Bones in Your Backyard (and What to Do If You Find Them)



by Jeanne Roberts
Photo credit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

You finally bought your “dream home”. It has five acres. Granted, it’s a “fixer-upper” and you may spend the rest of your life doing just that, but as long as the weather is good you will want to get the outside work done first, and your first project is likely to be digging footings for that deck.

It’s just bad luck that you shovel down one foot, and turn up bones. They look suspiciously like human bones, too, and you know this because you later go online to compare your bones with available images, ruling out the likelihood that your find is a turtle’s shell (similar to a human skull), chicken leg bones (very like human finger bones), pig ribs (almost identical to human ribs), or a bear paw, which is so much like a human hand it amazes you!

What do you do?

The law is clear. You must stop work and contact your local law enforcement immediately.

Depending on the area where you live, the size of the police department, and their level of education and training – not to mention busy schedules – someone will eventually come out and look at your find.

In the meantime, put away your shovel or plant some trees on the other side of your new home. Anything to keep busy and keep your mind off that unfinished deck – which could take up to several months to complete once the site is designated a crime scene by police and forensic investigators.

Police departments will attempt to limit site damage, and may even pay for it. Your homeowner’s insurance may also cover damage and loss-of-use. Bones found inside a residence – under the basement floor, for example – will be “cleared” more rapidly, to allow homeowners to return to their properties. This could be as little as 48 hours. Outside the home is a different story.

Once a certain area of your property is deemed the site of a “cold case”, you will have to wait for the various investigators to complete their work. One-third of murders in the U.S. go unsolved. In 2013 alone, the national clearance rate was 64 percent, with large cities falling far behind that average. That average has not improved. It can take more than a year just to get a vehicle involved in a homicide back from impound.

Once the authorities determine that your bone discovery is, in fact, a human bone, they will search their records for missing persons, and take or send the artifact to a nearby forensic pathology organization. This may be a part of the police department – like the Denver Police Department Crime Lab a unit in the hospital, or an organization.

You likely won’t get your human bone back, whether it’s a femur, a finger bone, or a skull. Law enforcement and forensics have to determine that it isn’t a missing person, or an archaeological artifact – as is the case with Native American bones and other historical relics – and your find will be archived until this is determined.

But at least you won’t have to foot the cost of an archaeological dig, as can happen in some areas of Canada. Nor will you be required to surrender a portion of your property if your discovery proves to be an historic Native American burial site or ruin.

If by chance you do get your leg, finger or skull bone back, you can keep it. Or sell it, providing it has been released to you with the proper documentation. Skulls on eBay can sell for as much as $1,095. These are replicas and antiques: the company banned the sales of human bones in July of 2016. In fact, the majority of the 454 skulls for sale in the U.S. are medical or teaching. Another 56 are archaeological or forensic. Only 14 have no provenance.

If, on the other hand, the bones you find are not human – if you find part of a mastodon (a large extinct mammal), or a dinosaur – you can keep them and either display them, give them to a museum, or sell them, possibly for millions of dollars!

A million dollars buys a lot of deck lumber.

 

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