Identification of Artifacts, Archaeological Sites, and the Public Use of Archaeological Sites:

I found this in my yard, what is it?


I found this in a state or national park, what is it?

We would be more than happy to help you identify artifacts! You can send photos of artifacts to us at UWArchaeologyLab@gmail.com or you can schedule a visit to show us in person.

Be aware though, that while removing artifacts from your own personal property is legal, taking any item—artifact, rock, or even bird feather—from a State park may not be. Federal National Parks are protected from the removal of ecological and archaeological items, as the Protection of Archaeological Resources on federal land states:

“(a) Under section 6(a) of the Act, no person may excavate, remove,
damage, or otherwise alter or deface, or attempt to excavate, remove,
damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located
on public lands or Indian lands unless such activity is pursuant to a
permit issued under Sec. 7.8 or exempted by Sec. 7.5(b) of this part.
(b) No person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, or receive
any archaeological resource, if such resource was excavated or removed
in violation of:
(1) The prohibitions contained in paragraph (a) of this section; or (2) Any provision, rule, regulation, ordinance, or permit in effect under any other provision of Federal law.”

Find out more about Wisconsin’s laws here, and National Park and tribal land laws here.


I think my property is historic or has an archaeological site on it. What do I do?

If your property is already on the National Register of Historic Places, part of an archaeology site, or might be part of a Native American burial ground, then you are already restricted from conducting any personal metal detecting or removal of artifacts and soils from your property. You can check the listings on federal or local websites to see if your property is included.

However, if this is not the case, you have some options.

You can review the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which deal with preserving and protecting artifacts and sites in the United States. If you would like to report a known archaeological site on your property for future protection and preservation, you can contact the appropriate local government officials or the National Register of Historic Places.
If you are conducting invasive projects like renovations on your property and come across archaeological artifacts, all work that could harm the site should be stopped and local authorities should be contacted. 

You will not be fined or prosecuted for knowingly disturbing archaeological sites on your own property (except in the case of human burials (see below)), and any artifacts found on your property are also considered to be under your ownership. The goal of archaeology is to conserve and study material heritage, not to punish landowners.

While it is a personal decision to report archaeological sites on private lands, it is important to remember that archaeological sites which have been disturbed are forever removed from their context, and stripped of much valuable information which could provide scientific and cultural public knowledge. Especially when dealing with potential Native American archaeological sites, the obligation is to protect and preserve this heritage which exists on lands sacred to Native identity and heritage, so much of which has already been lost or suppressed.


How do archaeologists identify effigy mounds? Is there one on my property?

Effigy mounds are conical, linear, or animal-shaped mounds dating to Late Woodland period (c. 300-1300 CE) which are unique to Wisconsin, northern Illinois, eastern Iowa, and parts of Michigan and Minnesota. They have often, but not always, been used as burials by Native Americans. Besides this, they were also important structures in Native religious and spiritual ceremony, and represent deep ties to the land. Because these structures have been so integral to the identities of local Wisconsin Native Americans, the state provides special protections to these mounds.

That being said, many of these mounds do occur on private properties. While these are usually protected through designation as a Native American burial site, many are still unregistered. If you believe an undocumented mound is on your property, local archaeologists can be invited to investigate the geological anomaly to determine if an effigy mound is present on your land. The investigators will analyze the shape, height, size, and soil composition of the anomaly through non- or minimally-invasive techniques, which can reveal whether the soil deposition occurred through natural glacial events or by human intervention.

We suggest that property owners not dig into these anomalies in case human burials are present. Authorities must be notified if human remains are uncovered on private property (see below).


What do I do if I suspect Native American burials or remains are on my property?

If you believe human burials might be found on your property, please contact the local coroner, non-emergency police number, the Wisconsin Historical Society, or other appropriate authorities, and in the meantime leave the ground respectfully undisturbed. If Native heritage of the remains can be determined, the next step will be receiving counsel from local Native groups as to the proper and respectful approach to dealing with the remains. The Wisconsin Historical Society will be involved with every step of the process.

Note that there are Wisconsin laws which cover all human remains (not just Native American) found on private property, and most have to do with identification, preservation, and repatriation. Also, removal of Native American remains from a grave with the intent to traffic or sell is a felony.

Visit the Wisconsin Historical Site’s page on Wisconsin burial regulations for more information.


Do you have information on metal detecting?

We focus on prehistoric archaeology, but historic archaeologists can benefit from the use of metal detectors as research aids when examining more recent soil deposits. However, the use of metal detecting is heavily regulated by preservation and antiquities laws. If you do plan on metal detecting, avoid National and State parks, including waterways connected to protected land, until you have done research on local and federal metal detecting laws. It is often prohibited to bring metal detectors into these protected areas without a permit, and registered Native American burial sites, places on the National Register of Historic Places, and active archaeological sites are always barred from ‘relic hunting,’ including those occurring on private properties.

Getting Involved with Archaeology:


What is an archaeologist, and what do they study?

An archaeologist is a scientist of Anthropology who studies the remains of people from the past. This can include artifacts, structures, physical remains, and even the genetics of humans.

In the United States, Archaeology is a branch of Anthropology, which is the broad study of humans. Anthropology is broken down into several categories:

  • Linguistic Anthropology: The study and development of past and present human languages.
  • Cultural or Social Anthropology: The study of economic, social, political, ethical, and religious practices of modern humans.
  • Physical or Biological Anthropology: The study of human evolution, genetics, biology, forensics, and general primatology.
  • Archaeological Anthropology: The study of human technology, culture, movements, and behaviors in the past.


What skills do I need to be an archaeologist?

Great question! An archaeologist has to have a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ mentality. This means skills in writing, penmanship, mathematics, computer sciences, geography, geology, soil sciences, curation, cultural anthropology, public outreach/communication, history, biology, genetics, research, critical thinking, mapping, and even art (whew!) are all applicable to the science of archaeology.

In the field, good hand-eye coordination, ability to distinguish color and soil changes, attention to detail, control over digging instruments, ability to coordinate on a team, and overall patience are invaluable for successful excavations. Since we tend to work under difficult conditions, having a high tolerance for discomfort, being physically in-shape, and keeping a good attitude are also valuable traits to have, especially when working collaboratively with other excavators.

Above all, a deep respect for people of the past and the present is a central and unifying trait which all good archaeologists must have.


How do I become an archaeologist?

In the United States, archaeologists earn a degree in Anthropology, Archaeology, Museum Studies, Material Culture, Classics, Art History, Architecture, History, or a mixture of these. At UW-Madison, prospective archaeology students can earn a certificate in Archaeology as well as a Bachelors degree in Anthropology. UW-Madison offers a combined Masters-Ph.D. program in Archaeology as well, although programs exist across the U.S. and the world for separate Masters and Ph.D. programs.

However, inexperienced archaeology students, even if they hold a degree, are unnecessary risks in a professional excavation. All archaeologists must complete a field school through an accredited organization in order to be eligible for future excavations. This is because Archaeology requires experience, practice, and finesse due to the complex nature of the science while conducting fieldwork. In a field school excavation dedicated to training future archaeologists, these skills can be taught and refined.


What Field Schools are available? Do I have to be enrolled at UW-Madison to participate? 

UW-Madison offers a selection of field schools focusing on different specializations within the science of Archaeology which varies by year. The department does accept non-UW-Madison students on excavations, but it would be wise to check with all schools involved to make sure that the credits earned are transferable. See the Department of Anthropology’s Field School page to learn more about current field schools being offered through the university as well as alternative options.


How can I get involved with an excavation? Are their volunteer programs for amateur archaeologists, high school students, and the general public?

The best way to learn about proper scientific archaeological methods is through a recognized field school program. However in many parts of the world, non-field school archaeological excavations are open to public volunteers and archaeology enthusiasts. These are typically offered at cost to the volunteers, and the level of involvement allowed depends on the project. For example on some excavations, volunteer responsibilities are limited to screening, equipment care, initial topsoil removal, or other activities which require little formal training. Other programs offer opportunities which can include excavating, although in any case volunteers are expected to follow stated regulations, ethical codes, and the direction of the field staff. Visit the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin (AFOB) to learn more about volunteer fieldwork opportunities.

Note that excavation and curation practices may vary by institution, state, providence, and country. Volunteers with prior excavation experience should expect to adapt to the standards of new projects and not assume expertise in any element. When in doubt, ask the field staff for direction.


How do you decide where to excavate? 

Science is a collaborative effort. We use the research other archaeologists have done as well as working with technicians who use nifty equipment like ground penetrating radar to test variations in soil compaction, or magnetometers to compare magnetic levels in the soil. These methods allow us to non-invasively probe the soil for anomalies which might indicate past human disturbances. We are lucky enough to be part of a wonderful university which has outstanding professionals in subjects like soil science, geology, cartography, and many more who can help us better understand a site and guide us on where is the best place to excavate according to our research goals.

Common Misconceptions about Archaeology:


Are you hunting for a certain ‘treasure’ or ‘relic’?

Archaeologists have come a long way from the tomb-raiding practices of Howard Carter and Indiana Jones! Fictional or real, this type of representation has saturated mainstream thought with images of swashbuckling adventurers breaking into ancient cultural sites in search of a single ‘treasure.’ In reality, modern archaeology is a delicate and precise science which serves to answer larger research questions rather than bounty hunt for ‘cool’ or ‘valuable’ items. In fact, the mindset of reducing cultural heritage to dollars and cents is extremely harmful to both researchers and communities across the world–think of all the knowledge currently being traded in black markets, knick-knack shops, and even accredited auction houses. These items can no longer contribute to public knowledge after being bought, sold, and hidden away by private collectors. As archaeologists, it is our duty to return as much of this knowledge to communities as possible by conducting careful and ethical research, which includes looking at all elements of an excavation including artifacts, soil stains, and even ecological patterns. All of these clues together help archaeologists piece together a holistic view of the lives of the people who came before us, which a single ‘relic’ alone cannot do.


Do you dig up human skeletons?

We refer to any human internment as a ‘burial.’ This can include bundles, cremations, partial burials, and full-body burials. In Wisconsin, even a fragment as small as a tooth must be reported to the Wisconsin Historical Society, especially when dealing with the remains of Native Americans for whom the topic of human remains is very sensitive. While we at the Wisconsin Archaeology Lab do excavate at Aztalan, a registered Native American burial site, our primary research does not rely heavily on the analysis of human remains. If we do find evidence of human burial, we contact the appropriate channels of authority.


Can you dig anywhere or any time you like?

In short, no. For our excavations of Aztalan, we procured special permits from the DNR and The Wisconsin Historical Society, as most state and federal lands are not available for excavation without the proper permits. As scientists, we always conduct and consult new and prior research projects to determine the eligibility of a site for a new excavation. There is little scientific value in blindly digging into the ground without this prior investigation, especially because answering a specific research question is always the goal of excavating.

Much planning goes into an excavation because all information uncovered must be systematically recorded for future researchers and for public knowledge. At Aztalan, we excavate along a carefully plotted gridmap in order to record all soil changes, artifact positions, and other information as the excavation progresses. Additionally, many archaeology projects have a time limit; after the expiration date on the permits, all ground disturbing activities must cease. We respect these limitations, especially when considering that at Aztalan we are disturbing land that has sacred connotations to Native people who have lived in the area for millennia.


Have you found any dinosaur bones?

We get this all the time! Archaeologists study people of the past, including their movements, cultures, material goods, and genetics. Paleontologists are the ones who dig up T-Rex and sabertooth tigers, as they focus on animals who lived in the past. However, both types of scientists have an affinity for soils, geology, and floppy khaki hats!