The following is an article from the Summer 2019 Issue of American Archaeology MagazineBecome a member to subscribe and read the full issue! 

By Wayne Curtis

COVER IMAGE: 1978 Moundville excavation  |  Credit: Vin Steponaitis

In March of 1980 a researcher named Margaret Ann Hardin went to the Erskine Ramsay Archaeological Repository at the Moundville Archaeological Park in Alabama to look at some ancient ceramics she’d been asked to study. But she couldn’t find them. So she called Vin Steponaitis, then a University of Michigan graduate student who had sorted through the collections the year before and in the process set aside about seventy or eighty boxes of Moundville pottery. “I had no idea of what was going on, and when I got down there a day or two later I realized that the boxes that she had wanted to look at were missing,” he said. “I had the inventory, so I knew exactly which boxes were missing and which pots  were missing.”

More than two dozen boxes of artifacts—nearly a quarter of Moundville’s vessels—had disappeared, including some of the collection’s most cherished items. The heist got a modest write-up in a scholarly journal, which included about thirty photos of some of the more prominent items, and word of it spread among insiders in the archaeological community.

Moundville | Credit: Jim Knight

But no public announcement was made by the university, no local newspaper story was written, no request that the pubic keep an eye out for the stolen artifacts was issued. Indeed, the theft remained largely unknown to the outside world until 2003, when Jim Knight, who was then the museum’s curator of Southeastern archaeology, contacted reporters and told all about the missing treasures. More than twenty years after it happened, the Moundville artifact theft at last made the national news.

And then… silence. There were no new leads about the missing artifacts. Many in the local archaeological community believed that the artifacts had long since found their way to one or more private collections, possibly overseas. That assumption persisted until last August, when the museum was informed of an unexpected phone call.

Moundville was a 300-acre Mississippian ceremonial center located in west-central Alabama, along the Black Warrior River. It was occupied from about A.D. 1000 to 1500. “It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in the South,” said Knight, who is now professor emeritus of anthropology and curator emeritus of American archaeology at the  University of Alabama, which administers Moundville. It’s also the largest Mississippian mound center in the South, home to thirty-two earthen mounds that ring a large plaza. It’s been a magnet for archaeological research from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Moundville’s golden era of exploration was arguably the 1930s, when archaeologists, with the help of workers from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, undertook major excavations that resulted in the “recovery of an immense collection of archaeological artifacts,” Knight said. The artifacts included a large number of intact earthenware items. The collection was cataloged and stored, but it wasn’t intensively studied by scholars until the 1960s and ‘70s, when a wave of graduate students analyzed much of it, resulting in dissertations and scholarly papers.

This was a busy time at Moundville. A  National Science Foundation-funded study of Moundville was underway involving a team of University of Michigan grad students, and other researchers were also coming and going from the repository. Investigators later found that at least twenty-seven  people held keys to the repository.

Examples of Stolen Vessels | Photos provided by: Vin Steponaitis

Examples of Stolen Vessels | Photos provided by: Vin Steponaitis

Examples of Stolen Vessels | Photos provided by: Vin Steponaitis

Examples of Stolen Vessels | Photos provided by: Vin Steponaitis

Examples of Stolen Vessels | Photos provided by: Vin Steponaitis

When the theft was discovered, the University of Alabama immediately launched an  investigation, which the FBI soon joined. Though FBI agents interviewed a number of people, they made no breakthroughs and the investigation soon went cold. If there was a silver lining to the burglary, it was that many of the artifacts had been well-documented:
Steponaitis had systematically photographed many of the items two years prior to the theft as part of his dissertation.

Why the museum and university declined to go public with the story prior to 2003 remains something of a mystery, though it could have been due to embarrassment. Knight was  hired as a senior research archaeologist about two years after the theft, so he doesn’t know the reason, but he said “there was some decision made not to publicize this by the University of Alabama.”

There’s little denying the theft was embarrassing. Whoever did it knew exactly what they were looking for. Knight said that an exhibition featuring the “best of the collection” had been staged four years prior to the theft. “And of those artifacts on display,” he said, “I calculated that about seventy percent were stolen.” (Although the repository contained artifacts from sites across Alabama, it appears that only Moundville items were taken.) That led to a conclusion that the burglary was almost certainly an inside job, undertaken by someone who knew the collection. What’s more, no sign of forced entry was found.

Knight had worked at Moundville earlier as a student, and he was well aware of the artifacts that had gone missing. The mystery of their disappearance was never far from his mind. Over time he would make inquiries among colleagues and the police if anything new had turned up. ”I started looking into it in great detail in the 1990s,” Knight said. When he asked university officials for the files on their investigation he learned, to his “great astonishment, there weren’t any,” he said. “Not a single thing.”

He also contacted the FBI, only to learn that the case been closed with no resolution after seven years; the interviews conducted in the wake of the theft had been discarded. “All I
could do was my own interviewing of people who had been around at the time,” said Knight.

Those interviews were of little use, so in 2003 he went public with what he knew, believing that might yield helpful information. Along with the local police and the university’s Office of Archaeological Research, Knight held a press conference, detailing what was known about the burglary for the first time. The Office of Archaeological Research also set up a website, posting the photos and descriptions of the missing pieces. “I thought we got some pretty good tips” he said. “And police followed up on several.” But nothing came of them.

Knight retired from the university four years ago, but the unresolved theft continued to vex him. Last year at a barbecue picnic held at Moundville, he put forth an idea: why not offer a reward for the return of any artifacts?

He asked for contributions, and some $15,000 was raised on the spot. He and other supporters formed the Associates for the Recovery of Moundville Artifacts, and they raised additional funds for the reward, bringing the total to $25,000. “One thing we didn’t do in 2003 was come up with a reward,” Knight said. “I really thought we should at least
give it a shot.” They held a press conference in May 2018 announcing the reward and they established a phone line for anonymous tips.

Then, in August of last year, the police department at the University of Alabama got a call from a local lawyer who was representing a client who wished to remain anonymous. The
lawyer requested a private meeting, and during the meeting he handed over three of the missing artifacts from the collection.

“They’re beautiful pieces,” said Alex Benitez, director of Moundville Archaeological Park. “It’s not only that they contain iconography, like the winged serpent, which are
important symbols for Moundville. But it also hints at the quality of the pieces that were taken.”

The pieces were in good condition. Some of the original museum labels were still affixed. “They were at least really well preserved from the time that they were taken,” Benitez
said. The lawyer did not request a reward, saying his client just wanted to return the pieces to the museum.

“The investigators at the University of Alabama have reopened the case and they are taking it very seriously,” said Knight. “At the same time, since it is an open investigation,
there is only a limited amount of information they can release about their progress.” While many people would like to know the identity of the person returning the pieces, the
lawyer invoked attorney-client privilege, and Knight didn’t know if the police were aware of the client’s identity.

“One doesn’t know the circumstances under which someone turned over the pots,” said Steponaitis, who is now a distinguished professor of archaeology and anthropology
at the University of North Carolina. “I’m not saying the person who turned them in was innocent, but I’m not saying they’re guilty. It’s up for the police to figure out.”

This suggests that all of the stolen artifacts hadn’t been immediately taken overseas. It’s possible that they were stashed in a barn or attic and more or less forgotten. “It
wouldn’t be all that surprising for someone to hide artifacts stolen from a well-known site for many years before attempting to sell them,” said Benitez. Some items could have gotten separated from the others, and then been sold or given away. “Over time those objects could have lost their connection to the theft,” he added. “This isn’t unusual in the collecting world, as antiquities get passed down from one generation to next.”

“That gives me great hope that the remainder may not have been dispersed or smuggled overseas,” agreed Knight. “So much time has passed since the burglary that the stolen artifacts, or a portion of them, may have passed to a new generation, perhaps one that has different values.” He added that “my feeling all along was that the collection
never went very far.”

The University of Alabama Police Department is continuing the investigation. The police department wouldn’t comment on the status of the investigation, but Monica G. Watts, the associate vice president for communications of the university’s Division of Strategic  Communications, stated in an email message that no additional artifacts have been recovered. “The police believe that portions of the collection have been separated,” she wrote. As for the identity of the lawyer and whether his client has been given amnesty, she responded, “The investigation continues, and those details are not publicly available at this time.”

“We do have high hopes that there’s a large quantity of them just stashed somewhere that one day will comback to us,” Benitez said. “We just want the history back.”

WAYNE CURTIS is a freelance journalist in New Orleans, a contributing editor at The Daily Beast, and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails.


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