So You Dug Up a Woolly Mammoth in Your Backyard. Can You Keep It?

Woolly mammoth unearthed in Michigan field Reuters

Imagine you're out turning over the earth in your backyard, planning a garden, doing it old school with a shovel, when suddenly the shovel hits something hard. Naturally, your first thought goes to treasure chest, but what it if it's something even older – maybe the skeleton of a 15,000-year-old Jeffersonian mammoth or ancient artifacts of Native Americans – can you keep what you find?

“The short answer is that if finds are on private property, they're yours,” says Bobbi Hohmann, vice president of education, collections and research at Atlanta's Fernbank Museum of Natural History. “So you can do what you like.”

But, of course, that's just the short answer, and that applies to the United States. In reality, things get a bit murky depending on what is found, who finds it and where.

Big Ol' Bones

When Michigan farmer Jim Bristle found the skeleton of a Jeffersonian mammoth on his own property in early October, it was his to do with as he chose. He chose to donate it to the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, just 10 miles down the road from his farm, because as he told reporters, “Well, the wife said we're not hanging it over the mantle.”

You can make a museum curator's day – or even year – if you donate skeletons and fossils, especially if the find is something as unusual as a mammoth. “If you are so inclined museums and universities appreciate being contacted and can usually be helpful with identification or in [the case of the mammoth] the digging,” Sarah Timm, curator at the [ur=]Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, says.

Bristle was lucky. He found the mammoth on his own property, which makes the decision about who owns it easy. The paleontologists from the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota who found Sue, the most complete and valuable Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered, landed in a legal situation that cost thousands of dollars, the fossils and their freedom. Sue was discovered in 1990 on Native American land, which can complicate ownership disputes considerably. After years of legal battles, the Sioux man who owned the land where Sue was discovered sold her to the Field Museum in Chicago for $8 million.

In the United States, items found on Native American land are subject to distinct laws. “You will want to be sure before you let anyone else on your property that you have contracts with them, in case you were to let them on and they find something else,” Timm says.

Ozga Ustun, an assistant conservator, looks up information on a pot she is working on at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, which houses an enormous collection of Native American artifacts.
Anne Cusack/Getty Images

Native American laws also come into play if you believe you've dug up an ancient grave, whether you find human remains or just burial artifacts. “If you find artifacts on a property you own and you have evidence that they are associated with a grave or burial site there is a national law that you do not own these,” Timm says. 

That law is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. So, if you dig up an artifact on your own land and want to know what it is, how it was used and whether it is part of a burial site, contact your state's archeology office.

Beyond Bones

Let's go back to Bristle and his mammoth remains. What if he had found a treasure chest? It's likely he would own it, though, again, there are additional considerations. “If you find artifacts on property you own, and there is no evidence linked to a burial site, you own these,” Timm says. “In this case, though you can sell them, it's not going to be easy. Selling artifacts is a very controversial subject and even sites like eBay have strict rules in place for selling artifacts.”

And that brings us to the ethics. Many scientists and academics say the sale of things like Sue that can add to our collective scientific knowledge, shouldn't be allowed. One opponent of such sales is Thomas Carr, senior scientific director of the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who blogs about all things related to dinosaur bones. His post from November 2013, Tyrannoethics, covers some of the ethical considerations involved in the discovery – and sale – of bones.

Finally, if you suspect the bones are human, of course they don't belong to you, and call the police. Like, NOW. 

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