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 Chapter 4: Preserving the Past for the Future Minimize

Item: In the summer of 1973 an organization of some 40 persons of American Indian descent living in the Louisville, Kentucky, metropolitan area vehemently protested the excavation of a nearby archaeological site, condemning the scientists involved as "desecrators and grave robbers."

Item: Over a period of several years, the elite tombs of the important site of Rio Azul, an ancient Maya city deep in the forest of northern Guatemala, were sacked by highly organized and heavily armed bands of clandestine looters who routinely roam the area in quest of salable artifacts.

Item: In 1987 a multistate group of relic collectors and dealers leased the Slack Farm site, at the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio Rivers in Kentucky, and proceeded to dig with abandon. Their efforts turned one of the more important archaeological sites in the East into a useless crater field littered with human bones and broken grave goods. Protests of Native Americans resulted in the reburial of the salvaged bones, while the process of prosecution was hindered by the ambiguity of state law.

It is easy to see from these incidents that archaeologists must be concerned with much more than the scientific investigation of past human culture. Indeed, archaeology today is a public profession that carries great responsibilities. Among the issues that must be faced, two in particular stand out. One, the opposition of some Native American groups to the excavation and care of skeletal material and burial goods is leading to a reconsideration of traditional approaches. The other, the accelerated destruction of sites by looting, most often motivated by greed, threatens the very continuation of archaeology in many areas.

Archaeology and Native Americans

Many factors come into play in the greater question of how the methods of studying the North American past can be reconciled with the interests of those whose ancestors are often the subjects of study. Concerns of Native Americans include the relationship of the site or culture being excavated to living groups or tribes and the fate of human remains and burial goods that have been removed from archaeological sites. In considering such things, there is no definable "Indian attitude" toward archaeology, for viewpoints range from cooperative approval to militant protest.

A program of excavation carried out at an important site in northwestern Washington shows that the interests of Native Americans and archaeologists are often compatible. The Ozette site lies on a steep forested slope that faces the rocky, island-studded tidal area fringing the westernmost shore of the continental United States. The land is part of the Ozette Indian Reservation, home of the Makah tribe. There, some 500 years ago, a slide of clay from the upper slope spilled over at least six wooden houses, sealing them and their contents in such a way as to preserve virtually everything, including objects of wood, basketry, and even cloth—materials rarely recovered from any archaeological site. The discovery of Ozette in 1966 excited not only archaeologists but also the Indians upon whose land the site lay. At the urging of the late Senator Henry Jackson and others, and through a program of cooperation among the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, and Richard Daugherty of the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University, funds were provided for the long-term excavation of the site. By terms of the agreement between the Makah Indians and the archaeologists, all excavated objects remain on the reservation in a museum run by trained Makah. Meanwhile, people of the reservation helped with the digging and the running of the preservation laboratory at nearby Neah Bay. The situation at Ozette, so different from that at Louisville, demonstrates that carefully considered archaeological programs and cooperation beforehand can serve both the pride of Native Americans in their own past and the desires of science.

The cooperation between Native Americans and archaeologists that has been so productive at Ozette is paralleled by programs among the Zuni of New Mexico and others in the United States. In contrast, many Native Americans protesting the action of archaeologists consider the excavation of any site, no matter how ancient or unidentifiable in relation to modern people, an unnecessary violation of remains they consider sacred. This conflict of interests is difficult to reconcile neatly, for it involves deep-seated values and beliefs as well as the possible resentments of those long subjected to "study" by outsiders but deprived of knowledge of the results or the benefits of those studies.
Clearly this problem is a challenging one; it is hoped it can be approached with compromise and compassion and solved. Few would disagree with the Native American contention that the display or illustration of burials and skeletons by museums and publications reduces them to sensational objects of curiosity and thus violates the fundamental respect due one people by another. As a consequence of protests calling attention to these things, archaeologists and museums have reevaluated attitudes and revised policies regarding the exhibition of human remains.

Destruction of the Archaeological Record

Surely the most staggering problem facing archaeologists is the increasing rate of destruction of sites. This destruction of the past can come about in many ways.

The looting of Rio Azul, Guatemala, is only one of numerous incidents that have occurred in the homeland of the ancient Maya and their descendants. Many have involved the loss of hieroglyphic texts carved on stone monuments—writings that could have revealed information about individual rulers, conquests, places, and dates vital to our knowledge of ancient Maya history. Thus, the Maya area has become the setting for a desperate race between scholarship and thievery. Looters customarily use a chainsaw to cut up monuments for easier transport of the heavy limestone. Those relief carvings that are not shattered in the process—tiny fragments of many of the finest works of Maya art litter the jungle floor—end up in art galleries, museums, and private collections all over the world, forever torn from their original contexts. The most obvious loss is to the nation where such theft takes place, for the looting and export of these objects denies its citizens access to the remains and the symbols of their own cultural heritage.

The loss is by no means confined to the Maya area. Indeed, looting takes place at a staggering rate all over the world, from the Etruscan tombs of central Italy to the ancient cemeteries of the Philippines; from Southwestern pueblos to Civil War battlefields and 19th-century shipwrecks.

In Peru treasure-hunting huaqueros—the local term for illegal diggers of burials—have stripped hundreds of sites once occupied by the Inca and their predecessors in the central Andes in their persistent search for buried gold artifacts or any other object in demand on the world art market. Among thousands of relatively unspectacular—but no less important—sites around the world, the situation is equally grim.

Looting is just one of the forces that are destroying our archaeological record. Modern development and natural forces such as erosion and rising sea level also take a toll each day. If the present rate of archaeological destruction continues, there may be no more sites to preserve in much of the world in 50 to 100 years. Because archaeological sites form an irreplaceable resource, we who are alive today are responsible for saving this valuable record, and archaeologists must sound the warning. If we do not meet this obligation, the incomplete knowledge gained up to now and in the very near future must suffice for the rest of time.

To learn more about topics covered in Chapter 4, visit these National Park Service Features:

America's Hidden Battlefields: Protecting the Archeological Story: America's battlefields teach us about some of the most important events in our history—and there is much more to a battlefield than immediately meets the eye! An important piece of this irreplaceable landscape is the reality of that long-ago battle that lies hidden underground. Through the protection, study, and interpretation of archeological evidence, we can enhance our understanding of those events, and ensure that the battle, itself, is remembered.

Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act (NAGPRA): The National Park Service has leadership responsibilities for this Act, including a grants program, providing guidance on law, publishing notices of inventory completion and notices of intent to repatriate, and working with the review committee.

Vanishing Treasures: This grass-roots initiative tackles the loss of irreplaceable historic and prehistoric structures and the skills to maintain these structures in over 40 southwestern national parks. The program ensures long-term preservation of these sites through training a new generation of craftspeople, many with cultural and other close ties to these sites. Visit the VT web site and the affected parks to learn more about the efforts to repair and maintain these significant resources.

Curation: When archeological sites are excavated or archeological surveys are conducted to locate sites, artifacts are usually collected. These must be properly cared for and documented for their long-term use by the public and scholars alike. Curation of archeological collections involves a number of important responsibilities.

Submerged Archeology: Learn about the underwater projects of the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, often in partnership with other organizations, including the U.S.S. Arizona and U.S.S. Utah at Pearl Harbor, ships and planes in Palau and Guam, and numerous historic shipwrecks in Dry Tortugas National Park and off Isle Royale National Park.

Strategies for Protecting Archeological Sites on Private Lands: Strategies serves as a guide to the wide variety of tools available for protecting archeological sites on private lands. It contains information on strategies that are currently being used throughout the country, contact information, and other sources of useful information.



Containers hold confiscated artifacts which were looted from various parks.

A looted archaeological site in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

Native American beadwork pieces.

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Buckskin Jacket in a humidification chamber during the conservation process.

Damage left by looters in Vicksburg National Military Park.

An archaeologist excavates a pottery cache in Leon County, Florida.