Since its inception in 1980, The Archaeological Conservancy
has acquired more than 550 sites.
By Paula Neely
This is a full feature article from the Summer 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine to commemorate The Archaeological Conservancy’s 40th Anniversary.
About a thousand years ago the Mimbres, early ancestors of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, buried their dead under the earthen floors of pueblo rooms with beautiful bowls covering the faces of the deceased. They ritualistically “killed” the bowls by punching holes in the centers to let the spirits out. Considered some of the finest prehistoric ceramics, Mimbres pottery is very valuable, which led to rampant looting of their sites in the 1970s. “Looters peeled back the structures with backhoes, and when bones started flying, they stopped and dug out the bowls,” said Mark Michel.
Then in 1978, the Antiquities Act, which was signed into law in 1906, was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court. “It was outdated, anyway,” Michel said. Looters faced a mere $500 fine, which was nothing compared to the thousands of dollars they could make selling the artifacts they took. For example, a large Mimbres bowl with a kill hole recently sold for $5,500, according to an online auction site, and others have sold for many times that.
A legislative lobbyist at the time, Michel was engaged by the Society for American Archaeology to address the problem, and he played a major role in the passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979. But ARPA only applied to federal and Indian lands, not to private property. “Almost every other country protects archaeological sites on private property,” Michel said. But in the United States, archaeological sites, with the exception of burials in some states, belong to the landowners, and they can do whatever they want with them. The solution, he decided, was to have a preservation organization buy the sites.
Michel approached Patrick Noonan, then president of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization that purchases land in order to preserve it, about also purchasing archaeological sites. “He thought it was a great idea, but he didn’t want to do it,” Michel said. Instead, Noonan showed Michel how to use The Nature Conservancy as a model to start a new preservation organization: The Archaeological Conservancy. Backed by funding from The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ford Foundation, Michel, archaeologist Steven LeBlanc, and physicist and businessman Jay Last founded the Conservancy in 1980 to acquire archaeological sites and preserve and protect them for future research. “It’s important for our national legacy to save our national heritage sites and combine that with conservation archaeology,” Michel said. “Our goal is to preserve a representative sample of every culture and time period. It’s kind of unattainable, but we shoot high.”
The Conservancy’s first major acquisition was the Hopewell Mound Group, which contained at least thirty mounds and was threatened by suburban development. A civic-ceremonial center located in what is now Chillicothe, Ohio, it was in use from 200 B.C. to A.D. 500, and it’s considered the Hopewell type site. When Michel went to visit the site, he was surprised to see unprotected ancient mounds and earthworks clearly visible in the midst of a large cornfield. “We couldn’t walk away, we had to save it,” said Paul Gardner, the Conservancy’s Midwestern region director and vice president. The Conservancy purchased it for more than $200,000, using much of its seed money. Subsequently, the Conservancy turned the land over to the National Park Service for preservation and interpretation. It’s now under consideration to be designated a World Heritage Site.
The second major site the Conservancy acquired was Pueblo San Marcos, the largest pueblo ruin in the United States, which was occupied from A.D. 1200 to 1700. “It was in the middle of a rural subdivision,” Michel said. The Conservancy purchased one of three twenty-acre lots that encompassed most of the pueblo. Since then, the Conservancy acquired the other two lots and now preserves more than ninety percent of the site. The Cochiti, who consider themselves descendants of San Marcos’ residents, and the State of New Mexico helped fund the latter acquisitions. Research has been conducted there by various institutions nearly every year.
In the forty years since it was established, the Conservancy has acquired more than 550 sites in forty-five states. These sites range from Paleo-Indian camps to Ancestral Puebloan villages to ancient mounds to eighteenth-century French and Indian War forts to slave dwellings. “If not for The Archaeological Conservancy, most of these private sites would be gone—destroyed, built-on, or bulldozed. No one else is doing this,” said Michel. “I am delighted with the progress we’ve made,” Last said.” It’s way beyond my dreams. We have gotten the support we needed. It’s one of the things in my life that I am most happy about.”
To identify sites that need to be preserved, the Conservancy relies on its five regional directors, who consult with state preservation officers, Native Americans, archaeologists, and others familiar with archaeological resources. The sites must be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and their degree of endangerment, availability, size, condition, importance, and research potential are taken into consideration. “We look at what’s been preserved and focus on what’s lacking in each region,” Michel explained. Jim Walker, who joined the Conservancy in 1981 and serves as its Southwestern regional director and senior vice president, noted that the organization tries to acquire a number of sites in the same area and same time period so that researchers can see the larger picture of how communities of various sizes interacted with each other.
For example, Kelley Berliner, the Eastern regional director, is acquiring as many Iroquois sites as possible. The Conservancy has sites around the Finger Lakes region of New York, representing the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk tribes that belong to the Iroquois Confederacy. Archaeologist Martha L. Sempowski of the Rochester Museum & Science Center, who is studying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Seneca sites, said that those particular sites are invaluable for examining the social and cultural effects of the earliest European contacts on a previously isolated native group.
In East St. Louis, Illinois, the Conservancy recently saved about two acres of a mound site buried beneath a residential area a few miles from the Mississippian capital Cahokia, which was occupied at the same time. In the future, researchers will be able to learn how the two sites were related, Gardner said. “The prehistoric past of American Indians is an important part of global history. The only way to learn about them is through archaeology. There is no written record,” Gordon Wilson, the chairman of the Conservancy’s board, said. “Saving these sites helps us understand the entire history of a culture, the good and the bad.”
Saving a site can take decades. “We are still negotiating on some things we started in the 1980s,” Michel said. “We are very persistent.” Although negotiations began in 1981 to acquire the Holmes Group in New Mexico, one of the largest, most complex Chaco Canyon outliers, the site was not acquired until two years ago when the original owners’ grandchildren were willing to make a deal. Several Mimbres sites that the Conservancy has pursued since the 1980s were also recently acquired.
In order to achieve its goals, the Conservancy sometimes engages in creative partnerships with landowners, localities and states, Native Americans, nonprofit organizations, and developers. According to Walker, developers who once avoided archaeologists now approach the Conservancy when they want to donate or sell land that contains archaeological resources so that they don’t have to pay for expensive investigations prior to construction.
Before the Arizona Department of Transportation widened an overpass near the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in the central part of the state, archaeologists conducting a cultural resource survey discovered over 200 pit houses on two acres, the largest concentration of Hohokam residences ever found in the region. It turned out that this was part of a village that encompassed about ninety acres and contained thousands of undisturbed pit houses and three ball courts. The Conservancy was asked to buy the land, known as the Grewe site, but it was too expensive.
Nonetheless, Walker didn’t give up. At his behest a farmer donated two acres of the site in 1998. Over the next seven years, the Conservancy bought another thirty acres from a private landowner and fifteen acres from a developer in bargain sales to charity for less than the appraised value with the assistance of an Arizona Heritage Fund grant administered by Arizona State Parks. Walmart intended to build a store on thirty acres of land next to the Grewe site, but when they broke ground, they discovered that thirteen acres of their land contained archaeological resources, so they donated the acreage to the Conservancy. The Conservancy now holds sixty acres of the ninety-acre site that once seemed unattainable, and the owner of the remaining thirty acres plans to bequeath the land to the Conservancy, he said.
In Washington State, the Stillaguamish tribe helped the Conservancy purchase the Woodhaven site, an 8,700-year-old habitation and stone tool manufacturing site in the midst of a subdivision. Kerry Lyste, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, said the Stillaguamish had tried for years to get the developer to sell the land at a reasonable price. At the request of the tribe, the Conservancy’s Western regional director Cory Wilkins was able to negotiate the sale with the developer. “We are talking with the Conservancy about other sites,” Lyste said. “The more we can save, the better.”
The Conservancy partnered with the town of Middleborough, in Massachusetts, and the Native Land Conservancy, a Native-run conservation group, to save Ja-Mar, a site located along the Nemasket River containing dense evidence of occupations dating from the Middle Archaic to the Late Woodland periods, including a Wampanoag village dating to A.D. 1400. The site is now owned by the town, but the Conservancy holds an easement to oversee site management and approve and direct any archaeological research.
The Conservancy’s Southeastern regional director Jessica Crawford worked with the Chickasaw Nation, a tribe that was removed to Oklahoma during the 1830s-1850s, to preserve and interpret Chisha’Talla’a’, a Chickasaw village site in Tupelo, Mississippi. The Beasley family, who had owned the site since the 1960s, had protected it for years and wanted to sell it. They agreed to sell for the lowest appraisal, which was half a million dollars. When Crawford visited the Governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma to see if they might help fund the acquisition, she was stunned when they provided the entire amount. The Conservancy now leases the thirty-four-acre site to the Chickasaw Nation to manage as an educational preserve with signage, trails, and tours.
Many of the Conservancy’s sites are open to the public for tours and educational opportunities, to Native Americans for traditional ceremonies, and to qualified professionals for research approved by the Conservancy. Each site has a long-term plan for preservation and interpretation developed by a management committee that may include community members, government representatives, Native Americans, and archaeologists. Area residents often serve as site stewards or docents.
Educational programs, school group tours, and other public outreach activities take place at the Prospect Hill Plantation in Mississippi. The site includes an 1854 antebellum plantation house with pristine grounds and foundations of outbuildings, including slave dwellings. In Idaho, educational tours of the Wasden-Croft Archaeological Preserve, which includes a 13,000-year-old lava tube cave with Clovis artifacts and an 8,200-year-old bison butchering site, are offered in cooperation with the Museum of Idaho. At the Grande Meadow Chert Quarry in Minnesota, where prehistoric people mined the area for chert to make tools 11,000 years ago, the local historical society is working on developing the site into a park with interpretive signage trails and tours.
Publicizing and opening sites to the public helps them become a valued part of the community and protects them from looters, Gardner said. (After twenty-five years with the Conservancy, Gardner is retiring.) “We have also pioneered the development of public interest in sites that people previously were not interested in,” Michel said. For example, the Conservancy offers tours of French and Indian War fort sites in Pennsylvania, Ohio mound sites, and Paleo-Indian sites in North Dakota.
Archaeologists who want to investigate the Conservancy’s sites must apply for a permit. The Conservancy reviews their requests with experts familiar with the research topic to determine if they should be allowed to proceed. A stringent and thorough research design is required, according to archaeologist Jim Judge, a long-time Conservancy board member. Noninvasive research is preferred. “The best thing about the Conservancy is that it makes the right decision at the right time to allow research,” he said.
Researchers with Crow Canyon Archaeological Center are investigating the Haynie site, one of the most important Chaco outliers in the Mesa Verde region, in hopes of understanding the role and influence of Chaco Canyon in the broader region. “The total record is what’s important for the region and the time period,” said Bill Lipe, another Conservancy board member and archaeologist. “Materials collected from the Haynie site will provide insights into changing human-environment relationships through time, social stratification” and other issues such as “identity formation,” said Susan Ryan, chief mission officer for Crow Canyon.
In the past forty years, “the atmosphere toward archaeological preservation in this country has improved dramatically. More and more people see it as part of our national legacy,” Michel said. “The Conservancy deserves a lot of credit for making that happen through public outreach, education, American Archaeology magazine, tours, open houses, lectures, and media coverage.” The organization has also enhanced its presence on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. The Conservancy’s Facebook page, with over 184,000 followers, has become a “go-to” place for information about archaeology around the world, according to April Brown, the organization’s digital media coordinator. Fresh content is posted daily on all platforms. Traffic to the Conservancy’s website has grown to about 9,500 visitors per month. The website also promotes membership, tours, special events, and lectures.
In addition to the cost of purchasing sites, the Conservancy also faces the expenses of maintaining them and managing research requests and projects. Membership fees as well as individual donations, grants, and bequests fund these efforts. The Conservancy has also benefitted from six POINT (Protect Our Irreplaceable National Treasures) challenge grants of one million dollars each. Crowd funding through social media and email blasts to members has recently been used to generate as much as twenty percent of the funding for various projects, according to special projects director Sarah Webber. The Conservancy is “very well run and economically efficient,” said Lipe. “They get a lot for the money they have.” Retired archaeologist Bill Engelbrecht said he has donated charitable trust annuities for the Conservancy. “I’m a big fan. I’m pleased that some of my resources will go toward the Conservancy’s goals,” he said.
At the Conservancy’s headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a wall is filled with awards recognizing the organization’s achievements. In recent years, Michel received the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s most prestigious award, the Louis DuPont Crowninshield Award, and Crawford has received awards from the Southeast Archaeological Conference and the Mississippi Heritage Trust. The Conservancy has also been honored by the Archaeological Institute of America, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and numerous state, historical, and archaeological organizations. In 2019 American Archaeology won its fifth Gene S. Stuart award, which is bestowed by the Society for American Archaeology in recognition of exceptional efforts to enhance public understanding of archaeology. “I am really privileged to be involved in an organization so effective in what they do,” Wilson said.
The Conservancy has achieved its goal of changing public attitudes about looting Mimbres ceramics and all other artifacts, Michel said. It used to be called “pothunting,” and it was considered a harmless hobby. Now it’s a crime in many circumstances. Emphasizing the destructive nature of looting through American Archaeology articles, tours, and educational efforts has helped, Lipe said. But there are other goals to achieve. “There’s still a lot more to be done,” Michel said. “I don’t see us anywhere near a stopping point.”