The Act That Changed Archaeology

Fifty years ago Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act. The law has had a profound impact on archaeology in America.

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A researcher measures pictographs at Doll Ruin in 1959 during the Glen Canyon Project. The site contained 20 pictographs and petroglyphs, most of which were about four-feet tall. The rock art was presumably destroyed by Lake Powell. Courtesy of Natural History Museum of Utah.
A researcher measures pictographs at Doll Ruin in 1959 during the Glen Canyon Project. The site contained 20 pictographs and petroglyphs, most of which were about four-feet tall. The rock art was presumably destroyed by Lake Powell. Courtesy of Natural History Museum of Utah.

Summer 2016: By Wayne Curtis.

In 1963, the diversion tunnels allowing the Colorado River to flow around the vast and newly-built Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona were closed and sealed shut. Above it, the water began a slow and steady ascent up orange sandstone spires and cliffs, creating a lake that eventually extended 186 miles into Utah. Lake Powell, as it would be called, would reach depths of 500 feet and snake along miles of gorges and grottoes.

Starting in 1957, the same year the construction crews began work on the dam, archaeologists hastily surveyed thousands of acres of canyon ledges and bottomlands, seeking to document what they could before it was lost forever. One of those archaeologists was William Lipe, who would go on to a long career at Washington State University and be elected president of the Society for American Archaeology. (Lipe is also a board member of The Archaeological Conservancy.)

The summer of 1958 was the first of four that Lipe, then a 23-year-old graduate student, would spend scouring the main and side canyons, sleeping on sandbars and showering under small waterfalls. His crew was among several working their way through the canyon, documenting cliff dwellings, rock art, and artifacts scatters. “The sites were pretty small, and there often wasn’t much to excavate,” he recalls. “But we did a pretty good job by the standards of the time, which are different than they are now.”

Indeed, between 1958 and 1963, some 2,000 sites ranging from Archaic to more recent historic times were documented, and to this day data from the Glen Canyon Project continues to yield valuable information. But the project’s most lasting legacy may be that its hurried attempts at historic preservation served as a vivid reminder that, throughout America, so much priceless information about the past was being destroyed. “There was an awareness that a lot was being lost,” says Lipe.

So it was that three years later, in 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was passed by Congress. It declared that “the spirit and direction of the Nation are founded upon and reflected in its historic heritage,” and called for “the establishment of better means of identifying and administering” the nation’s historic resources. Few people at the time anticipated it, but the NHPA would dramatically change the science of archaeology as it was practiced in the United States.

Summary. Read More in our Summer 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 1.

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