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Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA)

What is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA)?

“The purpose of this Act is to secure, for the present and future benefit of the American people, the protection of archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands…”

— from the Preamble to the Archaeological Resources and Protection Act (Public Law 96-95, October 31, 1979)

The Value of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) provides our best tool for stopping the theft of cultural items and human remains right at the source: people who steal from ancient sites on Tribal and federal lands.

Careful and thorough investigations are necessary to make solid ARPA convictions. Land managers, archaeologists, and law enforcement must work together to achieve these goals.

Above all, we need the eyes and ears of the public to spot these crimes and submit a tip! With ARPA we can eliminate crimes against history and keep ancient sites intact and undamaged for future generations.

What is an Archaeological Resource?

Archaeological resources, as defined by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (16 USC 470bb[1]) are “material remains of past human life” including “pottery, basketry, bottles, weapons, weapon projectiles, tools, structures or portions of structures, pit houses, rock paintings, rock carvings, intaglios, graves, [and] human skeletal materials.” These items must be at least 100 years of age to be protected under ARPA.  Many other anti-theft laws protect more recent resources.

Archaeological resources are non-renewable and do not exist to be consumed like water or wood. These resources hold their cultural and historical value best when they are left undisturbed, right where they were left on the land. If we practice sustainable appreciation of ancient sites, we protect the rights of future generations to understand history and heritage.

For more clarity on the terms used in ARPA, check out our FAQ.

What Does ARPA Prohibit?

  • A

    No person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface, or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located on Indian or public lands without a permit. [16 USC 470ee(a)]

  • B

    No person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, receive, or offer to sell, purchase, or exchange any archaeological resource if such resource was excavated or removed from public lands or Indian lands in violation of ARPA or any other federal law. [16 USC 470ee(b)]

  • C

    No person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, receive, or offer to sell, purchase, or exchange, in interstate or foreign commerce, any archaeological resource excavated, removed, sold, purchased, exchanged, transported, or received in violation of any provision, rule, regulation, ordinance, or permit in effect under State or local law. [16 USC 470ee(c)]

  • D

    Any knowing involvement in a violation, including providing advice or assistance, requesting or obtaining items, or hiring someone to commit any violation described above. [16 USC 470ee(d)]

When An Archaeological Site Becomes A Crime Scene

Archaeologists, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and Tribal leaders work together to detect and respond to crimes against history. First, law enforcement officers search the site for forensic evidence, just like any other crime scene. All the damage or vandalism is recorded, mapped, and described in a report by an archaeologist to be used as evidence in the courtroom.

Above all, the team is sensitive and responsive to all cultural and spiritual concerns associated with the desecration of ancestral resting places or other sacred sites.

Criminal Consequences

Violating ARPA can lead to severe sentences, including fines, jail time, and forfeiture of vehicles and equipment used in the crime. The Criminal Fines Improvement Act of 1987 increased maximum fines for misdemeanors to $100,000 and for felony violations to $250,000. Conviction can lead to a maximum of two years in prison for a first offense. Additional violations can result with sentences up to 5 years in prison.

All stolen artifacts, cultural objects, and human remains are respectfully documented as evidence and then returned to the Tribal landowner or the land manager.

Additional Laws Protecting
Archaeological Resources

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (18 USC §1170) fills gaps in ARPA by protecting Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony with no age limit.

The Embezzlement and Theft from Indian Tribal Organizations statute (18 USC § 1163) offers additional protection to Tribal property, and is often used instead of ARPA on Tribal lands.

Many tribes have ordinances protecting archaeological resources.They also have ordinances against trespass that can be used against violators.

Archaeological Resource Crime on Indian Lands

Archaeological resource crimes directly impact local communities who hold longstanding cultural and spiritual connections to ancestral sites. These strong values make archaeological resource crimes particularly harmful to communities in Indian Country.

Unfortunately, effective enforcement of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act is often challenging on Indian lands, despite the United States government’s responsibility to protect Native American people and communities.

Save History exists to uphold that responsibility and support local Tribal officials and stewards in protecting archaeological sites.

Sources and Recommended Reading