While searching for information for a course I'm teaching, I ran into this article from the US Department of the Interior describing some archaeological sites in the Southwest. It has tons of blacked out text. It doesn't seem to serve the purpose of correcting mistakes, as lots of details from the article are hidden. Is this a form of censorship of the information? If so, why would the US DOI have a reason for censoring this information?


2 Answers 2


The gps coordinates or other similar information is withheld for some sensitive archeological sites to try to minimize vandalism and other issues such as unauthorized "collectors". For example, there is a prehistoric rock quarry not too far from me in New York State, whose exact location is not published.

This seems to be the situation in the paper you cite. Some sites are culturally sensitive. Some are scientifically important. In the age of four wheel off-road vehicles it is too easy to find, contaminate, and even destroy such sites.

  • 16
    If you can access it, there's a LTTE/Commentary in American Antiquity, (28) 3, 394-396 by Jane Holden Kelley, who is cited in this redacted document. Her commentary was titled "Some Thoughts on Amateur Archaeology" and she did not mince words: "I believe it is not excessive to estimate that 50% of the archaeological potential of the South Plains has been destroyed by amateurs, and most of it in the last 15 years" (p. 394). That was written in 1963!
    – shoover
    Jul 5, 2020 at 3:45

Yes, this is a form of censorship. However, it is well motivated and is meant to protect important cultural resources. It is likely that most of the information which has been redacted is related to the location of archaeological resources. As Buffy suggests, this is done primarily to prevent unauthorized collection—a quick look at eBay should convince you that, for example, Puebloan pottery can sell for hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars.

It may also be worth noting that, while these kinds of documents are produced for the use of Federal land management agencies, they are not, in general, subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In fact, information regarding archaeological sites is specifically exempted in FOIA. Further information may be found on the websites of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (the Federal agency responsible for administering resources of historic significance) and the Department of Justice.

The above discussion concerns archaeological records which are kept by Federal agencies (the most significant of these (in the West, anyway) being the DOI Park Service, the DOI Bureau of Land Management, and the USDA Forest Service). Federal agencies are not the only organizations which conduct archaeological research or keep archaeological records. State agencies (either directly, or though publicly funded universities and colleges), local/municipal agencies, tribal agencies, and various private concerns (private colleges and universities, landowners, archaeological contractors, etc) may also keep records. These kinds of records are subject to patchwork of laws and regulations, and may be more or less difficult to obtain, and may be subject to greater or lesser "sunshine" requirements—it is common to exempt archaeological records from such requirements. Moreover, private landowners and tribal agencies, which are generally not subject to the same kinds of sunshine laws, may be very reluctant to share information, and likely have no requirement to do so.

The question indicates that this is for a course that the asker is teaching, hence it is unlikely that they really need access to the redacted information. However, the redacted information can almost certainly be obtained by legitimate researchers with a little bit of legwork. For example, if a researcher is planning on doing limited, non-destructive field work in the area, a couple of polite phone calls to the archaeologists at the appropriate land management agencies (in the case of the records described in the question, the Lincoln National Forest may be an appropriate place to start) may yield the information, and perhaps an invitation to tour the area.

For more intensive work (e.g. if excavation is involved, or if students are coming along), the walls are a little higher, but it again starts with phone calls and email. As is true with most things, personal relationships matter. If you really need the access, build trust with folk, and they will almost certainly help you to open doors and get through red tape.

  • I suspect that the bar you need to leap over to do research in a sensitive area is quite high. Certainly much more than just saying you are a researcher and asking.
    – Buffy
    Jul 4, 2020 at 19:01
  • 12
    @Buffy Slightly more, but not really. Mostly, you have to convince the archaeologist on the ground that you are a legitimate person, and not a pothunter. Build a dialog using your university email address, explain the project and why you need the data, and otherwise build a personal relationship. I'll note that I am speaking from the point of view of someone who worked through my undergrad as an archaeological technician for the Forest Service and BLM in the Great Basin and Southwest. The system runs on trust and personal relationships. Of course, this was 20 years ago, so maybe things change? Jul 4, 2020 at 19:18
  • 5
    If you plan to be in the field, then the bar is slightly higher---you will need to have an archaeologist with you, and might need to fund their time (this is often informal, and many archaeologists will bill their time to some other project code, such a general maintenance and monitoring budget). The bar is much higher if you plan to excavate, or if you plan to bring students along. There's tons of paperwork there. Jul 4, 2020 at 19:20
  • 1
    And some sites are sacred to first nations people. Getting permission for pretty much anything on Hopi lands, for example, is probably impossible. There is too much unfortunate history.
    – Buffy
    Jul 4, 2020 at 19:22
  • 8
    By the way, @Buffy, since I seem to have some part of your attention: I've been lurking an Academia SE for a long time, but rarely feel like I have much to say or contribute. Typically, when I feel that I do have something to say on a topic, I find that you have already said it, and often better than I could, anyway. Thank you for your contributions. Jul 4, 2020 at 19:34

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .