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Artifact Identification FAQs

Q: What types of objects can the Burke Museum identify?

A: The Archaeology Department focuses on the identification of human-made artifacts that are found in the ground. Human-made artifacts that have never been buried are more readily identifiable by the Burke Ethnology Division. To learn about rocks that have not been modified by people you should contact the Burke Geology Division, and if you have an interesting fossil you should contact the Paleontology Division. If you are unsure what your object might be, feel free to contact Archaeology and we will be happy to help you connect with the right Museum department.

The Burke Museum specializes in artifacts from the Pacific Northwest. We have local resources for identifying objects from additional areas in the Pacific Rim including Alaska, Siberia, the Polynesian Islands, and Island Southeast Asia. We do not currently have an archaeologist specializing in the Southwest or Mesoamerica on staff. However, we are happy to get you in contact with specialists that can help.

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Q: What if I want my artifact authenticated or appraised?

A: Although it is possible to legally collect, buy and/or sell some artifacts, even the legal trade in antiquities encourages looters by creating a market for their activities. The upsurge in web-based sales has made tracking and policing such sales difficult, and there is a high potential for the purchase of illegal or fake artifacts through web transactions, even when the seller claims that they were legally obtained. The Burke Museum encourages the donation of artifacts to public museums or repositories so that everyone may learn from and enjoy the region’s cultural heritage.

To learn more about the devastating effects of looting go to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage Center (UNESCO) or the organization Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE). 

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Q: What laws should I be concerned about?

A: There are numerous laws that govern the disturbance of archaeological sites, the sale of any resulting artifacts, and their movement across state and international borders. To help you determine what laws might affect your artifact follow the Laws Flow Chart below. Click on the underlined words to find links to short explanations of the applicable laws and links to the full text of the laws.

Laws Flow Chart

outside_us unknown_artifact unknown_artifact state_property federal_property outside_washington inside_washington

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Q: What if I don’t have an artifact but am concerned about a site?

A: If the site you are concerned about is on your property there are a few things you should do. First, limit impacts to the site. Don’t call attention to the site or tell too many people about it. This decreases the chance of looting at the site. Second, report the site to the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP). The site can then be recorded, with the land owner’s permission, and will add to the general archaeological knowledge about our region. Be sure to inquire about incentives such as tax breaks that are available to land owners. For more information about protecting your site see the information on site stewardship provided by the DAHP.

If the site you are concerned about is not on your property please contact us and we can help you communicate your concerns to the appropriate legal official. State, federal, and tribal properties for the most part already have people working to protect archaeological sites on their property. However, they are often in charge of large regions and thus always appreciate it when the public aids in site stewardship. If you believe that an archaeological site on private property is being destroyed it is appropriate to communicate this information to the DAHP as soon as possible. 

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Q: What do I do if I find an artifact on property that I do not own?

A: If you happen to come across an artifact on a property other than your own you should leave the artifact where it is. It is illegal to remove artifacts from land you do not own, both public and private. We recommend that if you have a camera handy that you photograph the object in place and the area around it. If possible take a GPS coordinate or draw a detailed map of where the artifact can be found. Then contact the Burke Museum or the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to report your find.

If you found this artifact on State, Tribal, or Federal lands you should contact the land manager and ask to speak to a cultural resource specialist. If you are confused about whom the appropriate land management agency might be the Burke Museum is happy to help you locate this information. It is also appropriate to contact the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to report your find. If you find an artifact on private property that you do not own you should inform the land owner. Your find may contribute greatly to our knowledge of the region! 

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Q: What do I do if I find human remains?

A: If you inadvertently come across human remains on your property to elsewhere, stop your activities in the area immediately. It is against the law to knowingly disturb a pre-contact or historic burial.

The Burke Museum is happy to help facilitate the transfer of human remains to the appropriate Native American tribe, or provide guidance on this process. However, there are both federal and state laws that govern the recovery of human remains. For this reason if you find human remains of any kind please contact the appropriate law enforcement agency by calling 911. No, this does not mean that you have necessarily committed a crime. This is a necessary step in order to allow the medical examiner to determine whether or not they are human, and whether or not they are Native American. The recent discovery of human remains is first treated as a crime scene in order to rule out any recent criminal activities.

There are a number of laws in place that protect human burials. On public property (including federal, tribal, and state land) the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) provides guidelines for protecting Native American graves (http://www.cr.nps.gov/nagpra/). On private property these laws vary by state.  In Washington State the Indian Graves and Records Act makes it is a felony to knowingly disturb an Indian grave on private property.

If you have any questions about human remains please do not hesitate to contact the Archaeology NAGPRA Coordinator, Megon Noble, at the Burke Museum. We are happy to help you with this process.

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Q: What information should I be prepared with before I call?

A: In order to better help you identify your artifact you should have as much of the following information available as possible when you contact the Burke. If your artifact was given to you by a family member it might be a good idea to do a short interview with them keeping these questions in mind.

  1. Where was your artifact found?
    Knowing where an artifact was found can greatly increase the chances that the Burke will be able to help you identify your artifact. You should be as precise as possible; even knowing general information, such as whether it came from a beach or a field, can be really helpful. If you are able to provide a map or an address where the artifact was found this is often very helpful.
  2. When was your artifact found?
    This will help us determine whether or not there are any legal issues with which you should be concerned.
  3. Do you have a picture of your artifact?
    This provides us an opportunity to do some preliminary research on the object. Photos should always be taken with some sort of scale (a ruler is best, but even a common object such as a US coin can help). We accept both print and digital pictures. 

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Q: What if I want to donate my artifact?

A: The Burke Museum sometimes accepts artifact donations from the public. We primarily accept artifacts with scientific value (artifacts that have collection information and can therefore contribute to scientific research). We do occasionally accept artifacts that lack collections information for educational purposes.

Other institutions that might be interested in artifact donations include other local museums, historical societies, and tribal museums. Museums cannot accept artifacts taken from land you do not own. If the artifact is from Federal or State land it will be necessary to contact the appropriate land managing agency before a transfer of ownership can be completed. Museums also cannot accept rock art or human remains.

If you are interested in donating an artifact to the Burke Museum or would like advice locating an appropriate institution please contact Megon Noble or Laura Phillips at the Archaeology Department.

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