A cow femur, a tombstone, a human rib, English homework from the 1960s, an X-rated VHS tape, a gold wedding ring—these are but a few of the things 5280 readers reported finding in their yards, attics, and walls while tackling home improvement projects recently.

When COVID-19 forced us into our homes this spring and summer, many of us came face to face with all the unfinished—or, perhaps, un-begun—projects we’d been avoiding. Our flurry of backyard landscaping, patio renovating, and bathroom and closet updating uncovered more than just our inadequacies with power tools, though: Many of these projects unearthed interesting artifacts left behind from previous eras. Curious—and just a little bit unsettled—we checked in with local experts to find out what you’re actually supposed to do when you find, say, a gravestone or (gulp) a skull during your backyard excavation. Here’s what we learned.

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If you find a tombstone…

Don’t assume you’re living on a former cemetery. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the gravestone has just been repurposed,” says Dr. Erin Baxter, acting curator of anthropology at Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Often, when gravestones are damaged, faded, or otherwise dilapidated, they are replaced and the old ones are recycled as steps or even garden decorations. It’s also possible you’ve dug up evidence of teenage mischief: Pilfering gravestones from cemeteries like Riverside wasn’t an uncommon prank once upon a time. If you want to try to find or return the headstone to the family of the dearly departed—and really, why not try?—you can start with FindAGrave.com. But if the name isn’t legible, there are plenty of other ways to help narrow your search, like the size, shape, and even markings on the stone itself, as Baxter outlines in this short video for DMNS. Can’t find the family? Don’t feel bad about repurposing the headstone for your own home, Baxter says. Marble end table, anyone?

If you find bones…

Try to determine if they’re animal or human (peterborougharchaeology.org is a decent starting place). If they’re animal and not the T. rex kind, don’t sweat it too much. You’ve probably stumbled across an old family friend (farewell, Fido) or perhaps a bygone bovine (dairy farms were once prevalent in Denver) or maybe you’ve found the aforementioned Fido’s stash of goodies. If the bones are human, well, that’s another thing. “If people find bones that they’re worried about, they can contact our office [at History Colorado], contact local law enforcement, or the coroner,” says Dr. Holly Norton, director of the state’s Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Human bones don’t mean homicide, of course: In Colorado, it’s legal to bury loved ones in your backyard, provided you inform the county clerk within 30 days (at which point this rather unusual addition to your home will be noted on property records). If the bones are Native American, there’s no legal requirement that you do anything. “There are laws in place to protect those found on federal land,” Baxter says. “But when it comes to private property, the U.S. is in a terrible group of countries like Nicaragua and North Korea in that if it’s in our backyard, it’s up to us. If I had the Great Pyramids of Egypt in my backyard, I could blow them up or do whatever.” There is a moral imperative, though. Baxter suggests getting in touch with an expert like those at DMNS, History Colorado, or a local member of the Archaeological Conservancy to determine the responsible and respectful next steps.

If you find artifacts…

Do not remove them; researchers can learn much more if artifacts are left in the context in which they were discovered. If you stumble across pottery, arrowheads, or other clearly ancient materials, simply let them be and then call DMNS or History Colorado. You might well have just unearthed an ancient treasure, as happened in Boulder in 2008, when a landscaping crew dug up a collection of 13,000-year-old stone tools on Patrick Mahaffy’s property. The crew had the good sense to let the items be, thus preserving what would become known as the Mahaffy Cache, portions of which were displayed at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We are located on a major causeway for Paleo people, and Denver is very much in the heart of that,” Baxter says. “Stone tools, hearths, animals bones—there’s always a chance that those might be in our backyard. If you find one, holy crap, that’s really a special thing.” Of course, there’s also a chance that pottery shard you found is the remnant of some amateur gardener’s efforts because people used to throw their trash in their backyards. “My chicken unearthed an old spoon once,” Norton says. “It’s fun to remember that we’re occupying whatever patch of ground we’re on for a limited time. There were people before us and we’ll probably leave stuff behind that other people will wonder about.”

If you find art or letters…

Enjoy them! If you’re interested in getting an art piece appraised, the Denver Art Museum (which generally doesn’t do appraisals or authentications) suggests contacting the American Society of Appraisers, Appraisers Association of America, or the International Society of Appraisers. Sometimes left-behind letters, photos, and other items are simply casualties of forgetfulness when families move and sometimes they’re vestiges of tradition: Some cultures believe putting photos or shoes inside the walls of a home when it’s being built is good luck. And sometimes they’re so significant they help rewrite history, as happened in 2000 when state historian David Halaas realized letters that had been found in an Evergreen attic outed Colonel John Chivington for the massacre he ordered at Sand Creek. The two letters, authored by Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, who both refused to allow their men to be part of the killing, detailed Chivington’s awful actions and became part of the case to designate the Sand Creek Massacre site as a National Historic Site in 2000. “The letters had been lost for 130 years,” Norton says. “People can have all sorts of stuff hidden in their attics, basements, or walls. If they have any inkling it might be historic, that’s literally what we are for at History Colorado. No one should ever think twice about calling.”

Kasey Cordell
Kasey Cordell
Kasey Cordell is the former Editorial Projects Director for 5280.