The Antiquities Act of 1906

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In 1896, a Museum-led team began excavating ruins of an Ancestral Pueblo settlement in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon.
Jet frog with turquoise eyes.
A 1,000-year-old jet figurine of a frog with inlaid turquoise is among the items on display in the Grand Gallery.
D. Finnin/© AMNH

That work would yield tens of thousands of artifacts, including the jet frog pictured here, and generate one of the most intensely researched collections of its kind in the world. It would also inspire an act of Congress under which the site and others like it would be protected as national monuments.

The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, addressed concerns about the plunder of ancient sites by vandals and relic hunters. This simple act ultimately brought more than 100 significant archaeological sites within the broader scope of the more general push for the conservation of the country’s natural resources for which Roosevelt is justly famous.

Sidestepping a Congress under pressure from mining, lumber, and other special interests, Roosevelt made wide use of the law to declare 18 national monuments, including Chaco Canyon in 1907. The Antiquities Act also outlined the terms under which permits would be granted for working within archaeological sites and directed that all materials gathered be permanently preserved in public museums.

“The Antiquities Act professionalized archaeology,” says David Hurst Thomas, archaeologist and curator in the Division of Anthropology who is also curator of the newly renovated Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. “It required that only professional and public institutions go in and that they be vetted.”

This frog’s story is telling. The roughly 1,000-year-old figurine, a symbol of water for Ancestral Pueblo people and their living descendants, was discovered in 1897 in Pueblo Bonito, one of the largest and most artifact-rich settlements at Chaco Canyon. The frog disappeared soon after and months later turned up at a trading post some 50 miles to the north. A local coordinator for the Museum bought it for $50 and quietly returned it to the collection.

A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.