The treatment of human remains following inadvertent discovery is governed by state and federal laws, land status, postmortem interval (time since death), and biological/cultural affiliation. First and foremost, the site of discovered remains should be regarded a potential “crime scene” until a person with appropriate expertise and authority determines otherwise.
Several State laws are applicable to the discovery of human remains in Alaska. The State Medical Examiner (SME) has jurisdiction over all human remains in the state (with rare exceptions, such as military aircraft deaths), regardless of age.
AS 12.65.5 requires immediate notification of a peace officer of the state (police, Village Public Safety Officer, or Alaska State Trooper [AST]) and the State Medical Examiner when death has “been caused by unknown or criminal means, during the commission of a crime, or by suicide, accident, or poisoning.”
In this regard, contact the Alaska State Troopers in the applicable region first. (See list of contacts on following page.) The AST has interpreted notification procedures as applicable to all remains, including ancient remains.
AS 11.46.482(a)(3), which applies to all lands in Alaska, makes the “intentional and unauthorized destruction or removal of any human remains or the intentional disturbance of a grave” a class C felony.
AS 41.35.200, which applies only to State lands, makes the disturbance of "historic, prehistoric and archeological resources" (including graves, per definition) a class A misdemeanor.
AS 18.50.250, which applies to all lands in Alaska, requires permits for the transport, disinterment, and reinterment of human remains. Guidance and permits are available from the Health Analytics & Vital Records (see attached list of contacts).
On Federal lands and Federal trust lands, the unauthorized destruction or removal of archaeological human remains (i.e., more than 100 years old) is a violation of 16 USC 470ee (Archeological Resources Protection Act). If human remains on federal or federal trust lands are determined to be Native American, their treatment and disposition are also governed by the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 (PL 101-601; 25 USC 3001-30013; 104 Stat. 3048-3058; 43 CFR 10). NAGPRA also applies to Native American human remains from any lands if the remains are curated in any institution that receives federal funds.
Your first contacts should be the regional Alaska State Troopers, the Alaska State Medical Examiner’s Office, local law enforcement, AST/Missing Persons Clearinghouse, the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, and the landowner.
In many instances, the field archaeologist must make a judgement call regarding the age of the remains, his/her level of confidence in the evaluation, and whether further investigation by a specialist is warranted. While notification under State Law is required, peace officers and the SME generally regard archaeologists competent to make these type determinations and welcome input that may assist with the investigation. With regard to ancient remains (> 100 years old), the SME and AST will generally defer to the opinion of the field archaeologist and require no further criminal investigation. However, the remains and a surrounding buffer area should not be disturbed until appropriate reporting and consultation have occurred.
Lt. Paul Fussey
Alaska State Troopers
Phone: (907) 269-5682
Phone: (907) 269-5038
*After contact by phone, send e-mail with relevant information and photos to Lt. Fussey and Malia Miller.
Reporting Hotline (Death Hotline)*
1-888-332-3273 (Outside Anchorage)
Stephen Hoage; Operations Administrator
Phone: 907) 334-2202
Dr. Gary Zientek, Chief Medical Examiner
Office Phone: (907) 269-8700
Fax: (907) 269-8908
For burial transit permits and disinterment/transit/reinternment questions:
*Registration Help Line
Phone: (907) 465-5423