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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). 

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 takes little effort or cost to modify plans to ensure compliance with state law and leave the burials undisturbed. Whether it is through a formal review process or by contacting OSA directly, we are 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.

Working with the OSA Bioarchaeology Program

Several counties have enacted ordinances or resolutions that take into consideration the potential impacts to natural, historical, and cultural resources within potentially sensitive areas as part of the zoning decision or permitting process. Whether it is through formal reviews such as these or by contacting the OSA directly, developers and planning agencies should consider project effects on burial sites. 

Prior to construction—preferably in the early stages of planning—developers, zoning and planning boards, other agencies, and landowners should contact the OSA. Provide maps and descriptions of development area boundaries, or simply call us with the legal description. We will check its records and will provide information on any known burials within the project area. This relatively quick step can save time and money in the long run. 

An absence of recorded sites does not necessarily mean no burials are present. It could just mean that no one has ever looked for mounds or burial sites in that particular location. The OSA can examine a site’s environmental and topographic setting to assess the potential for unrecorded burials. Blufftops, ridge spurs, and high terraces overlooking rivers and streams are likely settings for burial sites. If an area appears to have a high potential for containing burials, an OSA Bioarchaeology Program staff archaeologist can make a site visit, upon request, to determine if any obvious burial features, such as mounds, are present. 

Unmarked historic-era cemeteries can be present in a variety of landforms and locations. Archival records and interviews with local informants can often provide valuable information on a cemetery’s presence. 

Archaeological Surveys

If a more intensive archaeological survey is desired, developers may contract for such services with consultants on the archaeological contractors list maintained by the Association of Iowa Archaeologists (AIA).

The State Historical Society of Iowa can provide state and federal guidelines for archaeological surveys. All federally assisted or licensed projects must be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office to ensure compliance with federal historic preservation laws.

Accidental Discoveries

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Sometimes burials are accidentally encountered during construction, even after a records check and/or survey. If human remains are found, stop any construction in the area and secure the site. If the remains appear to be recent, contact local law enforcement. If the remains appear to be ancient, contact the OSA. If there is any uncertainty in this determination, contact local law enforcement and the county coroner or state medical examiner first; they will then notify the OSA. Construction workers should be informed of Iowa’s burial laws, be aware of the need to observe what may be encountered, and know the procedures to follow if a possible burial is found.