This is a ScIU guest post by Krystiana Krupa, a Ph.D. candidate in IU’s Department of Anthropology and Research Associate for IU NAGPRA, and Molly Msener, a Ph.D. student in IU’s Department of Anthropology and Graduate Assistant for IU NAGPRA
It is common practice for hikers to pick up artifacts that they find on or near trails, or to walk through cornfields and survey the ground for stray arrowheads. Plenty of people have personal artifact collections — the viral FBI case from 2014 is not a unique scenario. While artifact collecting might seem to cause no harm, because of the legal and ethical issues associated with finding and collecting artifacts, it is usually best practice to leave artifacts or human remains where you find them. However, in cases where the site, burial, or artifact is in danger of being damaged or looted, it may be necessary to call an appropriate preservation or conservation official to report the location of that material. In this post, we will walk through a couple of examples of potential scenarios, including steps to take if action is required.
Our first scenario involves what to do (and not do!) if you come across an archaeological site accidentally while hiking or otherwise exploring the outdoors. One popular place for hiking and camping in Indiana is the Charles C. Deam Wilderness. Amid the numerous hiking trails and beautiful scenery, there is evidence of an entire community that was abandoned only about 50 years ago. Of the 81 homesteads that once dotted the landscape, a particularly accessible and well-preserved historic house is now being used as a playground – people climb up the still-standing chimney, and campers take bricks from the walls to construct their fire pits. However enticing the chimney may be, or however readily available the bricks, site destruction is ethically and legally problematic. If you see someone looting or damaging a site, or if you have questions about the status of an archaeological site or want to report the site’s location, you should contact your state’s Office of the State Archaeologist, whose contact information (for Indiana) we have included at the bottom of this post.
Another common problem that you might encounter is what to do if you already have Native American artifacts or remains in your possession — or, for example, what to do if you find a skeleton in a box when you clean out your grandpa’s basement. (Trust us, it’s more common than you think.) If there is an archaeology laboratory or museum in your community, like the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology in Bloomington, you should contact them first to see if they can help you determine what artifacts or bones you actually have and whether they might be Native American. Another option if you do not know of a nearby museum is to call your Office of the State Archaeologist, which exists in all U.S. states. Most states also have a State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) who can often also answer questions about these types of discoveries. The contact information for these institutions is included at the end of this post.
The ancestral skeletal remains and sacred objects of federally recognized tribal nations are protected by federal law in the United States, making it illegal to excavate and buy or sell them. As with our scenario above, these practices pose various legal and ethical issues. Looting and artifact collecting damages sites and artifacts, leading to the loss of cultural heritage for the communities whose ancestors lived in these places. Site damage is of particular concern to those interested in conservation and preservation of archaeological sites, such as tribal nations, in addition to archaeologists, museum professionals, and preservation officers. The passage of federal laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and Section 106 makes it a federal offense to remove or otherwise disturb Native American human burials and sacred objects and artifacts. However, these laws are relatively recent and do not always persuade people to leave artifacts and remains in the ground, where they belong.
In summary, please leave Native American artifacts and human remains where they belong – it is not only legally required of you, but it is also the right thing to do. These artifacts and remains belong to someone’s ancestors, and they should be treated and respected accordingly. If you are concerned about the status of a site or artifact that you have encountered or currently possess, please contact one or all of the institutions below (or the relevant ones for your location) in order to determine what your next steps might be. Professionals are always hoping to work with community members, and collaboration and communication are good for everyone.
Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology
432 N. Fess Ave., Bloomington, IN 47408
Amy Johnson, State Archaeologist for Indiana
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, Office of the State Archaeologist
402 W. Washington St. W274, Indianapolis, IN 46204