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Current Controversy

Among many North American Indian tribes, treatment of the dead has traditionally been a matter of great concern. Some modern-day Native Americans have expressed that ancestral graves should not be disturbed or, if that cannot be prevented, then any remains and artifacts recovered should be reburied with ceremony.

However, it was not until the 1970s that this issue became a nationwide concern. By then, public attitudes in the United States had become more favorable toward both Native American interests and religious values. Passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was a reflection of this change in public attitude, as well as a result of the newly developed political awareness and organization of Native American activist groups.

In 1990, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was signed into federal law. In addition to applying penalties for the trafficking of illegally obtained Native American human remains and cultural items, the law mandated that all federally-funded institutions (museums, universities, etc.) are required to repatriate or "give back" their Native American collections to tribes who claim cultural or religious ownership over those materials. These and other recently adopted state laws have sparked a heated controversy among scientists and Native American groups.

For archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and other scholars who study humankind's past, graves have provided a very important source of knowledge about past cultures. This has been particularly true in the reconstruction of prehistoric North American cultures whose peoples left no written history but who buried their dead surrounded with material goods of the time. Repatriation of this material will prevent any further studies from being conducted in the future.

Although many researchers support repatriation of historic material that can be directly linked to living tribal descendants, others have stated that it is not possible to make such determinations on very ancient materials that date to before the pyramids of Egypt. Another argument is that ongoing medical studies of diseases found in the bones of ancient remains could lead to breakthroughs in treatments to help the living.

Archaeologists have expressed that museum materials are part of the heritage of the nation, and that these new laws fail to take into consideration the many complex factors that separate ancient human remains from modern Native American cultures.



Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999.

Bahn, Paul G., ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Fagan, Brian M. Archaeology: A Brief Introduction. 8th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Feder, Kenneth L. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Haviland, William A. Human Evolution and Prehistory. 2nd ed. New York: CBS College Publishing, 1983.

Joukowsky, Marth. A Complete Field Manual of Archaeology: Tools and Techniques of Field Work for Archaeologists. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.


Gibbins, D. "Shipwrecks and Maritime Archaeology." Archaeology Prospection 9, no. 2 (2002): 279-291.

Noble, Vergil E. "Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Domestic Site Archaeology." Historical Archaeology 35, no. 2 (2001): 142.

T. A. Freeman



—A man-made object that has been shaped and fashioned for human use.

Classical archaeology

—Archaeological research that deals with ancient history, ancient architecture, or any of the now-extinct civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Rome, Aztec, Mayan, etc.

Cultural resource management

—Contract archaeology performed by privately owned and operated archaeological consulting firms.

Data recovery

—An excavation intended to recover artifacts which represent the basic, raw data of any archaeological study.


—Refers to the three-dimensional, subsurface or below-ground portion of an archaeological site.


—A specialized field or sub-field of study.

Historic archaeology

—Archaeological studies focusing on the eras of recorded history.


—Darkened archaeological site soil caused by organic waste material such as food refuse and charcoal from ancient campfires.

Prehistoric archaeology

—Archaeological studies dealing with material which dates to before the historic era, or before the advent of written languages.

Salvage/rescue excavation

—The final phase of a typical two-part series of archaeological site excavations.


—An archaeological resource such as an ancient Indian campsite, or an old, historic building.


—A systematic surface inspection conducted to examine a known archaeological site or to verify that no site exists on the property under examination.

Test excavation

—A preliminary excavation conducted to determine the size, depth, and significance of an archaeological site prior to committing to a salvage or final excavation.

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