Human remains, cemeteries, burial sites, and burial mounds deserve sensitivity and respect. When there is a known or suspected burial within or near your property, there are important legal and ethical considerations. Planning can quickly become complicated. At 106 Group, we provide strategies to navigate these complexities, and we can guide you through addressing agency and tribal concerns, and legal requirements. Here are some things to know if you suspect there are burials on your property.
STEP 1: Know your legal obligations
Various laws protect human remains and burials across the country. In Minnesota, the Private Cemeteries Act (MS 307.08) prohibits disturbance of burials and burial grounds on all public and private lands and waters. If someone plans to dig near a suspected burial, they must consult with the Minnesota Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA). The goal is to assess if there is a burial site and find a way to avoid it. There could be legal and financial consequences for not following regulatory requirements.
STEP 2: Coordinate with agencies
Most states have agencies to consult when there is a burial or suspected burial in or near a project. In Minnesota, landowners must consult the OSA. If burials might be American Indian mounds or graves, consultation will include the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC). MIAC may consult with affiliated Tribal governments. This coordination continues through all steps. It can be difficult to navigate these relationships unless you are working with an experienced cultural resource management consultant.
STEP 3: Understand the history
There were over 12,000 American Indian burial mounds in what is now Minnesota. Unfortunately, before the Private Cemeteries Act became law in 1976, there were no legal protections for these sites. For example, agricultural, transportation, and residential developments flattened mounds throughout the state. However, burials and human remains may still exist beneath the surface. Understanding the history of an area is an integral early step in planning. Professional research needs to gather information from archival records, historical field notes, and knowledge of descendant communities and previous landowners. Background research, a burials and human remains assessment, and recommended next steps, provided by a qualified consultant, can help you and the agencies agree upon the best path forward.
STEP 4: Develop a plan
You may need to conduct on-site archaeological investigations. Investigations can identify if a burial site exists, inform cultural affiliation of a site, and confirm boundaries of known sites. The scope of the investigation will depend on results of previous research. This step requires careful planning and coordination with agencies. Expertise is needed to determine the most appropriate and efficient methods of investigation. An official planning document outlines the procedures if human remains are found, and the roles and responsibilities of those involved (see Table 1). Appropriate agencies must approve of the plan.
STEP 5: On-site archaeological investigations
Investigations involving suspected or known burials may involve a range of testing methods:
- Reviewing historical maps of burials: Early explorers from the late-1800s and early-1900s kept extensive field notes and maps, which often included locations, shapes, and sizes of burial mounds. These historical maps are still referenced today when identifying possible mound locations.
- Connecting historical and digital data: Digital technologies like sub-surface imaging, aerial drone photography, satellite imagery, and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) can be used alongside historical maps and field notes to help locate mounds and burials.
- Geophysical and Remote Sensing Technology: Archaeologists use sub-surface imaging tools to “see” signatures below the ground. Tools include ground penetrating radar (GPR), electromagnetic conductivity, and electrical resistance methods, among others. These methods can show anomalies underground but can’t identify what they are.
- Ground-truthing: The only way to confirm whether an anomaly is evidence of a burial is to ground-truth. This often involves subsurface testing, which must be carefully planned, approved, and executed to limit the possibility of disturbing a burial. Methods include soil coring, shovel testing, or excavating controlled units to look for the presence or absence of mound/burial fill.
- Construction monitoring: A common method for addressing the risk of uncovering human remains where mounds/burials have been previously disturbed is through construction monitoring. Archaeological Monitors and Tribal/Cultural Monitors closely observe all ground-disturbing activities. They ensure no human remains are present in the disturbed soil and may consult with a qualified Osteologist to confirm. A Monitoring Plan provides direction for agency coordination and next steps in case human remains are found. For more information, check out “What You Need to Know When Archaeological Monitoring is Required.”
106 Group has extensive experience implementing a staged approach to projects that may have burials or human remains in their project areas. We begin with the least invasive methods to limit the possibility of disturbing burials and increase the ability to confirm boundaries quickly and efficiently. From start to finish, we combine consultation, research, strategic planning, and investigation. This allows us to help our clients protect sites, avoid burials, and mitigate risk while laying a path for progress.
Sample Table of Roles and Responsibilities in a Project with Potential Burials or Human Remains
|TBD||Project Proponent||Financially liable for any inadvertent discovery of human remains under M.S. 307.08.|
|TBD||Client||Responsible for all contractors / subcontractors.
Identifies point of contact for all on-site coordination / communication.
|Minnesota Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA)||Burial Authentication||Responds to human remains discoveries and authenticates burials, if required, per M.S. 307.08.|
|Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC)||Burial Authentication||Coordinates with OSA and consults with Tribal Governments if human remains are identified per M.S. 307.08.|
|106 Group Archaeologist||Principal Investigator||Meets minimum professional archaeological qualifications standards set forth by the Secretary of the Interior (36 CFR Part 61; 48 FR 44739).
Holds appropriate archaeological license(s).
Develops a project-specific plan based on project background, history, and human remains potential.
Coordinates schedule and logistics with Construction Manager.
Supervises the Archaeological Monitors.
|106 Group Archaeologist||Archaeologist/ Archaeological Monitor||Works under the direct supervision of the Principal Investigator.
Conducts archaeological research and field work.
Monitors construction to identify burial mound components, funerary objects, or possible human remains that may be impacted.
|106 Group Bioarchaeologist||Osteologist||Determines or confirms whether bones identified are human or animal, remotely or in-person.|
|TBD||Construction Manager/ Contractor||Manages construction.
Coordinates schedule and logistics with Principal Investigator.
Performs excavation; responsible for site management and safety.
Kate is an archaeologist and osteologist with a special expertise in bioarchaeology and over a decade of international field experience (including Egypt, Romania, Israel, Peru, and the UK). Her ability to analyze human and animal remains in archaeological contexts has been invaluable to cultural resource investigations internationally. She has supervised crews and field schools in emergency burial recovery, osteological and paleopathological analysis practices, and consults on osteological identification and tribal engagement throughout the Midwest. Kate has presented at conferences and published on a range of osteological topics internationally.
Adam’s experience in archaeology spans North America, Central America, Asia and the Middle East. Adam has worked closely with Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, monitors, Elders, and community members. He has excellent professional relationships with State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO), Offices of State Archaeologist (OSA), Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and many Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.