on state land without a permit. Furthermore, it is illegal to possess, buy, transport, or sell artifacts and historic objects acquired in violation of this law. The Alaska criminal code provides protection for sites on private lands through trespassing.
It is unethical to dig up historical and archaeological sites.
There are many costs to site looting, vandalism, and buying and selling of artifacts and historic objects, regardless of land status: sites sacred to Native Americans can be desecrated, important parts of history and our national heritage can be lost, archaeological data is destroyed, further destruction can be promoted, and tax payer funds are spent to assess and repair damage.
Excavating a site destroys it forever.
When archaeologists excavate a site, they take care to preserve information so that a significant amount of the past is recorded and so that future scientific techniques may be able to recover more data in the future. Archaeologists record information about the position and relationship of artifacts where they were left in the ground in order to decipher the age of the artifacts, the activities of past people, and other clues from the soils and sediments about the environment people were living in. Archaeologists are required to carefully describe their work and disseminate the information to the archaeological community and to the public. In order to excavate a site, an archaeologist needs to meet high professional standards defined in federal law and apply for a permit through the land manager that lays out the excavation methods and ways to demonstrate the results of their search.
There are severe penalties for looting and trading in illegal collections.
Under ARPA, first time offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and imprisoned up to one year. Second time felony offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and imprisoned for up to five years. Under NAGPRA, penalties for a first offense may result in a fine up to $100,000 and a year in prison. A person convicted of violating AS 41.35.200 is guilty of a class A misdemeanor and, in addition, can be subject to a civil penalty of $100,000 for each violation.
Educational efforts help protect cultural resources.
Many agencies have engaged in activities to educate communities about their local cultural resources. For example, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak has a partnership with families living and working near archaeological sites to conduct frequent evaluations of site conditions to protect sites from natural erosion or looting. They also have an annual public archaeology dig where local residents can participate in the archaeological process.
On Fort Wainwright, the Cultural Resources Management program conducts educational activities founded on prehistory and historic buildings in conjunction with post Earth Day events. There are several publications including a driving tour of the Ladd Field National Historic Landmark. All new Soldiers are informed about archaeological sites on training lands and ways to reduce their footprint when engaged in training activities. The program has also formed partnerships with University of Alaska Fairbanks and Texas A&M University to conduct scientific excavations on significant Army land sites.
Protecting our heritage isn’t the job of only archaeologists and historians. Everyone can protect archaeological sites using common sense and simple actions. Restrict vehicles to established roads and trails. Don’t dig holes unnecessarily. If you find a site or artifact, leave everything in place. If possible, record a GPS location or describe the location and give the information to the post Cultural Resources Manager.
If you see intentional damage to an archaeological site, contact officials immediately. Call the post Cultural Resources Manager at 361-3002, the police, or call the National Park Service Crime Hotline at 1-800-478-2724.
For more information about cultural resource laws or creative ways to protect archaeological sites, look at the following websites:
This article originally ran in the Alaska Post and is reprinted with permission.