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View of intersecting green street signs with white text, from below, looking up. Mounted on a lamppost with a round, oval bulb, one sign reads "F ST SE" and the one above it reads "CAPITALSAURUS COURT." A blue sky with a few wisps of cloud is in the background, and a few yellow-leaved fall branches hang overhead.
The street sign indicating the discovery of the Capitalsaurus by naming the intersection of 1st and F Streets SE as "Capitalsaurus Court." Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

Lessons from the Capitalsaurus: Federal Archaeological Law since 1906

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The “Capitalsaurus Dinosaur” section of the Code of the District of Columbia commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of bones in Southeast DC (D.C. Code § 1–161 (1998)). On January 28, 1898, on the intersection of First and F Streets Southeast, workers unearthed the bones of a dinosaur during a sewer construction project.

Fittingly dubbed the “Capitalsaurus” in lieu of a scientific classification, the dinosaur’s remains have not been explicitly identified. Nonetheless, a group of elementary schoolchildren gathered together in 1998 to lobby the DC Council to make the Capitalsaurus the city’s official dinosaur. The move was inspired by the actions of Maryland paleontologist Dr. Peter M. Krantz, who helped schoolchildren lobby for their own state dinosaur (Md. Code § 7-322 (1998)). Maryland’s official dinosaur is the Astrodon johnstoni.

Krantz published Dinosaurs of the District of Columbia in 2003, in which he includes geological maps, illustrations, and sources from the Smithsonian Institution to provide an overview of the history of dinosaurs within the DC city lines. The Capitalsaurus was not the only dinosaur found. In 1959, a piece of bone from what is thought to have been a raptor was discovered under East Capitol Street.

View of intersecting green street signs with white text, from below, looking up. Mounted on a lamppost with a round, oval bulb, one sign reads "F ST SE" and the one above it reads "CAPITALSAURUS COURT." A blue sky with a few wisps of cloud is in the background, and a few yellow-leaved fall branches hang overhead.
The street sign indicating the discovery of the Capitalsaurus by naming the intersection of 1st and F Streets SE as “Capitalsaurus Court.” Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

At the time, no laws existed to explicitly protect or regulate the excavation of historical or archaeological materials. Now, 126 years later, how have the laws changed to reflect the occasional fossil discovery?

The earliest federal law to call for the protection of historical and cultural resources was the Antiquities Act of 1906 (Public Law 59-209). This act outlined the penalties (both financial and penal) for those who “appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy” historic materials on public lands. The 1959 DC raptor would likely have only been subject to the Antiquities Act.

In 1979, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) (Public Law 96-95) was passed to address the gaps in legal coverage of archaeological materials on U.S. soil (notably different from the National Historic Preservation  Act). The act stated that its purpose was to “secure…the protection of archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands, and to foster increased cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities, the professional archaeological community, and private individuals having collections of archaeological resources and data.” Designating custody of excavated materials was reserved to Congress and suggested scientific and educational institutions (p. 723), similar to the earlier Antiquities Act. For resources discovered on tribal lands, the Act specified that custody would be “subject to the consent” of the Native community living on the land. Further information about the role of the law in the repatriation of Native American historical materials can be found in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Public Law 101-601), and a recent Law Library panel.

The act also defined “archaeological resource” as “any material remains of past human life or activities” relevant to the field‘s interests. Beyond fossils, this includes pottery, weapons, structures, rock paintings, graves, and more.

In 1988, the act was amended to alter penalties, provide more specific language around the protection of archaeological sites, and to improve outreach and public education (Public Law 100-588). Further amendments were made to the act in 1994 (Public Law 103-437) and 1996 (Public Law 104-333), respectively.

In 2014, ARPA was amended for the most recent time in the codification (Title 54) of existing laws related to the National Park Service (Public Law 113-287).

For further learning on archeological law, domestically and globally, the Law Library has multiple historical and contemporary resources:

As for dinosaur fossils, they continue to be found on U.S. soil, including in many national parks. Just remember – on private property, unearthing fossils is unregulated, but be sure to leave any potential fossils or other artifacts be on public lands.

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