FAQ: What do I do if I find archaeological sites or artifacts in British Columbia?

In the past, internet postings by some enthusiastic artifact hunters were brought to the attention of the Archaeological Society of British Columbia. The reason this is a concern for the ASBC is that these postings provide a public platform that could encourage others to inadvertently or deliberately damage First Nations archaeological sites in a quest for artifacts. Many of the replies and postings have a competitive tone and, in some cases, artifacts were even being offered as prizes.

Since our formation in 1966 the ASBC has fielded many reports of individuals digging and or possessing artifacts. Our mandate as an organization is to provide information that will help to preserve our archaeological record in British Columbia. We hope some of the following information and links will provide a starting point.

The ASBC realizes there are many collectors throughout British Columbia and those people range from the very knowledgeable and responsible to those who would willingly destroy sites to obtain saleable artifacts. This situation isn’t unique to BC. In many parts of the world professional archaeologists and so called “pot hunters” often clash. However, in most situations where a good dialogue is initiated there can be tremendous benefits. Typically, collectors already have a strong interest in history and with the right information they can become valuable sources of knowledge and key allies to protect archaeological resources.

So, what does the British Columbia Heritage Conservation Act say about archaeological sites?

The following excerpts are from the Heritage Protection Section of the Act

(2) Except as authorized by a permit issued under section 12 or 14, or an order issued under section 14, a person must not do any of the following:

(d) damage, excavate, dig in or alter, or remove any heritage object from, a site that contains artifacts, features, materials or other physical evidence of human habitation or use before 1846;

(f) damage, excavate, dig in or alter, or remove any heritage object from, an archaeological site not otherwise protected under this section for which identification standards have been established by regulation;

(g) damage, excavate, dig in or alter, or remove any heritage object from, a site that contains artifacts, features, materials or other physical evidence of unknown origin if the site may be protected under paragraphs (b) to (f);

The act makes it clear digging or collecting from a pre-1846 archaeological site is contrary to the law. Even if the age of the site is undetermined and may predate 1846 the act would also apply.

Archaeological sites in British Columbia that are clearly post 1846 such as gold rush sites are not offered protection unless otherwise designated.

Please note: The ASBC is not offering legal advice, we are simply quoting the act which can be read in its entirety at the following URL: http://www.bclaws.ca/Recon/document/ID/freeside/00_96187_01

Question and Answers:

Question: What do I do if I find and artifact?

Answer: The Archaeology Branch addresses this question on their website.

Why You Should Report Finds:
Every year in British Columbia, significant archaeological artifacts and sites are discovered by people out hiking, digging in their garden, or simply going about their work. When reported to an appropriate agency such as the Archaeology Branch, new archaeological information can make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of our province and prevent the destruction of important cultural resources.

Procedures for Reporting Finds
If you think you have discovered an archaeological site, please contact the Archaeology Branch by telephone at (250) 953-3334.
You also may want to contact the archaeology or anthropology department of your closest university or college, as they may be able to give you some insights into what you have found.
Additionally, you may want to contact a professional archaeologist. For information on archaeologists who provide assessment services, you can contact the BC Association of Professional Archaeologists, or conduct an online search for a professional archaeological contractor nearest to your community.
The ASBC fully endorses the procedures given by the Archaeology Branch and the correct procedure is to leave the artifact in place and advise the Branch. If the artifact is likely to be destroyed or in such a place that it will easily be found by others, secure the artifact and place it with detailed notes on exactly where the artifact was found along with your name and contact information. The artifact can then be turned over to a local museum or repository. Over time, multiple finds from one location can indicate the presence to an archaeological site.

Question: I have a small collection of First Nations artifacts what is the first thing I should do?

Answer: If they were collected by you or someone you can ask, record as much information as you can. That would include an exact location, when collected and any circumstances around how the artifact or artifacts were found. Place that information with each artifact or somehow have enough documentation that a match can be made.
It’s not unusual to find a box of artifacts in a yard or estate sale and no one knows anything about them. Unfortunately, at that point they are usually little more than a box of rocks. Once removed from its context an artifact is like a single page torn from an unknown book; the story is lost.

Question: I have a number of artifacts. I’ve been told if I tell the museum they will be seized?

Answer: Despite an almost unshakable urban legend in BC there has never been a case that the ASBC is aware of, of artifacts being seized. Museums such as the RBCM would rather document and know about artifacts held in the community. There are many cases where artifacts have returned even decades later to the museum and the information was still on file. With exceptional artifacts, donation to a proper repository would be strongly suggested. Once donated, artifacts are secure and available for future study by First Nations and scholars.

Question: If I donate my artifacts they will just be put in a box and never again seen by the public?

Answer: The complaint is often heard that only a few of the hundreds of thousands of artifacts in BC repositories will ever make it to a permanent public gallery. It is important to remember that the vast majority of this collection made available for study by anyone with a valid request. Some artifacts may be repatriated to the appropriate First Nation and descendant communities. Other artifacts may be reunited with representative collections of the original site from which they were found.

Question: Can I sell my artifacts?

Answer: It’s common to see artifacts for sale in antique shops, flea markets and antique shows. Some web sites state they are selling legally obtained artifacts, however the ASBC is guarded in trusting many such claims. The ASBC does not condone the sale of artifacts and would advise anyone to seek proper legal advice before offering artifacts for sale. We strongly encourage the public to reach out to their local museum or the provincial archaeology branch to discuss donation.

Question: Would a museum tell me what my artifacts are worth or offer a tax deduction?

Answer: In general, museums and repositories in BC do not place values on First Nations artifacts. In exceptional cases, some compensation, usually in the form of a tax receipt can be considered for the documentation or other aspects of a collection but not the actual artifacts.

Question: I inherited a collection of very old First Nations wood carvings and baskets.
Are these considered artifacts?

Answer: Generally, no, they are considered ethnographic material. They can be sold but depending on the item they might not be allowed for export with out a permit. Museums and First Nations themselves may want to document exceptional items. The exception would be baskets and wood carvings actually found in an archaeological site. Perishable artifacts typically found in wet sites are rare very important to document. They also require professional conservation.

Question: I found what I think are human remains. What should I do?

Answer: This is what the Archaeology Branch states:
Procedures for Reporting Human Remains
If you think you have discovered human remains, please contact the Archaeology Branch by phone at (250) 953-3334. The following steps will generally be followed:
The Coroner’s Office and local policing authority are notified, and the Coroner’s Office determines whether the matter is of contemporary forensic concern.
If the remains are not of forensic concern, the branch will attempt to facilitate disposition of the remains.
If a cultural affiliation for the remains can be determined, the branch will contact an organization representing that cultural group. If the remains are of aboriginal ancestry, the branch will attempt to contact the relevant First Nation(s).
Generally, if remains are still buried and are under no immediate threat of further disturbance, they will not be excavated or removed. If the remains have been partially or completely removed, the branch will facilitate disposition.
The branch may arrange for a qualified anthropologist or archaeologist to provide an assessment of the remains.

Considering almost every bay and estuary was the home to First Nations families at some point in the last ten thousand plus years discovering human remains is not uncommon. Unfortunately, we still hear stories of people who have collected human skulls and other remains as some type of trophy. It’s hard to imagine anything more disrespectful to First Nations. Human remains in any context deserve the upmost respect. Leave the remains as found and report them.

If you have them, the ASBC would urge anyone to turn over human remains with as much information as possible to any museum or repository in BC. Also keep in mind a coroner may need to determine the nature of the remains. Most museums and repositories in BC are in the process of repatriating human remains to the most appropriate First Nations band.

Historic Artifacts:

Question: Can I dig for old bottles in British Columbia?

Answer: Yes, there is nothing in the act that protects sites that are known to be newer than 1846. It must be kept in mind some sites are designated, such as provincial and federal heritage sites and parks. Also, private property and First Nations lands need to be respected. Unfortunately, this also allows developers to destroy these same sites. With liability and insurance issues, access to most of these sites is denied for collectors and archaeologists alike. This results in total destruction.

Question: Can I sell post 1846 artifacts found in British Columbia?

Answer: Yes, there is nothing to prevent you from selling those artifacts and some bottles and ceramics have very high market values. However, they can also tell us a lot about the people who used them. There are many people in BC who started their careers in heritage research and management by taking an interest in antique bottles. It should also be kept in mind many historic artifacts such as bottles may never have been in the ground making them no different than other antiques.

Question: Can I assist in protecting British Columbia archaeology?

Answer: Absolutely yes, and in many ways. Get to know your area and keep watch when development occurs, or natural process exposes an archaeological site. If you think there is an archaeological site being damaged by any means, contact the Archaeology Branch or a local museum immediately. You can also learn as much as you can about your area and share what you learn. You can also become a member of the ASBC or make a donation to help us take the message to the public.