What should you do if you find an archaeological artefact in your garden?

Australia is rich with archaeological artefacts, and more are being unearthed every week. A recent construction project near Sydney has unearthed a treasure trove of Aboriginal history, and in 2015 an amateur historian discovered the remains of what has been described as 'Australia's Stonehenge' in New South Wales. Every scrap of land on the globe is a potential archaeological dig site. We build our civilisations one on top of the other, and everywhere we tread has been a thousand other places in times gone before; the body of King Richard III was, after all, discovered a few years ago underneath a car park in a very ordinary city in the English Midlands.

This means that anyone could discover anything at any time, and it's actually very common for ordinary members of the public to come across something amazing in their own back gardens. In the UK It's estimated that fewer than 10 percent of archaeological discoveries are made by actual archaeologists--amateur diggers and people doing something quite different who get lucky have discovered all manner of wonderful things. So what should you do if it happens to you?

Proceed with great caution

Your find may be delicate, and it's important that you don't damage it. If you've found the remains of a building that you suspect may be genuinely old, get in touch with the nearest university with a archaeological department, archaeology consultants or with the Australian Institute of Archaeology for advice before doing anything else. Metal or clay objects you may be able to remove from the ground yourself, but only if they're very small and solid; coins and pottery shards are usually fine, but anything larger, more complex or more breakable should be left to the experts. If you do touch anything, wear gloves and be as gentle as possible.

Find out the law in your state

Different places have different rules about who archaeological finds belong to and what is to be done with them once they've been uncovered. In New South Wales, for example, the Heritage Act requires that all finds be reported to the Heritage Council 'within a reasonable time'. The Queensland Heritage Act is a little stricter, and requires you to leave sites undisturbed till they've been formally investigated.

Don't expect miracles

While it may indeed be the case that you get rich off the back of this discovery, it's important to be realistic. Most finds aren't worth much, and the truly exciting thing about making a discovery of this nature is learning more about the land on which you live. There are also two important points you should bear in mind:

  1. If your find is Aboriginal in origin and you yourself are not of Aboriginal descent, it's vital to be culturally sensitive to what you have found. This history of that artefact does not belong to you even if the land where it was lain does, and it's often better to return such things to the people to whom they belong.  
  2. Extremely important finds may be state property, and in such cases you are unlikely to be paid for them--you won't be making a sale of something you own, as you never 'owned' it in the first place. You may, however, be offered a finder's fee--it all depends on your local government.

Making a find like this is exciting and precious. So long as you treat the things you find with the respect they need, this should be a fulfilling experience and an exciting story to tell your friends and family.