Ancient Burials Protected by Iowa Law

Shirley J. Schermer, Office of the State Archaeologist

Introduction to Iowa Law that Protects Burials

It is important that county officials and developers are aware that intentional disturbance of burials violates Iowa state law and could lead to prosecution as an aggravated misdemeanor (Iowa Code, Chapter 716.5). As specified in the Iowa Code, Chapter 263B, the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) is the proper authority to contact concerning information on ancient burials, defined as over 150 years old. The OSA can be contacted by calling (319) 384-0740, or by writing to: Bioarchaeology Program, Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa, 700 Clinton Street Bldg., Iowa City 52242. Over 1,500 Indian mounds and other unmarked ancient burial sites are recorded in the statewide archaeological site file maintained by the OSA. The OSA receives information on 20 to 30 previously unrecorded mounds or other burial sites each year.

Working Together to Protect Burials

Far too often, the potential presence of unmarked burials is not considered in development projects. If the presence of burials is known in the early stages of development planning, it would take little effort or cost to modify plans to ensure compliance with state law and leave the burials undisturbed. At least one Iowa county, Dallas, has a zoning ordinance that allows the County Conservation Board to assess the potential impact to natural, historical, and cultural resources within potentially sensitive areas of the county prior to Zoning Board decisions on zoning change requests. Whether it is through a formal review process or by contacting OSA directly, the OSA is willing to work with county officials and developers to facilitate the identification of burial sites within potential development areas. If a burial site is present, the OSA and the OSA Indian Advisory Council will work with developers, recommending modifications to development
plans to protect the burial.

How OSA Works With Developers

Developers (county or private) or zoning boards are encouraged to provide the OSA with maps and legal descriptions of the development area boundaries, or simply call the OSA giving the legal description. This is a relatively quick and inexpensive step that can save time and money in the long run. The OSA site records will be checked and information will be provided as to whether known burials are located within the project area. The lack of recorded burials does not necessarily mean no burial sites are present; it could also mean that no one has ever looked for burial sites or mounds in that particular location. The OSA can assess the potential for unrecorded burials given the environmental and topographic setting. Blufftops, ridge spurs, and high terraces overlooking rivers and streams have a high potential for containing unrecorded burial sites. If an area has a high potential for containing burials, an OSA Burials Program staff member can make a site visit, upon request, to determine if any obvious burial features, such as mounds, are present. If a more intensive archaeological survey is desired, the developer could contract for those services through individuals or institutions listed on the approved archaeological contractors list available from: Iowa Historic Preservation Bureau, State Historical Society, Des Moines (515-281-3306), or on their website. It is important to note that all federally assisted or licensed projects must be reviewed by that office.