By David Malakoff

This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription. 

The first glimpse was unforgettable and “overwhelming,” recalled Holly Cusack-McVeigh. The anthropologist had never imagined finding something so big in a farmhouse basement in rural Indiana. And she certainly didn’t expect the discovery to plunge her into the center of the largest and most complex archaeological crime ever uncovered by U.S. investigators. The FBI agent who invited Cusack-McVeigh to the basement in 2014 had tried to prepare her. “It’s huge… just huge,” special agent Tim Carpenter warned. But the enormity didn’t sink in until Cusack-McVeigh actually saw the mass of shelves, cabinets, and display cases jammed with what turned out to be some 42,000 artifacts, many taken illegally from Native American lands in the U.S., as well as from nations around the world.

Anthropologist Holly Cusack-McVeigh (right) examines temper and surface treatment with pottery expert, Kelley Hays-Gilpin, to help identify ceramic traditions from the Southwest region.
| Photo Courtesy of the FBI Art Theft Program
These are some of the thousands of items seized from Don Miller’s basement in April of 2014
| Photo Courtesy of the FBI Art Theft Program
This collection of Taíno carved manatee bones was repatriated to Haiti. | Photo provided by the FBI to the Haitian media, Ayibopost
A stone adze with a wooden carved handle was returned to Papua New Guinea. | Photo Courtesy of the FBI Art Theft Program
An Amerindian Figure and ceremonial anthropomorphic stone axe were repatriated to Haiti. | Photo provided by the FBI to the Haitian media, Ayibopost
Haiti also received this ceremonial wooden seat. | Photo provided by the FBI to the Haitian media, Ayibopost

Even at a glance, Cusack-McVeigh could see that the collection, amassed over more than sixty years by Don Miller, an electrical engineer and archaeology enthusiast, included potentially important and sensitive finds. There were countless prehistoric stone points and tools from North America, rows of pre-Columbian sculptures and pots from Central and South America, and myriad metal objects from Asian civilizations. Many were carefully labeled, and some were “still held together by the earth they were removed from,” Cusack-McVeigh said. She was particularly disturbed to learn that the collection included some 2,000 human bones that likely came from an estimated 500 individuals, most of who came from North America.

Since then, Cusack-McVeigh, along with her anthropology and museum studies students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and other researchers, has been deeply involved in a Herculean effort to identify some 7,000 objects that Miller obtained illegally. The FBI seized these items in order to return them to their rightful owners. Earlier this year, for example, U.S. officials returned nearly 500 objects from Miller’s trove to Haiti, including some extremely rare artifacts associated with that nation’s Taíno culture. The effort has also resulted in the repatriation of ancestral remains and objects to Native American tribes in the U.S., and the governments of Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Italy, China, and other nations.

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