Cultural heritage at risk: United States

The United States experiences unique challenges with the looting of archaeological sites. Objects of cultural heritage, unless discovered on federal or tribal land, belong to the landowner. Federal lands are too vast to be closely monitored by the limited number of government officials. Therefore, the government’s successful prosecution of looters and prohibition of the black market is very challenging.

Artifacts illegally excavated from a prehistoric Native American site on a Southern Illinois National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were seized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Artifacts illegally excavated from a prehistoric Native American site on a Southern Illinois National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were seized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)


Ongoing collaborations between museum staff, the public, academia, and archaeologists have slowed the rate of looting. Still, sobering statistics indicate that it remains a substantial problem. Over 90% of known American Indian archaeological sites have already been destroyed or negatively affected by looters, and this process is ongoing. Further work is critical to prevent any more irreparable damage to our past.

What is at stake for the United States?

United States archaeological sites contain artifacts that are in some cases more than 14,000 years old. These sites tell a fascinating story of human history on the continent, from the origins of agriculture (Poverty Point, Louisiana) to Native American diversification, innovation, conflict, and European contact. Critical research on these topics is ongoing.

The Poverty Point site shows evidence of early experimentation with fired clay pottery. The Adena and Hopewell sites (Ohio River Valley, c. 1000 BCE–500 C.E.) are associated with elaborate grave goods and soft pottery. Cahokia Mounds (c. 800 C.E.) is a Mississippian center containing the largest pyramid built north of Mexico. Numerous burials found on this site reflect the complex social hierarchies and community structures that were in existence in those chiefdoms. In the southwest, most communities in early prehistory were small and widely scattered, with different styles of dwellings, ceramics, and subsistence practices revolving around the farming of corn, beans, squash, cotton, and other wild or semi-cultivated foods. Chaco Canyon (c. 900 CE) is a region in northwest New Mexico that contains several of the best examples of the “Puebloan” cliff-dwellings. Settlements here had populations rivaling those of today’s small towns.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico (photo: Steven C. Price, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico (photo: Steven C. Price, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Thanks to heightened public awareness and state and federal funding, large complexes such as Cahokia and Chaco Canyon are being preserved. However, such preservation efforts are limited to a small number of sites. Because most prehistoric and historic Native Americans lived in small, dispersed communities, looters take advantage of the small, remote sites if protective measures are not in place. Additionally, archaeological sites are frequently damaged to clear lands for agricultural or development projects.

By 1988, around 90% of known sites in the Four Corners (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico) had been looted or vandalized. Most federal lands have not been surveyed (The National Park Service has surveyed only 10% of its 5.29 million acres). The small number of staff at most federal sites makes it difficult to devote a significant amount of time to patrolling and securing archaeological sites.

United States cultural heritage endangered

Looting and vandalism of archaeological sites has persisted throughout recent history. Between 1980 and 1987, for example, the Navajo Reservation saw a dramatic increase in vandalism and looting of archaeological materials. Between 1996 and 2005, there was an annual average of 791 incidents reported, but on annual average only 111 were solved or had the perpetrators prosecuted. Many Native American archaeological and ethnographic objects are sold in Europe, Japan, and Saudi Arabia through auctions that force Native Americans to participate in bidding to buy back their own cultural heritage.

Vandalism of rock art is also a growing concern. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is searching for the culprits that vandalized ancient Native American rock art located in the desert on the west side of Utah Lake.

Civil War era materials are also being illegally excavated. Bottle diggers scour outhouses of old frontier towns, and, in some extreme cases, people have robbed Civil War soldiers’ graves to steal human remains.

Market demand for U.S. antiquities

Native American artifacts, as well as contemporary artworks made by Native Americans, have been receiving more attention in the art and cultural property world. For example, the Santa Fe Indian Market has been growing in size and reputation; major museums like the Peabody Essex Museum and MFA Boston mounted Native American Art exhibitions or renovated galleries; Sotheby’s May 21 Arts of the American West auction fetched a total of $2,963,943; and Christie’s 2011 Native American Art auction reached a total sales volume of $1,116,187.

The international market has also turned its eye to Native American objects. In 2013, for example, French auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou sold seventy artifacts for €930,000. Another known market price for Native American objects comes from the case of Pierre Servan-Schreiber, the Hopi tribe’s French lawyer, who bought a Hopi item for €13,000 from the EVE auctioneers in France with the intention of returning it to the tribe. The Annenberg Foundation also purchased twenty-four Native American objects for $530,000.

Yet an increase in market demand also means a potential increase in the sales of suspiciously acquired artifacts. For example, in November 2013, Skinner auction house pulled a Lakota object called “Sioux Beaded and Quilled hide Shirt” right before the auction started because the object might have belonged to a Lakota leader named Little Thunder. His descendants in the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota questioned the legitimacy of its ownership. The shirt was estimated to sell for $150,000-250,000.

What is the U.S. doing to protect its cultural heritage?

Some scholars comment that the U.S. Congress has been reluctant to enact broad-based cultural property protection measures. Numerous federal legislations, however, do exist with regards to specific problems. (See Kaufman, R.S. Art Law Handbook. Gaithersburg: Aspen Law & Business, 2000, especially p. 394-395).

The Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 U.S.C. §§ 431-33m) authorizes the penalization of anyone who destroys or damages historic ruins on public lands, or excavates ruins, monuments, or antiquities on lands owned or controlled by the federal government. This was later supplemented by the Archaeological Resources and Protection Act of 1979 (16 U.S.C. §§ 470aa-mm), which specifically protects archaeological resources on public or Indian land from sale, exchange, or transport without proper permission.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. § 4321-70a) requires the government to use “all practicable means and measures” to preserve important historical and cultural sites.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1991 (NAGPRA) (25 U.S.C. §§ 3001-3013) further addresses specific Native American cultural property concerns. NAGPRA required museums receiving federal funds and other federal institutions to inventory any American Indian human remains, funerary objects, or sacred items. Descendants or related tribes hold the right to decide whether items should be returned to the tribe, reburied, or held in the collections long-term. Under NAGPRA, anyone who is found guilty of illegal trafficking of these items can be sentenced with judicial penalties. This legislation has helped to discourage the removal of objects and human remains.

Most significantly, in 1983, the U.S. signed into law the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). This is an implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the context of the United States and its cultural property importation policies. Under this legislation, the U.S. can enter bilateral or multilateral agreements with other State Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, or impose emergency import restrictions, provided that a State Party requests it.

The National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) has been relevant to the import restriction of suspicious items and criminal punishment of illegal importers. It provides that “[w]hosoever transports, transmits, or transfers in interstate or foreign commerce any goods, wares, merchandise . . . of the value of $5,000 ore more, knowing the same to have been stolen, converted or taken by fraud . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years or both.”

The National Historic Preservation Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 470a to 470w-6) is one of the most systematic programs of historic preservation. It established various Historic Preservation Offices, which create inventories of archaeological and historic properties.

Some states, like Arkansas, have created their own programs to spread awareness of the issues to the general public. As of 2013, over 700 citizens belonged to the Arkansas archaeological Society, each having participated in the Arkansas Archaeological Survey Training Program in which members of the public learn excavation techniques and ethical issues in American archaeology. Other state branches of the National Park Service, such as the one in South Dakota, have implemented awareness and stewardship programs and telephone hotlines in an attempt to enlist citizens as site stewards.

Federal and state laws and programs are taking steps in the right direction toward public awareness and criminal prosecution of looters, but more work is needed to continue to document and protect what remains.

Other efforts to protect the United States’ cultural heritage

The National Park Service provides information and education on looting prevention and historic site preservation. Its archaeology Program page is a goldmine of resources. It also runs the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), which advances the application of science and technology to historic preservation in the fields of archaeology, architecture, landscape architecture, and materials conservation.

SAFE has been working on promoting public awareness on the dangers of archaeological looting in the United States. Various blog posts by archaeologists provide insights into the current state of looting in the United States. 

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has implemented a Site Preservation Program, which focuses on grant giving, recognition, and public outreach. It has also been involved in shaping a better understanding of archaeological ethics among the public by, for example, speaking out against treasure hunting TV shows that might promote looting and destruction of archaeological sites.

Other professional archaeological organizations include the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), which promotes archaeological ethics and participates in CPAC testimonies, and the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), which promotes scholarly research and the dissemination of knowledge concerning historical archaeology.

United States’ response to international cultural heritage problems

The United States has historically favored free imports of cultural property, acknowledging that exchanges enhance knowledge of the civilizations and enrich the cultural lives of all people. But import restrictions are sometimes legislated under certain political embargoes or limit the trade on stolen works of cultural property.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) assists the U.S. and foreign governments in evaluating foreign countries’ requests for bilateral agreements to establish import restrictions. CPAC consists of eleven members, who include individuals from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, and museums.

A number of federal agencies contribute to the enforcement of the treaties, laws, and restrictions regarding cultural heritage, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Art Crime Team, which coordinates with international law enforcement agencies like INTERPOL. See a more detailed discussion here.

In addition, the United States enters into bilateral agreements with several nations to prevent the importation of those nations’ cultural heritage—a further explanation about which can be read here.

Cite this page as: SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone), "Cultural heritage at risk: United States," in Smarthistory, January 11, 2018, accessed April 12, 2024,