A Grave Issue

I once owned a piece of land in southwestern Colorado near Mesa Verde National Park where the ancient Indians built their cliff dwellings. Walking through some trees up the side of a ridge one day, I noticed for the first time the tip of an adobe structure. I looked closer and saw it was a kiva, a part of an ancient Indian adobe home. I didn't disturb it, and I didn't want anyone else to bother it. Sometimes people here in Florida call me to say they have found a grave or artifacts from a bygone era on their property. They wonder what they can do with them.

These are American cultural resources. The physical remains of people and their way of life are worth preserving. Historical and cultural resources are irreplaceable once they are destroyed by land development or souvenir hunters. The law offers guidance for, and in some instances frankly states, what must be done. Artifacts on private land belong to the property owner. Those recovered from state-owned land are property of the state. An exception exists: if isolated artifacts are recovered from some parts of Florida rivers, those who find them may keep them if they report the find to the state. This permits some history of the area to be preserved.

On the other hand, gravesites have distinct legal protections. If a landowner comes across an unmarked human burial, defined by statute as "any human skeletal remains or associated burial artifacts," all activity that might disturb the burial site must stop immediately. Various authorities, starting with the district medical examiner, must be notified. Treatment of Native American burial sites is different. Having sovereign nation status, tribal oversight takes precedence over state agencies.

The point is that there are many state and federal laws that have to be complied with. Knowledge of the law gives us the legal means to preserve America's cultural heritage and resources and for landowners to avoid serious legal trouble.

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