FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 24, 2009
Shelly Angers, N.H. Department of Cultural Resources
Sale of human remains and grave goods prohibited in N.H.
As of September 8, 2009 it is no longer legal in New Hampshire to sell human remains or any items buried with a person.
By definition in N.H. statutes, “Human Remains” include not only the remains of the person (typically but not always skeletal remains) but also anything buried with the person, including jewelry, clothing, memorabilia and other personal items. Medical specimens have been and still are exempted from the law.
While the new law, RSA 227-C:8-j, is a small amendment to RSA 227-C:8i, “Prohibited Acts under the regulations regarding the treatment of unmarked graves and human remains,” it represents a significant change as it now extends the prohibition against the sale of human remains and items buried with the dead, regardless of who the deceased were or where they were buried. Prior to this law being passed, human remains and grave goods could be sold on the open market in New Hampshire.
Rep. William Belvin (R-Milford) was the lead sponsor for this bill, with Rep. Linda Foster (D-Mont Vernon), Sen. Sheila Roberge (R-Bedford) and Sen. Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth) as co-sponsors. The bill progressed through the House Commerce Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee with no amendments and with strong support from each committee, and passed through each chamber of the legislature without debate. It was signed on July 8, 2009 by Governor John Lynch.
Archaeologists, Native Americans and many members of N.H.’s general public have long been concerned with the traffic in human remains and grave goods, because it has been viewed both as a desecration and as a threat to the state’s heritage. The issue came into focus in October 2005 when an auction house in N.H. brought forward for sale the skeletal remains and grave goods of a Civil War casualty. The individual was a member of a New York regiment and was buried at Haxall’s Landing, Virginia, probably during the Union retreat from Malvern Hill. Illegally excavated, the skeletal remains and grave goods (weapons, bullets, belt buckles and personal effects) were offered for auction from the estate of a Civil War relic collector.
When this situation came to the attention of The Sons of Union Veterans, they contacted N.H. State Archaeologist Dr. Richard Boisvert in order to stop the sale. Coordination quickly followed with the N.H. Attorney General’s office, a N.H. county prosecutor, the Virginia state archaeologist and various law enforcement officials, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because the excavation of the grave and transportation of the remains and grave goods was illegal, their sale was halted and eventually the remains were returned to New York for reinterment.
While Virginia and federal laws were violated in that case, N.H. law could not be brought to bear as, at that time, it referenced that only items excavated from unmarked graves in N.H. after 1987 were prohibited from sale. Human remains and associated burial goods dug before that time or outside of N.H. could be sold within the state.
This attempted sale of the skeletal remains and grave goods served as a reminder of several other similar situations involving Native American and other skeletal remains that had been offered for sale over the years. After consulting with various authorities, Dr. Boisvert and Rep. Belvin developed an amendment to the existing regulation that simply eliminated the restriction to just unmarked graves excavated from New Hampshire. With these limitations removed, the sale of any burial or associated burial goods is now prohibited in the state.
Enforcement of the law hinges on education of auctioneers and antiquities dealers as well as on monitoring by concerned members of the public. If a violation is suspected, the relevant county attorney should be notified, along with Dr. Boisvert at the N.H. Division of Historical Resources (603-271-6438, [email protected]).
New Hampshire's Division of Historical Resources, the “State Historic Preservation Office,” was established in 1974. The historical, archeological, architectural, engineering and cultural resources of New Hampshire are among the most important environmental assets of the state. Historic preservation promotes the use, understanding and conservation of such resources for the education, inspiration, pleasure and enrichment of New Hampshire’s citizens. For more information, visit us online at www.nh.gov/nhdhr or by calling (603) 271-3483.