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.