Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Documenting Burial Sites: A Guide for Archaeologists

How to Document a Burial Site: A Guide for Archaeologists | Wisconsin Historical Society

Properly documenting a human burial is an important part of an archaeologist’s job. It not only helps protect the site, it also makes your job easier.

Documenting the condition of burial sites with photographs, notes, and maps, before you begin construction helps protect you and your client from claims that you are damaging or destroying a burial site. In addition, well-mapped burial sites are easier to find and protect once construction is underway.

Before You Begin Documenting a Burial Site

Familiarize yourself with the Wisconsin Archeological Survey guidelines for working within human burial sites. The Survey guidelines explain the basic processes of state and federal compliance archaeology and detail the steps necessary to identify, evaluate, and mitigate archaeological sites. In addition, this document also provides new guidelines for working on specific site types (burials, rock art, shipwrecks, and terrestrial historic sites) as well as for geoarchaeological investigations.

Obtain Authorization

Make sure that you have authorization from the Wisconsin Historical Society to proceed. Some types of documentation, including soil coring and remote sensing, are considered limited appropriate subsurface testing and require Society approval.

Submitting Information About a Burial Site

The Wisconsin Historical Society requires that you submit detailed maps and notes following work at a human burial site. Your submittal packet should include:

  • A completed Archaeological Site Inventory (ASI) form (PDF, 107 KB) or ASI Update form (PDF). The ASI form is the standard form used to record information about archaeological sites (including burial sites) in Wisconsin. Information provided to the Society on ASI forms is added to the Wisconsin Historic Preservation Database (WHPD).
  • A scaled map of the cemetery or mound group referenced to an identified property corner or to an identified point in the public land survey system. The map should be detailed enough to allow Wisconsin Historical Society staff to write a metes-and-bounds description of the burial site and a sufficient buffer area.
  • A clear copy of a 7.5" U.S.G.S. map with site boundaries and individual mound locations depicted. For an example, see a sample submittal packet for a burial site (PDF, 439 KB)
  • When working with post-Contact cemeteries please provide a copy of the cemetery deed (if possible) and a plat of the cemetery (when available).
  • If a portion of the burial site has been destroyed (no possibility of intact subsurface deposits), provide a detailed map (7.5" U.S.G.S. topographic maps are preferred) showing the portion of the site that has been destroyed.

Metes-and-Bounds Description

If you are asked to establish a metes-and-bounds description to catalog a site, or if you are asked to help redesign a project to avoid a burial area, keep in mind that the Wisconsin Historical Society recommends a 15-foot protective buffer around all human burial sites.

A buffer larger than 15 feet is acceptable. Smaller buffers (minimum of five feet) may be negotiated when circumstances demand. The buffer should surround the entire mound group or cemetery, and not individual mounds or graves.

Have Questions?

If you have any questions about site documentation, mapping, cataloging, or how to draw a site buffer, contact our burial preservation staff by phone at 608-264-6494 or 608-264-6496 or by email.