October 31, 1999, marked the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA). This anniversary merits recognition by the archaeological community because of ARPA's 20 years of service as the primary tool to protect archaeological resources on federal and Indian lands from losses due to looting and vandalism.
ARPA (P.L. 9695; 16 U.S.C. 470 aamm) prohibits unauthorized damage or removal of archaeological resources located on federal or Indian lands and provides for felony penalties for serious violations and repeat offenders. It also prohibits trafficking of archaeological resources obtained illegally from federal or Indian lands, allows for the assessment of civil penalties against violators, and provides for the forfeiture of all archaeological resources, vehicles, and equipment involved in violations. In addition, ARPA extends some protection to archaeological resources on non-federal lands by prohibiting interstate or foreign commerce of these resources when they were obtained or trafficked in violation of state or local law.
The need for this statute became apparent after the American Antiquities Act of 1906 was ruled unconstitutionally vague in the Ninth Judicial Circuit as a result of a 1973 case in Arizona and a 1977 case in the same state rendered the federal theft or injury of government property statutes unusable for archaeological violations (the latter ruling was later overturned). These two rulings left archaeological sites in the West virtually unprotected from looting and vandalism. Also by the late 1970s, the penalties of the 1906 act were no longer an effective deterrent to archaeological resource crime. To remedy this situation, the Society for American Archaeology worked with the Department of the Interior, representatives of other federal agencies, and members of Congress to draft a new act to protect archaeological resources and ARPA was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 31, 1979.
Subsequent developments also were important in shaping ARPA as it is utilized today. In 1984, the ARPA Uniform Regulations were adopted. These regulations establish important provisions for the implementation of ARPA, such as the procedures for determining the cost and value figures required for criminal and civil penalties under the act. In 1988, ARPA was amended to modify certain existing provisions of the act (P.L. 100588) and add one new section (P.L. 100555). The most important aspect of the amendment of ARPA from a protection standpoint was the reduction of the act's felony vs. misdemeanor threshold from $5,000 to $500, which has allowed more felony prosecutions for archaeological violations. (There had been only one felony conviction under ARPA in a jury trial prior to 1988.)
The amended ARPA statute has not solved the archaeological resource crime problem, but it has had a significant impact on the activities of looters and vandals. Based on figures provided by the National Park Service, it is projected that there have been over 200 convictions under ARPA since 1988. This is in sharp contrast with the period between 1906 and 1979 when there were only 18 convictions under the Antiquities Act. With 37 convictions under ARPA since 1992, including the 1995 case in which a long-time commercial looter was sentenced to federal prison for 5 years and the 1997 case resulting in felony convictions for 10 defendants, archaeological protection efforts in Utah provide a good example of what can be accomplished when ARPA is aggressively enforced.
Despite our successes with ARPA in the 1980s and 1990s, archaeological resource protection faces a number of significant challenges as we move into the new millennium. Among these are:
the lack of adequate law enforcement resources to effectively combat the problem;
the lack of support for archaeological resource protection efforts from some segments of the public, some land managers, and, unfortunately, some members of the archaeological community;
The 20th anniversary of the enactment of ARPA should be honored by all members of the Society for American Archaeology as an important opportunity to rededicate and expand our archaeological resource protection efforts so that these challenges can be overcome. If we do not meet these challenges, the cultural heritage of the United States will continue to suffer and future generations of archaeologists will not have the opportunity to know the archaeological record of this country as we know it today.