The goal of archaeological research is to understand how and why human behavior has changed over time and how the human past impacts our lives today. Archaeologists seek to understand why significant cultural events occurred, such as the development of agriculture and associated sedentary villages and cities, or why civilizations emerged and/or collapsed. If we can understand how and why cultures changed in the past, we will have a better grasp of human behavior and how we shape our world. Our decisions about the future are frequently based on the lessons archaeologists have learned from those who came before us. So in better understanding our past we gain greater insight into cultural change in the present and the future allowing us to better prepare for and respond to many of the social, political, environmental, and demographic challenges we face today.
Yet the information present in archaeological sites is non-renewable; it is gone forever once it is destroyed. If archaeological information is lost to looting, site destruction, or poor preservation practices, we lose the context which lets us interpret past cultures through their material remains and the ability to learn from the environmental and social changes that occurred. The science of archaeology helps us to better understand where we came from, how we lived, and how we interact with others and the environment.
The concern for protecting archaeological sites extends over one century to the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was passed to protect archaeological sites on public lands. The Antiquities Act was followed by the Historic Sites Act of 1935, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, all of which shape a broad policy of public interest in preserving America’s historic and archaeological heritage. Existing federal and state laws, regulations, and programs are not designed to stop development projects. Rather, they are codified to ensure that the plans for development projects include the protection of significant archaeological sites. Archaeology creates jobs in Wyoming and helps facilitate natural resource development throughout the state, while also helping to preserve our valuable archaeological resources.
Traditionally, Americans have also placed high values on archaeology because it provides a sense of history and heritage to its people. The residents of Wyoming are very interested in archaeology because it is ubiquitous across the State. Many different people lived here at many different times and public interest in these past cultures is high. Consequently, the archaeological community is constantly striving to make archaeological information more accessible to the public through archaeological and historical parks, museum displays, citizen science and site stewardship programs, books, articles, videos, and classroom teaching materials for grade school through college levels. Of particular importance to Wyoming is cultural heritage tourism which draws tourists to our public lands and state parks. Wyoming has at least 31 state parks and historic sites, two national parks, one national monument, one national grassland, and seven national forests. All of these include, and/or are located in proximity to, historic and/or prehistoric archaeological sites. The information that archaeological research uncovers about these sites helps enhance visitors’ experiences and promote tourism within the state.
Archaeology has also been invaluable in Wyoming school curricula. Archaeology is a broad field that enables educators to teach students of all ages about math, science, reading comprehension, sensitive issues such as race, social relations, religion, tolerance, and teamwork. The integration of archaeology related curricula into the classroom can also help to develop students’ critical thinking skills; help them in understanding, respecting, and weighing the merits of various viewpoints; and foster a greater understanding of the Scientific Method. Skills such as these, taught through archaeology educational activities, have real-world applications in many areas outside the discipline.