The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

Shaping National Preservation Policy

Public Archaeology

Ensuring a better understanding and appreciation for the unwritten history and pre-European cultures in the U.S. through archaeology.

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.

Want to explore this topic further? Check out these original documents and interviews with key players from the ACHP archive!


Julia King– Written

About the Burial Policy and the fact that it does not prescribe an outcome. Just to say, this I think was the Archaeology Task Force’s most important accomplishment during my term. I heard from archaeologists that it should have mandated scientific study and from tribes that it should’ve mandated no study whatsoever. Then again, I heard from some archaeologists who clearly understood indigenous concerns regarding human remains and burial sites, and from some tribes who wanted study of remains for a variety of reasons. Read more

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