As you are hiking around the state, or even hanging out in your own backyard, you may find artifacts! Artifacts come in a lot of different forms, so how do you know if you found one? And what do you do once you’ve found one?
What Is an Artifact?
Although it seems simple, artifacts come in many shapes and sizes, and may be things you don’t expect! Here in Utah we tend to think of prehistoric artifacts – projectile points, ancient pottery, grinding stones and the like – when we think of “artifacts,” but an artifact can be almost anything! Anything over 50 years old may be an artifact! Archaeologists use a “50 year rule” when thinking about things that may be artifacts. We consider that 50 years probably gives us enough historical perspective to be able to consider these artifacts as archaeological specimens, although famously one archaeological study used contemporary garbage!
If it has a physical form, it may be an artifact!
Since archaeologists study what we call “material culture,” the only real qualification to calling something an artifact is that it needs to occupy physical space. Toys from your childhood, grinding stones that are thousands of years old, even newspapers can all be artifacts. However, as the digital age gets long in the tooth, we may need to rethink this and expand our definition of “artifact” even further!
Now That You Have Determined What You Found is an Artifact, You Can Check to See if It Is Part of a Site
Sometimes you find a lone artifact, but oftentimes it’s part of a larger archaeological site! If you want to, you can very carefully look on the ground near the find to see if there are other artifacts. Archaeologists look at the whole site to understand the story of artifacts.
You Can Take Pictures, Write Notes, and Appreciate Your Discovery… Before Putting It Back, Of Course!
Archaeologists always take pictures and notes of what they have found. Sometimes it’s so they can ask their friends about it, research it more on their own, or just take the occasional trip down archaeological memory lane. If you find an artifact and it isn’t partially buried or fragile (like basketry) or something you know you shouldn’t touch (like bones) you can pick it up an examine it. You can take pictures, make a sketch drawing, whatever you need to do to investigate what you have found. Archaeologists like to put things back for a variety of reasons: maintaining the scientific value of a site, respect for the people and cultures who made these artifacts, and to preserve the thrill of discovery for someone else.
You Can Report What You Have Found
Not all artifacts need to be reported, but if you have found something that concerns you, or you want to make sure archaeologists know about, there are lots of ways to report your findings. You can report that to the Utah State Historic Preservation Office. We will make every effort to connect you to the agency that manages that land so your report will reach the people in charge. We will need the following information when you make your report:
- The location of the site
- A picture and written description of the problems
- Optionally, your contact information so we can follow up with more information
If you know the land managing agency whose land you’re on, follow this link to find out who you can report to.
They will likely want the same information as above.
If you think there are human remains, refer to this page:
But remember – this artifact has likely been in this place for years… sometimes thousands of years! Under no circumstances does it need you to remove it from this location, even if you are bringing it in to the proper authorities.
And… What Not To Do
Don’t share the location of your discovery on social media. Not everyone is as trustworthy as you are, and some people may retrace your steps in order to steal artifacts or damage things in some other way. Don’t take anything with you. It’s likely illegal and at the very least it is not respectful to the people who left it behind or their descendants. Just as an aside – we’re seeing a growing problem of people who have previously taken things from sites getting older and… well… what happens to these artifacts then? Don’t put yourself or your family in the position of trying to figure out what to do with these artifacts decades from now – just leave them where you found them!