Archaeological Site Considerations  

by the WBDG Historic Preservation Subcommittee



Archaeological sites are nonrenewable resources; they provide the only available source of information on the people and civilizations that flourished in the distant past. Archaeological sites should be considered early on in the planning and design process of all projects that have ground-disturbing potential. Early consideration allows the design team the ability to remain flexible to the potential challenges of archaeological sites. Consideration of archaeological sites for federally-funded projects is mandatory; certain types of archaeological resources are protected by law.


Archaeological resources are the evidence of past human occupations which help tell the story of past peoples. These resources can be individual artifacts, whole sites, complexes, or districts of sites, and the contexts in which they occur. In the United States, prehistoric archaeological resources generally date from about 15,000 years ago until the time of European settlement in the 17th century. Historic archaeological resources date from European settlement to present.

For federally-funded projects, consideration of archaeological resources is a legal requirement. Several laws apply to the identification, evaluation, and treatment of archaeological resources. Some of these laws are briefly described below. In order to ensure full consideration of archaeological resources, be sure to consult with a cultural resources specialist before starting any project with the potential for ground disturbance.


Start the Process Early

Archaeological resources must be considered as early in the planning process as possible. Most federal agencies employ cultural resources specialists that have training in archeological site consideration, as well as the Section 106 process. Ensure that a cultural resources specialist, archaeologist, or historic preservation professional is part of every project team, and involve them from the beginning of the project. In almost every case, required archaeological excavations required due to a federal undertaking must be complete before the undertaking may proceed.

Follow the Law

Several laws and regulations govern the treatment of archaeological resources. In all cases for federally-funded projects, compliance with these laws is mandatory. In some cases, violation of the law is a punishable offense subject to fines and incarceration.

Four of the more commonly-encountered laws are presented here to familiarize project managers with their responsibilities. When in doubt, consult with a cultural resources specialist employed by a federal agency or assigned to the project team.

National Historic Preservation Act of 1966

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act is the process most often encountered during construction projects. Section 106 requires a multi-step process to identify resources, consult with stakeholders, and consider the effects of a project's implementation on historic resources, including archaeological sites. The National Historic Preservation Act also requires that the Section 106 process be completed before the project may begin. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation offers useful tools to understand and work with the 106 process.

The Antiquities Act of 1906

The Antiquities Act may apply to construction projects on federal lands. It has two main components: 1) a criminal enforcement component, which provides for the prosecution of persons who appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity on lands owned or controlled by the United States; and 2) a component that authorizes, through the issuance of a permit, the examination of ruins, the excavation of archeological sites, and the gathering of objects of antiquity on lands owned or controlled by the U.S.

Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was specifically designed to prevent looting and destruction of archeological resources on public and Indian lands. Like the Antiquities Act, ARPA has both an enforcement and a permitting component. The enforcement provision provides for the imposition of both criminal and civil penalties against violators of the Act. ARPA's permitting component allows for the recovery of certain artifacts consistent with the standards and requirements of the National Park Service's Federal Archeology Program.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) provides a process for federal agencies and museums to return (or repatriate) certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. NAGPRA may be a factor in construction projects where excavations, grading, or other ground disturbing activities are to take place. A copy of NAGPRA and its implementing regulations along with helpful material for NAGPRA compliance is available through the National Park Service.

Provide Adequate Funding for Curation

Once the archaeological project is complete and the project is underway, federal law requires the preservation of collections of prehistoric and historic material remains, and associated records, recovered during archaeological investigations that take place on federal land and/or are federally funded. It is important to remember that curation of archaeological artifacts must continue indefinitely, even after a construction project is completed. More information on the requirements for curation can be found at the National Park Service's Managing Archaeological Collections.

Representative Example

Archaeological Investigations: National Museum of the American Indian Site, Washington, DC

On September 21, 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened its doors to the public after fifteen years of planning and construction. The NMAI is the most recent museum building addition to the Smithsonian Institution and to the National Mall.

In the 1990s, the Smithsonian began planning for the museum on the Mall. The Smithsonian was required to consider the effects of its actions on historic properties before any construction could begin. In accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Smithsonian commissioned an extensive study of the site. Initial research into archives, libraries, and city records indicated that several buildings were constructed on the proposed NMAI site in the eighteenth century. As the research took form, archaeologists were able to pinpoint the location of several buildings and plan test excavations to determine if any remnants of the past remained.

Excavation site at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC

Archaeological Investigations: National Museum of the American Indian Site, Washington, DC
Photo Credit: John Milner Associates. Inc.

During their excavations, the archaeologists began to see evidence of artifacts which would only be found in a wealthy household, unusual in what was once a working-class neighborhood. One of the excavations was filled with an unusually high number of pieces of expensive porcelain, bones from quality meats, seeds from exotic fruits, hundreds of champagne corks, and women's grooming items. These finds provided evidence that one of Washington's most exclusive and expensive brothels was once located on the site.

The archaeology continued, and the site yielded much information about how Americans lived in the Federal City in the 1800s. Without this pre-construction work, this evidence of the past would have been lost forever. In addition to the information gathered at the site, artifacts now curated by the Smithsonian are available for study as a way to learn even more about history. Only through compliance with laws governing the treatment of archaeological sites was this project possible.

More information on the archaeological investigations is available at

Excavation site overview, facing northeast, the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC
Overview of excavations at Site 51SW14, Reservation C, NMAI Museum Site

Site Overview, facing northeast.
Photo Credit: John Milner Associates, Inc.

Overview of excavations at Site 51SW14, Reservation C, NMAI Museum Site
Photo Credit: John Milner Associates, Inc.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Additional Resources

Other Internet Resources


  • Cultural Resources Archaeology: An Introduction by Thomas W. Neumann
  • Our Unprotected Heritage by Thomas F. King. Left Coast Press, Inc., Feb. 2009.