Archaeology and the Law

The Society for Georgia Archaeology (SGA)* promotes the preservation of information about the past. Part of its mission is to educate the public about the past and about the conservation of archaeological sites and artifacts.  SGA members themselves subscribe to professional standards of conduct, and they also would like the informed citizen to appreciate these standards as well as laws related to archaeology and to follow them.

Members of SGA follow the ethical standards of the largest national association of archaeologists in North America, the Society for American Archaeology, which in 1961 published in its journal American Antiquity "Four Statements for Archaeology".  The following paragraphs are extracted from these "Four Statements," and apply to all of us - students, laypersons, teachers, scientists, collectors, developers, and land managers.

Archaeology, a branch of the science of anthropology, is that area of scholarship concerned with the reconstruction of past human life and culture.  Its primary data lie in material objects and their relationships; of equal importance may be ancillary data from other fields, including geology, biology, and history.

Archaeological research depends on systematic collection of material objects together with adequate records of the circumstances of the finds and relationships among objects and their surroundings. Value attaches to objects so collected because of their status as documents, and is not intrinsic. Therefore, collecting practices, which destroy data and thus prevent the scholarly goal of archaeology, are censured.

Archaeology is a scholarly discipline requiring knowledge of field techniques, competence in laboratory analysis of specimens, and the ability to prepare a detailed report of the investigations and their implications in archaeology.

The following must also be considered:

  • Explicit permission of the property owner must be secured before excavation
  • State and federal statutes regarding preservation of antiquities and permits for excavation must be scrupulously observed.
  • Field techniques aim at preserving all recoverable information by means of adequate descriptive records and diagrams.
  • Collections made by competent archaeologists must be available for examination by qualified scholars.
  • It is the scholarly obligation of the archaeologist to report findings in a recognized scientific medium.
  • Willful destruction, distortion, or concealment of the data of archaeology is censured.
  • Inasmuch as the buying and selling of artifacts usually results in the loss of context and cultural associations and encourages looting, the practice is censured.



    Without the proper permits and permissions, it is illegal to:

    • Collect artifacts on public land.
    • Dig or disturb an archaeological site on public land or Georgia's waterways.
    • Disturb a human burial on either public or private land.
    • Display any human remains in public.
    • Sell artifacts that were ever associated with a human burial, or to bring such artifacts from another state in the U.S.
    • Import artifacts taken illegally in a foreign country.
    • Remove artifacts or disturb a site on private property without permission of the landowner.
    • Receive stolen artifacts.

    It is generally legal to:

    • Own a collection of artifacts.
    • Surface collect on private land with written permission of the property owner.

    *West Georgia Underwater Archaeological Society is a local chapter of the Society for Georgia Archaeology; reprinted by permission of The Society for Georgia Archaeology.