Some information for these FAQs is derived from materials prepared by the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Council on American Indian Concerns.
- Is it legal to collect artifacts? Is it legal to dig for artifacts?
- How do I know if I’ve encountered a grave or burial?
- What do I do if I think I have found a burial?
- Do I get in trouble if I find a burial?
- Why are there laws regarding human remains, artifacts, archaeological sites, and collecting?
- What is an archaeological site?
- What is the best way to protect an archaeological site?
- Is my personal artifact collection legal? Can it be confiscated? Can I display it publicly?
- What should I do if I have skeletal remains?
- Is it legal to own burial objects?
- Which artifacts are legal to have and which are not?
- What is a burial object? How do I know if something is a burial object?
- Can burial objects be found on the ground surface?
- How do I notify the Department of Natural Resources that I intend to dig on private property?
- What does the Department of Natural Resources do?
- Can I dig on a Civil War site?
- Is it legal to dive for artifacts in river or stream bottoms, or along the coast?
Laws pertaining to private lands distinguish between surface collecting (picking up objects laying on top of the ground) and any ground-disturbing, or digging for artifacts. Laws pertaining to state and federal lands do not distinguish between surface collecting and any type of digging for artifacts.
It is legal to collect artifacts from the surface of private property, IF you have written permission from the landowner. Be sure not to trespass, though.
On private land, it is legal to dig or metal detect for artifacts IF you have written permission from the landowner, and IF you have notified the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in writing five (5) business days before you begin. This includes all ground-disturbing activities, including on Civil War sites.
It is generally illegal to dig human burials and/or collect human skeletal remains or burial objects. Additionally, it is unlawful to receive, retain, dispose of, or possess any human body part (including bones), knowing it to have been removed from a grave unlawfully.
To surface collect, metal detect, or to legally dig on any state property, you must have a permit from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. State property includes state parks, historic sites, wildlife management areas, and state forests, as well as state highway rights-of way, navigable river and stream bottoms, and the Atlantic coast all the way to the three mile limit.
Generally, it is illegal to surface collect, metal detect, or dig on any federal lands without a federal permit. Federal lands in Georgia include Corps of Engineers lakes and the lands around them managed by the Corps, U.S. Forests, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and military bases.
Indian burials vary greatly and can be difficult to identify. Burials are often in relatively shallow pits containing small bone fragments and associated ritual objects, such as pots, beads, pipes, and ornate objects, such as carved shells. However, unless scientific investigation methods are used, it will be difficult to recognize many burials. For a nominal fee, archaeological consultants will perform a risk-management survey to assess the likelihood of disturbing burials or other types of historically- or archaeologically-important sites.
Georgia also has many unmarked historic cemeteries, often on hilltops or not far from old houses that may now be long gone. Sometimes, too, there are burials outside of and adjacent to marked cemetery areas. Again, archaeological consultants can help identify unmarked historic graves.
First, STOP DIGGING immediately! Protect the burial from harm and notify local law enforcement officers instantly. Law enforcement personnel will notify the coroner, local government officials, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A plan will be developed to examine the remains to decide if it is a burial, then to protect the burial. The DNR (phone 404-656-2840) suggests that they be contacted directly by anyone encountering a burial, for guidance regarding laws regulating abandoned cemeteries and related issues.
It is unlawful for anyone other than those legally authorized to knowingly disturb or expose buried human remains. If convicted of the felony of illegally disturbing a burial, you could be sentences to one to five years in prison and fined. The Georgia law covering this is OCGA 31-21-44. Inadvertent disturbance of a burial is not subject to this penalty if local law enforcement is notified immediately. Since many archaeological sites do contain burials, it may be difficult to convince authorities that while digging on a site, you "inadvertently" encountered a burial. The legally safest and most ethical policy is to simply not dig and to leave any digging to trained archaeologists.
Several fundamental principles guide all state and federal laws regarding human remains, artifacts, archaeological sites, and artifact collecting:
1) respect for the religious beliefs of all Americans, including American Indians;
2) respect for the dead;
3) respect for our common heritage; archaeological sites are protected for the benefit of all Americans; and
4) respect for private property rights.
All Americans have religious beliefs, especially concerning the dead and burials. Many Americans regularly visit graves of people that are important to them. Indeed, in Atlanta, the very famous grave of Martin Luther King, Jr. is visited by thousands of people every year. Many people do not realize that American Indians today retain and protect their cultural beliefs and ceremonies. Present-day Indian religions, while affected by western religions and all the trappings of the twentieth century, are still deeply rooted in the places and artifacts of the past. Most Indians strongly believe that their buried dead should not be disturbed.
While respect for the dead is seemingly a universal human trait, some collectors focus on robbing Indian graves of their burial artifacts and skeletal remains. Other collectors prefer to steal parts of grave stones from historic cemeteries, including statuary, metal fences and pieces, and even entire grave stones.
Our common heritage is threatened many ways and the public is generally aware that important archaeological and historic sites are destroyed by modern development. Other sites are destroyed by looters. Looters and untrained, unqualified persons who dig only for personal gain and are nearly as destructive as bulldozers. Sites are non-renewable resources; they are important as places in our local, state and national histories, as well as resources of information about past lifeways of Indians, explorers, pioneers, and all the other people who have come before us.
Certain fundamental constitutional rights respect private property rights of Americans. Landowners have fundamental rights to use of their lands, including the right to control looting of archaeological sites on lands they own. Georgia law requires that before digging on private property, you must have written permission of the landowner AND you must have notified the Georgia Department of Natural Resources at least five business days prior to beginning any ground-disturbing activities.
In recognition of the four fundamental principles discussed above, legislators have enacted laws to protect sites, artifacts, and human remains from looters and to consider the important information they contain in planning and development. In this way, important sites reflecting our common heritage are preserved and scientifically studied. These laws do recognize personal property rights, acknowledging that privately owned artifact collections can be useful to archaeologists and researchers.
Every archaeological site, 1), contains objects purposefully modified or made by humans in, 2), a meaningful context. Sites can range in size from very small (the size of the base of a telephone booth), to large communities, even cities. Sites may be non-residential, such as cemeteries, quarry locations for mineral resources, commercial districts or buildings, and even bridges.
Several strategies are used to manage and protect archaeological sites. The first step is to fill out a site form; site forms are available from the Georgia Archaeological Site Files. Avoidance by using greenspaces, and partial or full excavation directed by qualified professional archaeologist, are two common ways to manage archaeological sites on lands under development. The Historic Preservation Division (phone 404-656-2840) can provide assistance in developing appropriate plans that integrate development and preservation goals.
Generally, it is legal to own and display an Indian artifact collection in Georgia. It is illegal to display any portion of a human skeleton, and it is illegal to buy, sell and trade, import, or export Indian burial, sacred, or cultural objects. A legally-obtained collection can not be confiscated unless it is used in an illegal manner.
Contact your local law enforcement agency or the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns if you want to turn over skeletal remains or burial objects. Call the Council on American Indian Concerns at (404) 656-2770. The Council on American Indian Concerns will make arrangements for the return of the remains or objects to descendents or tribes who can establish cultural affiliation to the material.
It is legal for individuals (not museums) to own burial objects that were obtained legally, that is, those burial objects that were not obtained through violation of laws against digging on sites, collecting on private lands, or disturbing graves.
It is illegal to buy, sell, trade, import, or export known American Indian burial objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony. Fines up to $500.00 per object can be assessed. It is illegal to buy, trade, or sell ANY human remains.
These critical questions are at the heart of burial protection laws. Unfortunately, it is not easy to answer. Certainly, any object known to have come from a burial or grave, or known to have been associated with a burial or grave is a burial object. For most objects in private collections, the exact locations where they were found are unknown and unrecorded. Precise definitions of burial objects will probably require court decisions. However, based on archaeological excavations, we can tentatively classify objects into the following two categories:
Probable Native American burial objects:
- copper artifacts
- shell gorgets
- monolithic axes
- ear spools
- large, fine stone blades
- burial urns (pots)
- ornate artifacts
- miniature pots
- arrowheads (sometimes)
Usually not burial objects:
- pottery sherds or fragments
- chipped stone tools
- soapstone sherds
- soapstone slabs
- grinding stones
Yes; burial objects can be found on the ground surface. Burial objects can get washed out of the burial or be plowed up by farming activities. Then they can be found on the ground surface. Any object that ever was in a burial or grave is a burial object.
To legally dig on private property, you must first secure written permission of the landowner. Once you have the landowner’s written permission, you can write to:Historic Preservation Division (HPD)
Georgia Department of Natural Resources
47 Trinity Avenue, SW
Atlanta, GA 30334-9006
Call the Historic Preservation Division 404-656-2840 (or fax them at 404-651-8739) for assistance.
The mission of the Department of Natural Resources is to sustain, enhance, protect and conserve Georgia’s natural, historic and cultural resources for present and future generations.
Georgia’s natural, historic and cultural resources will be…
- better tomorrow than they are today
- abundant, diverse, clean, well managed and protected
- available for everyone to use and enjoy.
The people of Georgia should…
- appreciate the importance of sustaining and enhancing the state’s natural, historic and cultural resources
- take an active role in the work of the department
- see the department as a responsive and responsible agency working to protect and conserve Georgia’s natural, historic and cultural resources
- trust and respect the department for its decisions and actions.
On federal- or state-owned lands or the bottoms of waterways (including rivers, lakes, streams, marshes, and in coastal waters), you must have a permit to legally dig. On private land, Civil War historic or archaeological sites are protected. You must have the written permission of the landowner to dig legally, and you must also have notified the Georgia Department of Natural Resources five business days prior to beginning ground-disturbing activities.
No. State law gives state ownership of all navigable river and stream bottoms, as well as the ocean bottom to three miles from the coastline. Artifacts, sometimes referred to as submerged cultural resources, found on these bottoms are state property, and the laws regarding artifact collection and digging on state lands apply to them, too.
To surface collect, metal detect, or to legally dig on any state property, including river and stream bottoms, you must have a permit from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. State property includes state parks, historic sites, wildlife management areas, and state forests, as well as state highway rights-of way, navigable river and stream bottoms, and the Atlantic coast all the way to the three mile limit.
The state may grant permits for investigation, survey, and recovery activities if public interest is served. Diving to look at or photograph submerged cultural resources requires no permit. This includes shipwrecks. For information about permit application or laws regarding submerged cultural resources, call the Georgia Department of Natural Resources at (404) 656-2840.