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Archaeological Literature Review: A Guide to Dealing with Burial Sites

Literature Review and Burial Sites: A Guide for Archaeologists | Wisconsin Historical Society

Wisconsin state statutes contain provisions that restrict activity within human burial sites. Therefore, your literature review should be designed to identify burial sites within each project APE well before fieldwork begins. Remember, all archaeological work within human burial sites requires authorization from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

How you research burial sites in a project area can streamline your project and make your work more efficient. A proper and thorough literature review will help you understand which types of authorization you should request from the Wisconsin Historical Society for each site, as well as how long it will take to obtain authorization.

Wisconsin Historic Preservation Database (WHPD)

A key tool to help your literature review is the Wisconsin Historic Preservation Database (WHPD). The WHPD contains information about cultural resources located within Wisconsin. It consists of three separate databases:

  • Archeological Sites Inventory (ASI) - contains information about archaeological and burial sites.
  • Bibliography of Archaeological Reports (BAR) - contains summaries of archaeological investigations at archaeological and burial sites.
  • Architectural History Inventory (AHI) – contains basic information on historic buildings, structures and objects. Most include exterior images.

When it comes to burial sites, your literature search should include checking both the ASI and BAR. Learn how to access the WHPD database.

Key Questions WHPD Can Help Answer During Your Literature Review

1. Are there any burial sites within your project area?

To check for burial sites within your project area, search maps in the ASI and query the ASI by Town, Range, and Section. Not all human burial sites are mapped. If a site is not mapped, there may be a note in the site description explaining why and what implications there might be for your fieldwork.

2. What are the boundaries of the burial sites within your project area?

If there are burial sites in your project area, the next step in your literature review should be to identify their boundaries. Keep in mind that burial sites can have more than one type of boundary, depending on their status under Wisconsin's burial sites law. Many burial sites are only partially catalogued, with catalogued sections inside a larger catalogued boundary.

  • In many cases, the site boundaries shown on ASI maps represent the uncataloged boundaries of the burial site.
  • Cataloged boundaries of a burial site may be smaller than its uncataloged boundaries, or they may be the same as the overall site boundary. Cataloged boundaries are not shown on ASI maps, so your literature review should include a map of the relationship between your project area and any cataloged portions of a burial site.
  • Information about cataloged boundaries of burial sites is located in the Archaeological Site Inventory files housed in the State Historic Preservation Office at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Descriptions and maps of cataloged boundaries also are available upon request. You may request cataloging information using the contact information below.

The types of boundaries your project intersects will determine how your fieldwork should be planned and conducted. You will need to allow at least 60 to 90 days for a request to disturb a cataloged burial site to be processed, and 30 days for a request to disturb an uncataloged burial site or an uncataloged portion of a cataloged burial site.

3. Do you need to obtain authorization from the Wisconsin Historical Society before beginning fieldwork?
  • If all or part of a burial site is no longer protected by Wisconsin's burial sites law (Wis. Stats. 157.70), you do not need to request authorization to disturb those excluded areas. The site's ASI record will state that Society staff confirmed it has been destroyed and is no longer protected. Maps of site areas that have been excluded from Wis. Stats. 157.70 are kept in the Archaeological Site Inventory files housed in the State Historic Preservation Office at the Wisconsin Historical Society. You may request copies of those maps (contact information below).
  • Any discrepancies between the ASI records and other sources consulted during your literature review should be cleared up before you request authorization to disturb a burial site. If the ASI record is found to be in error, authorization may not be necessary.

A thorough literature review for a burial site should consult as many sources as possible. The site boundaries in the ASI reflect a best effort to ascertain site location and site dimensions based on a variety of sources, some over 150 years old. Society staff has not been able to thoroughly research or field verify all references. If you feel that a WHPD record contains errors, you should contact Society staff for advice before proceeding.

How to Deal with 'Blank' Cemetery Records

The ASI records for some post-contact cemeteries contain little information beyond their location. Some records correspond to unmarked cemeteries. Others correspond to mapping errors made by earlier surveyors. Society staff has been adding information to these entries — and deleting them when appropriate — as time allows.

In the meantime, you can track down source information for 'blank' cemeteries by consulting the original Burial Sites Topographic Maps in the Society Archives. To access the maps, you will need to obtain a signed permission slip from either John Broihahn or Amy Rosebrough in the State Historic Preservation Office.

Learn More

See more articles about Human Burials, Mounds and Cemeteries

Have Questions?

Need maps or have other questions? Call Amy Rosebrough at 608-264-6494 or John Broihahn at 608-264-6496 or email us below.