The Antiquities Code of Texas: The Creation and First Decades (Denton)

The Antiquities Code of Texas was one of the first state-based historic preservation laws created in the United States and it is still one of the strongest laws of its kind. The Antiquities Code was created as a reaction to shipwreck treasure salvagers that found remains of the 1554 Spanish Fleet that had swept ashore in a hurricane off the coast of South Padre Island. The treasure hunters found the remains of one of those vessels and starting removing those artifacts including silver and gold coins and taking them out of state. Had the salvagers been from Galveston or some other Texas town, it’s very possible that the Antiquities Code would have never been written, but the fact that the salvagers were from Indiana (think “damn Yankees”) the State of Texas stepped in and sued the treasure hunters for taking artifacts that belonged to the citizens of Texas. Jack Giberson, the General Council and Deputy Land Commissioner with the General Land Office of Texas, was instrumental in the efforts associated with the 1554 shipwreck case, and for many years after he proudly told the story of when he and three Texas Rangers flew to Indiana to confiscate the artifacts and return them to Texas.

Jack Giberson and a few state legislators were also the first state officials to recognize that the State of Texas did not have an adequate law in place to protect publicly owned historic resources. Therefore, those individuals worked closely with Truett Latimer, the executive director of the Texas Historical Commission (THC), and Curtis Tunnell, the State Archeologist, to figure out how to correct this problem. The result was, the 61st Texas Legislature passed the new Antiquities Code (Code) through both houses in the spring of 1969 and it was signed by Governor Preston Smith and went into effect on September 1, 1969. Its enactment has changed the way historic resources on non-federal public lands in Texas have been managed ever since.

TexasGovernorPrestonSmithFormer Texas Governor Preston Smith
Link to original image here.

The wording of the original Code was fairly similar to a law that the State of Florida had in place at the time. The original Code allowed legal treasure hunting off the Texas coast, provided that the treasure salvage investigations were performed under the direction of a professional archeologist, and the State also got to decide which artifacts would be retained by the State. The Code also protected all publicly owned archeological resources in the state and it was and still is a very unique law that continues to be a model for other states. The Code was never intended to cover resources on private property without the expressed written consent of the private land owners, and there is no question that this aspect of the law will never change.

The original Code also created the concept of State Archeological Landmarks and a new state commission known as the Texas Antiquities Committee (TAC) whose job it was to administer the Code. From the beginning however, the staff of the Texas Historical Commission (THC) functioned as the staff of the TAC and the State Archeologist and Executive Director of the THC served on the TAC board.

The first archeological investigations performed under the jurisdiction of the Antiquities Code were performed by Dr. Frank Weir, head archeologist for the Texas Highway Department (currently known as the Texas Department of Transportation) in 1970. That same year, the San Antonio Missions were also designated as the first State Archeological Landmarks (SAL).

Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo in San Antonio, Texas.
Link to original image here.

During the first 10 years after the creation of the Code approximately 250 permits were issued for archeological and historic structure investigations on public lands, and approximately 20 sites and buildings were designated as landmarks during this period. During the second decade, approximately 700 permits were issued and over 1500 sites and buildings were designated as landmarks.

The 68th Texas Legislature removed of treasure salvage provisions in 1983, and limits on the protection of historic buildings were added in 1987. Additionally, clarifications about the responsibilities of political subdivisions of the State were added in 1995. The Texas Antiquities Committee was dissolved in 1995, and the THC Commissioners took over direct administration of Code.

About the Author

Mark Denton is an Archaeologist, and Program Coordinator at the Texas Historical Commission in Austin, Texas.


Written by zselden

I am a research associate in the Center for Regional Heritage Research at Stephen F. Austin State University, where my work is focused at the confluence of archaeology, art, engineering, computer science, and the humanities. I am particularly interested in the application of 3D technologies to archaeological problems, geometric morphometrics, network analyses, archaeological theory, and archaeological science.

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