Citing “abuses of power by previous administrations,” President Trump last week signed an order directing the Interior Department to review national monuments created under the American Antiquities Act since 1996. The “Presidential Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act” calls for the Secretary of the Interior to consider the appropriate classification of landmarks, structures, and objects, the process by which designations were made, the effects of designations, the concerns of State, tribal, and local government affected by designations, and “the requirements and original objectives of the Act.” Those original objectives were recently outlined by historian Samuel Redman in Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, which traces how museums in the United States collected, researched, and exhibited human remains, starting around the time of the Civil War and stretching deep into the twentieth century. In the adapted excerpt below, Redman describes how the lawless looting of human remains led to the passage of the American Antiquities Act in 1906, an act that transformed the practice of archaeology in North America and had broad implications for environmental and historical preservation in the American West.
Well before the end of the nineteenth century, serious researchers had come to a collective understanding: significant discoveries of human remains were managed poorly on a national scale. In 1887, Washington Matthews of the U.S. Army took over an expedition for the legendary anthropologist and adventurer Frank Hamilton Cushing after Cushing fell ill. Matthews was horrified to observe the state of important human remains littered throughout the American West. One account notes, “[Matthews] found that no attention had been paid to the collection or preservation of human bones, which were extremely fragile, crumbling to dust upon a touch, and which had been thrown about and trampled under foot by curious visitors, so that but little remained of value from the work which had been previously done.” Matthews took for granted the importance of certain remains, knowing even better than most anthropologists of his era the intellectual desires for skeletons—especially those of American Indians—for comparative anatomy or racial science. Since the majority of Anglo-Americans accepted the idea that the American Indian was, in fact, vanishing, it is unsurprising that Matthews was horrified to find naturally decaying skeletons—bones upended and exposed by looters—left to dust outside the protection of museum walls.
Other scientists, too, had grown concerned about looting from historic sites around the country, specifically those in the American West. Rediscovering striking archaeological sites in the American Southwest caused a stir both in the academic community and with writers who wrote for popular audiences. The territory of the United States, many were starting to realize, had a deep and rich history extending centuries before European contact. New discoveries in the American West suddenly seemed important to the growing investigation into ancient history in the Americas.
By the middle of the 1890s, newspaper editorials started to echo professional calls for the preservation of antiquities. An editorial appearing in the New York Herald in 1896 argued that “ignorant relic hunters” were clearly to blame for the destruction of antiquities and that only congressional action could save rapidly vanishing sites. The article urgently informed readers, “All these invaluable possessions are fast disappearing, simply for lack of proper legislation to protect them.” As proof, a growing tourist market had created a demand for ancient artifacts and works of art, which were easily bought and sold throughout the American West. If the government failed to act, the editorial warned, American heritage, in the form of “our heirlooms from the American aborigines,” would be unstudied and forever lost.
The mission of collecting human remains both synchronized with and actually advanced the arguments of those who were lobbying for the American Antiquities Act. Advocates in favor of legislating burial mounds, cliff dwellings, and other discoveries believed to possess historical significance on public lands represented museums in New York and Washington, DC, as well as anthropologists writing from the field. The chorus was strong enough to push Congress to finally pass the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which ultimately was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.
More than a generation before the passing of the American Antiquities Act, looters, amateur archaeologists, and tourists started ravaging sites of ancient human occupation in the American Southwest. The market for antiquities formed a series of steady streams for museums in the United States. Artifacts in private collections were frequently donated to museums (later generations often failed to possess the esoteric drive for collecting mummies or skulls for display above the fireplace). With the rediscovery of Mesa Verde—a vast and complex series of stone structures in Colorado—the Wetherill brothers marked the most prominent of a series of finds in the late nineteenth-century American West. Major discoveries at spectacular places like Mesa Verde, which soon became a national park, became examples that punctuated the countless other smaller incidents of the removal and sale of artifacts—including human remains—occurring at the same time in the United States.
Starting around the turn of the century, archaeological sites in the American West became popular tourist destinations, drawing hordes of elites from the East Coast and even a few curious travelers from Europe. Whereas a generation of elites in the United States had visited museums and fairs to view the striking remnants of ancient North American civilizations, the expansion of the railroad allowed a new generation of tourists to see the West firsthand. Many individuals simply could not resist the temptation to take an ancient artifact home with them as a souvenir, including human remains found in American West. Displays of skulls were commonplace in rural homesteads—a symbol of life, death, and the exotic Native American or pioneer history. Collecting and displaying skulls that had been found on farmsteads seemed almost fitting for many would-be collectors. The media and works of popular fiction popularized the notion of the West as a site for long-forgotten civilizations, cowboys, pioneers, and Native Americans.
In 1905, a feature article in the Los Angeles Herald proclaimed, “[The Southwest] has made a lasting impression on all students, for it is to them what Egypt and its ruins are to Europe. A land of antiquity, rich with the remains of an almost forgotten past. A land enveloped in a cloak of dust with which kindly nature has hermetically sealed her treasures.” This sense of mysticism about the treasures hidden in the American West helped fuel museum administrators’ desire to rescue human remains from that “cloak of dust,” and professional associations responded by forming committees to push for the passage of an act to prevent further looting from important sites.
The final version of the American Antiquities Act legally protected antiquities found on lands held in public domain and instituted penalties through fines. Subsequently, lands with important archaeological, paleontological, or historical material were eligible to become national monuments, thus providing federal protection against damage. This protection, however, was limited. Archaeological objects, rather than human remains, were the priority made explicit in the language of the bill. Several versions of the bill had worked their way through the House and Senate, with some versions even providing for the specific protection of “any aboriginal structure or grave on the public lands of the United States.” Although the work of professional organizations and the early draft proposals viewed by Congress pointed to “cemeteries, graves, [and] mounds,” the final version of the bill notably fails to identify graves and cemeteries specifically. Before the twentieth century, the language of preservation often lumped together human remains and archaeological objects, making equivalent, in practice, the preservation of stone tools and naturally mummified remains. Not only was the language left vague, but without a robust service physically protecting the sites—such as the National Park Service does today—the law initially provided only an easily penetrated shield around historically significant sites.
Early in the development of the American Antiquities Act, Congress turned to experts. According to the official Smithsonian report, William Henry Holmes, the chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology “was called upon to assist in formulating the uniform rules and regulations required by the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and War in carrying out the provisions of the law for the preservation of antiquities, to pass upon various applications for permits to explore among the antiquities of the public domain, and to furnish data needful in the selection of archaeological sites to be set aside as national monuments.” Holmes, in turn, supported the efforts of a politically shrewd young archaeologist from New Mexico named Edgar Lee Hewett. Ideas about collecting and research relevant to the Smithsonian’s anthropological collections therefore flowed directly from the museum to Capitol Hill, informing the final specifications of the bill.
In 1904, Hewett, a scholar skilled at working with government officials, bureaucrats, and scientists alike, launched a review of the American Indian antiquities of the American West. Hewett’s lobbying included letter writing and the publication of pamphlets that were circulated to concerned anthropologists and archaeologists (including those working in the field, like Alice Fletcher), as well as to politicians in Washington. His work advised Congress of the various problems related to preservation in the region and helped shape the final language of the bill. Hewett worked to navigate tensions between the Office of the Interior and the Smithsonian Institution, as the two agencies maintained contesting visions over the nature of the bill. Congressional reports on the proposed bill added, “It provides that any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States without having . . . permission . . . shall, upon conviction be fined in a sum of not more than $500 or be imprisoned for a period of not more than ninety days.”
The language of the bill points to the preservation of “antiquities,” but it was leveraged in practice by Theodore Roosevelt to protect sites of both historic and environmental significance. Between 1906 and 1908, historic sites including Montezuma Castle in Arizona, Chaco Canyon, and the Gila cliff dwellings in New Mexico were approved for protection under the act. Over the same span of time, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the Muir Woods in California, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona—all sites known for remarkable environmental significance—became national monuments under the same provisions. When the discovery of ancient or mysterious bodies resulted in their high-profile removal to museums for further study and display, the story had the unintended consequence of lifting environmental preservation efforts in the American West. The organic political connection between federal governance of ancient graves and environmental preservation efforts went almost completely unnoticed as these events took place.
After the passage of the law in 1906, Congress appropriated $3,000 for two years for the “excavation, repair, and preservation” of the Casa Grande Ruin in Arizona. Several other ancient monuments in the Southwest soon followed. The allotment for actual protection of historical sites and monuments was grossly inadequate, but it was a start; Congress gradually appropriated more funds to protect and preserve public lands of environmental and historical significance. In subsequent decades, the National Park Service built its own collection of materials—including human remains—discovered on federal lands. Museums, and archaeologists working on their behalf, now needed to apply for permits to collect archaeological material—including human remains—from federally owned sites. While the laws worked to protect sites from looting, they generally did not prohibit scientists and explorers who wished to deposit their discoveries at museums of natural history or anthropology.
Within a decade of the passage of the act, the U.S. Railroad Administration, the National Parks Service, and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began to jointly publish maps and pamphlets promoting tourism to the recently preserved archaeological sites of the American Southwest. A promotional pamphlet published by the National Park Service sometime after 1916 features an introductory quote from the secretary of the interior, Franklin Knight Lane. Lane assured potential visitors that “Uncle Sam asks you to be his guest” and that the parks were “the playgrounds of the people.” Following this was a more complete description of the sites around Mesa Verde National Park, including a series of photographs and maps of the park intended to orient visitors geographically. Pictures featured in the promotional pamphlet were taken by George L. Beam, a noted southwestern photographer. The last photograph in the collection featured a human skull and a series of long bones surrounded by a group of twelve impeccably preserved ancient clay jars. The caption notes the rarity of the jars but makes no mention of the human skeletons, despite their unmistakable prominence in the promotional photography.
Although the American Antiquities Act was vague with regard to its legal guidance for the treatment of human remains found on archaeological sites, it did represent a step in the direction of the professionalization of archaeology in the United States, with legislators establishing rules for antiquities as they were to be collected in the field. The American Antiquities Act not only had direct and obvious consequences for archaeology in North America; it also enacted a series of far less obvious consequences for general environmental and historical preservation in the American West. The popular presentation of rare and ancient skeletal remains—by scientists, government agencies, and the media—played a significant role in shaping ideas about attempts to collect bodies for the study of race and human history in this era.