The United States has a long and varied pre-history. Archaeologists have found evidence of human presence dating back 13,000 years. People eventually occupied every part of the Americas, developing a wide range of subsistence strategies, languages and cultures in the process. By the time Europeans arrived in the 1500s, there were hundreds of tribes and nations, many with distinctive ceramics and stone tools (like arrowheads) that made their way into the archaeological record.

What is today the US was colonized by the Spanish, French, Dutch and English. After gaining its independence from Britain in 1783, the 13 former British colonies on the east coast flourished into a leading industrial and agricultural power. A civil war in the mid-19th century left vast troves of military artifacts on battlefields all over the country.


Looting has a long history in the US, and the public attitude towards antiquities and archaeological relics in the US has been slow to change. Pothunting and arrowhead collecting have been regarded as harmless pastimes for more than a century. Even today, TV shows celebrate metal detector hobbyists and “collectors” digging up and selling artifacts. Such collecting is legal as long as it’s done on private land with the permission of property owners.

While excavating on private land is unrestricted, illegal looting of archaeological sites on public land is also a problem in the US. Each year, the Park Service reports approximately 450 violations where archaeological or paleontological resources are destroyed or damaged. Many more sites on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and other federal agencies are targeted.

Pots, bowls, bone tools and arrowheads show up for sale on eBay and other sites for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The problem is especially serious in the American Southwest, where organized gangs of pothunters have been known to use the sale of antiquities to launder money1.

Along with looting, development pressure is a significant threat to ancient sites in the US. Although archaeological surveys and excavations are required part of construction projects on federal and state land, the lack of a centralized heritage ministry or agency means that the accumulated knowledge (so-called “gray literature”) is scattered and difficult to find. The quality of excavations also varies widely, often contracted to the lowest bidder.

The problem of coordination extends to physical artifacts, which are stored at a wide range of often-inadequate facilities. Many government agencies have slipshod approaches to their archaeological collections. An estimated backlog of over 15 million artifacts excavated on federal land remain uncataloged2; Forty-five percent of the Park Service’s collections – over 50 million artifacts — are uncataloged, making them inaccessible to researchers and the public.


The US economy is the world’s largest, with a per capita GDP of $50,700 in 2012. Wealth in the US is unevenly distributed, and 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, including many people in rural areas. The country is beginning to recover after a recent economic recession that began in 2007, but unemployment remains higher than it was a decade ago.

Tourism in the US is a major economic force. Sixty-two million international visitors spent nearly $200 billion in the US in 2011; domestic tourism expenditures were more than triple that, at $656 billion in 2011. Civil War battlefields and museums alone drew more than 35 million visitors in 2010, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy in five key states (Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia).


The US is a representative democracy. Its federal structure means that authority over much of its archaeological heritage is in the hands of an uncoordinated collection of federal agencies and state and local authorities. At the federal level, major players include the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. Jurisdiction is complex and tangled, making recovery of artifacts and the enforcement of laws intended to protect the country’s cultural heritage difficult.


The US is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO convention, but did not sign the treaty until 1983. In recent years a number of US museums have been compelled to return objects acquired after 1970 to their countries of origin.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 forbids unauthorized digging for artifacts on public lands in the US. The law was strengthened with the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act. But unlike many countries, the US also gives private landowners ownership of any artifacts found on their land, and there are still no federal laws prohibiting excavations on private land or the sale of cultural artifacts beyond US borders.

Another defining feature of the American archaeological landscape is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which affects all institutions with federal funding. NAGPRA requires museums and federal agencies to return human remains and other religious or cultural items to Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian groups that can prove a cultural or lineal relationship. It also requires archaeologists working on Federal land to consult Native American groups before excavating in places where human remains might be found. This has slowed the pace of excavation in the two decades since the law was passed, but also improved the historically contentious relationship between the archaeological community and Native American groups.

Author: Andrew Curry