The nation’s archaeological heritage, representing thousands of years of unwritten indigenous cultures as well as hundreds of years of historic settlement, is extremely diverse and valuable to our understanding of the past. Unfortunately it is often hidden under the ground. The identification, analysis, and treatment of archaeological resources have long been a mainstay of the Section 106 process and the ACHP’s programmatic preservation and mitigation efforts.
When the ACHP was created by the NHPA in the 1960s, it received assistance from the National Park Service (NPS) for archaeological advice as needed. However, the ACHP rarely needed such advice, as it reviewed only undertakings affecting properties already included in the National Register, and very few archaeological sites fell into this category. The consideration of archaeological sites as eligible for the National Register changed in the early 1970s with Executive Order 11593, “Protection and Enhancement of the Cultural Environment,” as well as a later amendment to the NHPA. Agencies were directed to identify and evaluate such resources, and take action to protect significant sites. Land managing agencies started hiring or contracting with archaeologists and trying to determine the effects of their actions on archaeological sites. The passage of the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 provided federal funding authority for such projects and removed the excuse that some agencies had previously used to avoid dealing with archaeology.
As a result, the ACHP began seeing more Section 106 cases involving archaeology and hired professional staff. A series of dams and other large projects in the west, Midwest, and southeast U.S. in the late 1970s and 1980s resulted in significant government scrutiny of archaeology, its cost, and its public benefits. A major dam and reservoir in California, New Melones, became the subject of Congressional and Government Accountability Office scrutiny. Large scale highway construction projects also led to considerable archaeological study. The Tellico Dam being undertaken by the Tennessee Valley Authority affecting historic Cherokee and prehistoric cultural sites also typified the large-scale archaeology being done in the southeast that was subject to Section 106 review.
For these and related reasons, the ACHP formed a task force in 1978 and developed guidance on archaeological data recovery, proper design of meaningful archaeological research, and related concerns. Guidance from both NPS and the ACHP also addressed archaeological survey to identify and evaluate sites. A developing trend at the time was to view archaeological sites, unlike historic buildings, structures, and districts, as properties that could routinely be “preserved” through recovery of their data or information about the past by excavation. This, in turn, led to the development of the guidance document, “Treatment of Archaeological Properties: A Handbook” (1980), an early attempt to establish consistent policy about how archaeological issues should be dealt with in the Section 106 process.
In 1981, the creation of the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) program by Congress led the ACHP to issue special regulations for these city-oriented and directed projects, as well as associated guidance on archaeology, “Special Procedures for Identification and Consideration of Archeological Properties in an Urban Context.” A number of successful projects were carried out, such as the development of South Street Seaport along the East River in Manhattan.
These and related efforts to ensure quality archaeological research and data recovery to mitigate the effects of construction have been advanced by ACHP staff professionals as well as the several professional and academic archaeologists who have served as members during the ACHP’s history. While the basic principles articulated in the 1980 Handbook remain sound, this and other guidance did not include systematic input from representatives of the Native American community or any ethnic, racial, or cultural community whose ancestors archaeologists often study. More recent experience, such as the case of the discovery, recovery, and memorialization of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan (see Section 106 Success Stories), focused appropriately on values beyond academic research.
The ACHP’s more recent online and training guidance builds on the foundation the handbook established. As with the Treatment Handbook, the current guidance has been developed under the direction of an Archaeology Task Force established by the Chairman of the ACHP in 2003 to identify those new and recurring issues that should receive priority consideration and action by the ACHP. Following outreach to federal agencies, SHPOs/THPOs, Indian tribes and NHOs, and the professional archaeological community, the task force determined new Section 106 archaeology guidance was called for. This included an updated “Policy Statement Regarding Treatment of Burial Sites, Human Remains, and Funerary Objects” that incorporated lessons from more recent cases of concern to tribes as well as sites like the African Burial Ground.
Related policies— such as a policy on pothunting or archaeological looting— remain largely in use, and much of the resulting professional experience has helped set the field’s standards. More recently, the ACHP has reached out further to affected parties and considered the special value of many archaeological sites, particularly those considered sacred sites, those including human remains, or those of other cultural and spiritual significance to indigenous peoples, African-Americans, and other groups. The ACHP has continued to modify and update its guidance and approaches to these important aspects of our cultural heritage. In 2008, the ACHP adopted a policy statement on “Archaeology, Heritage Tourism, and Education” that articulates some of the public benefits of archaeological resources and the conduct of archaeological inquiry.