You found a fossil… Now what? (the very condensed version)

Outcrops like these are what people often think of as fossil localities (credit: Lauren Milideo)

Where do people find fossils? 
It happens often.  Ask any museum curator, and she can tell you countless stories of people coming to the museum with items they found in the backyard or in the garden.  People find teeth, and sometimes bones, on the beach or in a stream bed. Sometimes, construction workers or fishermen turn up a huge bone or a tooth during the course of their work.  Here is a very brief overview of somethings you can do if you find a nonhuman vertebrate fossil or bone (i.e. the remains of an animal that had a backbone – like a

rodent, turtle, fish or a carnivore).  I also have another, longer post on this topic with a much more extensive explanation. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive description of how professional paleontologists handle fossils, from discovery to museum display, check this out.

Please keep in mind that this post is just a general overview.  It isn’t a comprehensive review of relevant laws – it would be impossible to cover that in a blog post.  And I’m only referring to the United States.  Different countries have diverse laws regarding what constitutes a fossil, and what is and isn’t allowed.  When in doubt, leave it alone and report it.

Where was it?

  1. Context.  Context!!!!!  Where was it?  How deep in the ground?  What kind of soil or sediment?
  • photographs
  • notes

2. Whose property are you on?  What state are you in?  Are you on private/state/federal land?  It matters.  A lot. (check out my longer post on this subject for more information)

What is context, and why does it matter?

  1. includes everything about where the fossil was found
  • 3-dimensional
  • not just the fossil itself but what was with it
  • soil? gravel? other bones?
  • context = forensics, just longer-term

2.  Context matters because it fills in the story. A fossil out of context is like a single word torn from a newspaper story – not too                informative, and a lot less interesting.

What should I do with the fossil? It’s usually best to leave it in place.

  1. Report it – to rangers if on park or forest service land
  2. Report it – to your state museum or to a local natural history museum
  • Donate it? (If it was legal to collect)
  • You might help salvage the knowledge that can be gained from a threatened or disappearing site.
  • Either way you’re contributing to scientific knowledge. We are all better off because of what you shared.
  • This is an important choice. What you do here matters.


Modern bison scapula (shoulder blade)  (credit: Lauren Milideo)

What is it?

  1. Lots of resources to help you identify it
  • State museum (department of natural history)
  • other museums
  • college/university (try departments of geology, paleontology, anthropology, or biology) – but call/email first!

2. You can try to make the identification yourself

  • local or county library
  • local amateur fossil or mineral clubs

3. None of these people, professionals or dedicated amateurs, are going to appraise it for you.

  • can’t put a price on priceless specimens
  • price on fossils –> illegal trade, site looting
  • fossils out of the public domain are fossils we can’t learn from

What if you find a human bone or some artifacts?

  1. Archaeology and paleontology are not the same
  2. Paleontology = study of past or extinct non-human organisms (plants, animals, etc.)
  3. Archaeology = study of past human societies and the traces they left behind
  • artifacts, food remains, pottery, tools, etc.
  • burials have their own laws.  LEAVE THEM ALONE.
  • archaeological sites are governed by separate and specific laws

4. Digging up a burial is illegal

  • burials are sometimes legally excavated
  • this is done by professionals in cases where a crime is suspected or the site is threatened
  • when necessary, First Nations (Native Americans) will be involved

When dealing with archaeological sites and materials, there are ways to treat the site responsibly.  Laws regarding archaeological sites vary by state, and the office of your state archaeologist would be a good place to start, if you need more information.  But looting is wrong, always. Remember, the past is the story of all of us.  Don’t destroy part of it forever by treating any site, archaeological or paleontological, with disrespect.


About laurenwritesscience

I'm bringing scientific news and information to anyone interested, whether you're a scientist, or just love science! My focus is earth science and archaeology but I wander quite a bit.

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