Human Burials, Sacred Objects, and You!

April 1, 2016


Human remains and associated funerary objects in unmarked graves and abandoned cemeteries that exceed 50 years in age are protected on State, county, city and municipal lands in Arizona under Arizona Revised Statute 41-844. This statute also protects sacred ceremonial objects and objects of national or cultural patrimony on State lands that have special importance to American Indians. [1] On private lands, Arizona Revised Statute §41-865 provides similar protection to human remains and associated funerary objects that also exceed 50 years in age. These laws were adopted in 1990 and are similar to federal laws protecting human remains on federal lands.

The intent of these State laws is to ensure that human remains and associated funerary objects are treated with respect and dignity. Sacred ceremonial objects and objects of national or cultural patrimony (objects of cultural heritage) are given equal consideration. First and foremost, dignity and respect mean protecting graves and objects of cultural heritage from disturbance.

There will be times when human remains and objects are accidentally disturbed, and times when the locations of known graves, or places with a potential for containing graves, or objects of cultural heritage are threatened. In these situations, the Director of the Arizona State Museum (ASM) is required to consult with individuals that can show direct kinship. In the absence of direct kin, the Director may consult with groups that can show a relationship to human remains through cultural affinity. For example, when human remains of American Indian ancestry are involved the Director will consult with the appropriate American Indian tribes. The Director will also consult with American Indian tribes that can show their ancestors made and used certain special objects of cultural heritage.

In consultation with the Director, descendants may decide to leave human remains and associated funerary objects or objects of cultural heritage in place or to rebury elsewhere if disturbance is unavoidable. Some circumstances may require materials, including human remains, to be removed and cared for in a museum.

What This Means to You:

In most cases, a landowner will not be certain if bones encountered are human or if they might be more than 50 years old. Individuals should make every effort to maintain the safety and security of the materials and then notify the local police immediately. If the human remains are older, and even if there is some question about whether they are human, the ASM should be notified and will assist law enforcement and the landowner in determining if the laws cited in this brochure apply to the situation.

Individuals who think they have come across objects of cultural heritage should first stop any activity that might further disturb the materials. They should then call or write the ASM in Tucson to inform the Museum of the circumstances, and to receive Museum guidance on what to do.

Intentional disturbance of human remains and associated funerary objects 50 years old or older, or of special objects, without first gaining written permission from the Director is a violation of state law. Accidental disturbance of graves and human remains or objects of cultural heritage is not a crime, but not reporting the accident is a violation of state law.

1. Object of National or Tribal Patrimony: an object with significant historical, traditional or cultural importance and which is central to the culture of an Indian Tribe or to Native Americans. Sacred object means: ...an object traditionally used in religious observances.

For further details on these laws please visit our Cultural Resource Services pages or call or write:

Todd Pitezel
Repatriation Coordinator
Arizona State Museum
The University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721-0026
520-621-4795
520-621-6281