by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As appearing in the Daily Sentinel

Our obsession with the study of antiquities goes back centuries, at least since Renaissance poet Petrarch wrote, “Among the many subjects which interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me.” But what exactly is antiquity? It is relevant this year because several western leaders are calling for a review of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which some even want repealed, claiming presidents have abused its broad authority.

Webster defines antiquity as a general description of ancient times, or the quality of being ancient (as in buildings). The plural “antiquities” more specifically refers to ancient relics (coins, statues, pottery), especially Greek ones. Wikipedia limits the definition mainly to relics from early civilizations of the Mediterranean and other Near Eastern cultures.

The term was commonly used in 19th century America, though, to describe discovered relics of ancient native American cultures, especially pottery and arrowheads. An extensive network of antiquities collectors emerged, scouring the ruins and artifacts of ancient people, especially in the Southwest. By the 1890s there was widespread concern that all remaining relics would soon disappear, prompting Iowa Congressman John Lacey, already famed for sponsoring the first federal conservation enforcement laws, to push the Antiquities Act through Congress. President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law — and made it the cornerstone of his own conservation legacy.

The Act streamlined the protection process by authorizing the president to create national monuments, “for the protection of objects of historic and scientific interest.” That definition is so vague that the Supreme Court later determined it meant whatever the president said. Using it to protect natural landscapes, not ancient relics or “antiquities” is the current controversy, but it isn’t new. Indeed, Roosevelt’s first national monument was not an ancient Indian ruin in the Southwest, but the natural rock formation, Devils Tower, in Wyoming. He eventually created six monuments at ancient historic sites, but also 12 others to preserve important scenic areas “of scientific interest,” including the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Natural Bridges.

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