The Mysterious Case of the Flea Market Skulls and Six Georgia Archaeologists Behaving Badly
A Medieval Morality Play
In mid-2005, a mixed Creek/African American federal law enforcement officer approached me at the Tractor Supply Store in Ellijay, Georgia. It was made clear from the beginning that he did not want to communicate with me by either telephone or internet. For over a year, he had been watching a crime ring blatantly sell Native American skulls and grave artifacts at flea markets and over the internet. They were digging into mounds in Northwest Georgia and then selling the illegal contraband in a five state area.
The dedicated officer had become extremely frustrated because he could not get state or local law enforcement to do the surveillance that was necessary to get arrests and convictions in a NAGPRA case. [NAGPRA = Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] Because of reasons that he did not want to explain, his presence could not be known in the region. I presume that he was primarily involved in some unrelated clandestine work.
Based on chatter I overheard at the Ingles Supermarket in Jasper, GA, I started watching the major archaeological zone at Carters Lake, where the De Soto Expedition stayed for several weeks. It is the location of the great town of Kusa. My cover was that Judge Patrick Moore of the Muskogee-Creek Nation had authorized me to do a study of this archaeological zone. The lake is in Murray County, GA.
When the Corps of Engineers periodically lowered the water level at the Lower Dam, burial and ceremonial mounds would appear. Men, pretending to be fishermen, would then excavate the mounds as their buddies monitored the radios of Corps of Engineers rangers. They may have been digging up other mounds, but these were on federally-owned land. It was easy for me to hide in the woods and photograph the criminals across the lake with a telephoto lens.
Judge Patrick Moore and the Assistant Director of the Creek Light Horse Police traveled to Jasper, GA to discuss the situation. I showed them the crime scenes and was surprised to learn that the Creek Lighthorse had jurisdiction anywhere in the Continental United States. However, before Creek law enforcement could take any formal action, the family of the head of this mound-robbing ring became deathly ill. Doctors could not determine what disease was killing them. In a panic, the man, who was in fact a government employee, hauled all his remaining artifacts and skeletons back to where they were excavated. His family soon returned to health and the crime ring was permanently dissolved.
While visiting in my home, Judge Moore noticed photographs of some of my architectural models and drawings. He asked me if I could build a model of a Creek village to go in his new office in the Muscogee-Creek Judicial Building. I said yes . . . if he could find me a detailed archaeological report that had specific information on the locations and dimensions of buildings.
Judge Moore was pleasantly surprised at my professional fee for the model. He said that he could easily pay that out of his furniture budget.
About a week after returning to Ocmulgee, Oklahoma, Judge Moore telephoned me to say that he had found a detailed archaeological report of a Creek town he liked. He was over-nighting me the report on Federal Express. I could go ahead with building the model base.
About 10 days after Judge Moore’s call, A. D. Ellis, the Principal Chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation, received an arrogant letter from the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists, signed by six archaeologists. The letter’s verbiage had the tone that a landlord might use on a vagrant squatter, not the CEO of one of the nation’s largest Native American tribes. It demanded that the Creek Nation immediately cancel its contract with me because I (a Creek historic preservation architect) was not qualified to build an architectural model of a Creek village. The letter then recommended that the contract be re-issued to an archaeological firm in Georgia. A list of those firms was attached.
Of course, archaeologists would not have a clue how to build a precise, museum quality, architectural model and so the fortunate archaeological firm would then have to sub-contract the work to an architecture firm. That firm would not have been willing to do the work for as little as I was charging . . . Therefore, no model would have been built.
There was a problem. Principal Chief Ellis did not know who in the heck, Richard Thornton was, and knew nothing about an architectural model being contracted by his office or the National Council. He contacted the Second Chief and Speaker of the National Council. They knew nothing about the model, although both recognized my name from the research I had done for an online history of the Creek People. Letters were sent out to all department heads, inquiring about the model.
Creek Principal Chief Ellis remarked that this was the first communication ever received from Georgia archaeologists in the history of the Creek Nation. The letter was mounted in a picture frame and hung on an office wall of the tribe’s administrative division.
There was a reason for the Creek leaders being clueless. The inexpensive model was built personally for Judge Moore and treated as a retail purchase of furniture. Absolutely, the only way that these six archaeologists could have known about the model was either have access to an electronic bug in my home or an illegal tap on my phone. To tap the interstate telephone conversation of a judge of a federally-recognized tribe is a sure ticket for a minimum five year sentence in federal prison. For six people to do it together would bring an additional charge of interstate conspiracy and racketeering . . . another 5-7 years in federal prison for the criminals.
Criminal charges were considered for the six archaeologists. It would require the cooperation of Georgia State law enforcement in order to extradite the six culprits to Oklahoma or else try them in Federal District Court in Georgia. Georgia law enforcement did not want to cooperate. Apparently, the information came from a illegal tap made by a law enforcement officer, who quickly turned the information over to the archaeologists.
Neither Judge Moore nor I were violating any laws by doing business, so then employees of the State of Georgia would have been charged with criminal acts . . . its law enforcement personnel were directly involved with organized crime and racketeering. The “band of brothers” factor entered into the picture and so the scandalous act of six archaeologists, some of whom were professors, went unpunished.
The stunt backfired on these stalwart models of integrity, however. Their letter created quite a stir. Department heads and council members, who might have never known about the model, were interested in seeing the final product and their hilarious letter. That publicity led to contracts for six mega-models being built for the Creek Nation and six more for the museums of other tribes. Those models led to me getting contracts from several museums to prepare architectural renderings, based on archaeological reports. Each of those models and computer models required weeks or months of research before the first board was sawn. At the end of the process, I had gotten the equivalent of a PhD in Prehistoric North American Architecture . . . and then some.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave . . . When first we practice to deceive!
Canto VI, XVII: “Marmion”
by Sir Walter Scott
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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