Kentucky Laws for Digging Indian Artifacts

By Eden Straten
In Kentucky, it is a felony to dig Native American artifacts without a permit.

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Kentucky is home to many archaeological sites, including Native American mounds, graves and earthworks. Items found there are not only crucial to understanding historic or prehistoric human life but may also be sacred to Native American descendants. In 1987, pot hunters looted and desecrated about 650 Native American graves at Stark Farm and disturbed as many as 1,000. These looters stole valuable relics and left human remains visibly strewn over the grounds. The ensuing public outrage propelled the enactment of tougher state and federal legislation.

Illegal Digging for Artifacts Is a Felony

Kentucky’s policy is to preserve archaeological sites and objects of antiquity for the public benefit, and the state allows only qualified experts and institutions to explore, excavate and collect them. The law defines an object of antiquity as a bone deposit or "any product of human workmanship of Indians or any aboriginal race or pioneers." An archaeological site is a place that contains articles of value in the scientific study of historic or prehistoric human life and activities. Kentucky law makes it a felony to explore or dig anywhere that such items can be found or to remove any objects of antiquity without a permit. It is also a felony to “willfully injure, destroy or deface” any object of antiquity or any archaeological site located on public grounds.

Kentucky Excavation Permit and Reporting Requirements

Kentucky law requires that digging permits describe exactly where the exploration and excavation will take place and authorize activities only at the locations described and under conditions that minimize injury to the site. All permits must be renewed annually and can be revoked at any time if activities are being conducted improperly. If you find an artifact or other object of antiquity, you are required to report the finding to the University of Kentucky's Department of Anthropology.

Desecrating Venerated Objects and Violating Graves

In Kentucky, if you intentionally dig up human remains or objects buried with them for commercial exploitation without legal authorization, you may be found guilty of the felony crime of desecration of venerated objects in the first degree. Intentionally violating or mutilating graves is also a felony.

Federal Laws Against Illegal Digging

Federal laws also apply to digging for artifacts on federal or Indian lands within Kentucky. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act prohibits any digging or removal of “any material remains of past human life or activities which are of archaeological interest,” including Native American artifacts, without a permit. It also prohibits trade in and transportation of items that were illegally removed. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provides additional protections for graves. Among other provisions, it prohibits digging or removal of Native American human remains or objects without a permit or without consultation with the appropriate tribe. It further requires that tribes be consulted whenever artifacts are found or expected to be found and that any excavation or removal of items be done according to the ARPA.

Penalties for Violations

The crime of desecration of venerated objects in the first degree is a Class C felony in Kentucky and carries a sentence of five to 10 years of imprisonment. If you violate Kentucky laws prohibiting unauthorized handling of or willful damage of archaeological sites or objects of antiquity, including Native American artifacts, you will be guilty of a Class D felony, which carries a sentence of one to five years of imprisonment. You will also have to surrender all equipment used to commit the offense of which you were convicted. The act of violating graves is also a Class D felony. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act makes it a federal crime to traffic in illegally obtained Native American human remains or cultural items. For a first offense, you could be sentenced to one year of imprisonment and a $100,000 fine. For subsequent offenses, you could face up to five years imprisonment and a fine. Violations of ARPA can carry criminal penalties of imprisonment up to two years and a fine of $20,000 for a first offense and up to five years and a fine of $100,000 for subsequent offenses. Violations of permits and regulations are subject to civil penalties as well.

About the Author

Eden Straten has extensive experience in the legal and educational fields. She holds a Juris Doctor from Boston University and has been licensed to practice law for more than 20 years.

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