On February 1, 1878, the Smithsonian Institution released Circular 316, "In Reference to American Archaeology," prepared by Otis Tufton Mason, then a collaborator in Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution and later Curator of Ethnology and Anthropology, and distributed it under Joseph Henry's name. The Circular was designed to solicit information concerning the large amounts of detail on construction of mounds, earthworks and other traces of aboriginal engineering, as well as newspaper articles and descriptions of characters found in mounds, graves, and superficial soil. This information was to provide the basis for an exhaustive work on American archaeology to be published by the Smithsonian. With this end in mind, the replies were apparently turned over to Mason and Charles Rau, also a collaborator in Ethnology and later Curator of Archaeology in the United States National Museum.
Circular 316 was one of many circulars distributed at this time. It was 15 pages long and consisted of questions concerning the discovery and location of American Aboriginal artifacts. A primary concern was learning the localities of all American collections of artifacts. The Circular stressed a "desire to collect from every available source, whatever is now known, or can be ascertained by special investigation, of the antiquities of North America." In order to receive clear descriptions, 86 questions on American Archaeology and two pages of symbols taken from an international code published in the Smithsonian Report for 1875 were incorporated into the Circular. In addition to the questions, the Circular asked for books, memoirs, extracts from periodicals and newspaper clippings giving pertinent information. Recipients of the Circular were also asked to forward names of others interested in receiving the Circular.