Antiquities Act Essay

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The Antiquities Act of 1906 was the first law in the United States to designate and protect archaeological sites and artifacts. It gave the president the right to declare by public proclamation the creation of “national monuments, historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” based on archaeological significance. In addition, looting of related artifacts was made illegal on federal lands.

The Antiquities Act has three primary parts. First, it calls for the prosecution of persons who excavate, appropriate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument or any artifact on federal lands, and specifies penalties for those convicted of these offenses. The act specifies that any person convicted of appropriating, excavating, injuring, modifying, or destroying any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any artifact, is to be fined no more than $500, be imprisoned for a period not to exceed 90 days, or be both fined and imprisoned at the discretion of the court.

Second, the act empowers the president to declare areas of public lands as U.S. National Monuments, reserving, modifying, or accepting private lands for this purpose of conversion to monument status as well. Since its passage in 1906, the act has been used by 14 out of 18 presidents (the four nonusers being Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush). Congress also has the power to declare national monuments, having done so in 29 cases. Of the 105 national monuments proclaimed under the Antiquities Act, 46 are larger than 5,000 acres and 28 are larger than 50,000 acres. Hunting and grazing are often allowed within the boundaries of U.S. National Monuments, because they are usually managed less stringently than U.S. National Parks. In addition, it is not uncommon for a national monument to ultimately be redesignated as a national park. In fact, 25 percent of America’s national parks were originally designated as monuments under the Antiquities Act and include such wonders as the Grand Canyon, Arches, and Bryce Canyon. Noteworthy implementation of the act has included Theodore Roosevelt declaring 18 national monuments in nine states, Jimmy Carter declaring 56 million acres in Alaska, and Bill Clinton designation of 1.7 million acres for Grand StaircaseEscalante National Monument in 1996.

Finally, the Antiquities Act permits the examination and assessment of ruins, excavation of archeological sites, and the collection of objects of antiquity on lands owned or controlled by the United States, including federal marine environments on which submerged cultural resources are located. The act permits and/or regulates related salvage procedures. The act establishes that such permissions are under the jurisdiction of the appropriate secretary of the land being investigated (i.e., Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Defense). The secretary may authorize the institutions deemed qualified to conduct such examination, excavation, or gathering.

The act requires that “examinations, excavations, and gatherings” are conducted for the benefit of museums, universities, and colleges, and/or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, for the purpose of increasing the knowledge of such artifacts, and that the collections from such “gatherings” be made a part of public museum displays and collections.


  1. David Harmon, The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preseruation, And Nature Conseruation (University of Arizona Press, 2006);
  2. National Park Service Web,

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