Select Page

What happened to all our artifacts?

What happened to all our artifacts?

In the period between 1870 and 1932, archaeologists funded by  Northeastern museums, wealthy free-lance archaeologists and art prospectors excavated millions of Native American artifacts  from mounds and town sites in the Southeast, Ohio Valley and Mississippi Basin.   A minuscule percentage of those heirlooms are now on display in museums in Washington, DC and the Northeastern United States.   Who has the remainder and why have they not been repatriated to museums near the archaeological sites, where they were excavated?

(Headline Image)  The photo above was taken by millionaire & amateur archaeologist, George Heye, at the Nacoochee Mound in Northeast Georgia. Note the copper ornament, which is identical to gold and copper ornaments in Mexico that symbolized sacrificial knifes.  Heye carried back over a thousand artifacts to his New York City townhouse. His book on the Nacoochee Mound did not say what happened to the skeletons.

The number of Native American mounds, communities, cemeteries and  shrines ransacked “in the name of art and science” during the 1800s and the first third of the 20th century is staggering.  Settlers on the Early 19th century frontier regularly plundered mounds and Native cemeteries out curiosity.

The major players in the late 19th century grave robbing business were Cornelius Thomas & Staff at the Smithsonian Institute and  Clarence B. Moore, a self-taught collector and paper company executive .  During the first two decades of the 20th century,  George Heye, a inheritor of an oil company fortune, and Warren K. Moorehead of the Peabody Museum at Andover Maine, led the pack.  However throughout these periods, there was also a legion of independent operators of varying integrity.

To Warren K. Moorehead’s credit, his obituary in the “American Anthropologist” noted his abhorrence to what he perceived as a growing “aloofness” of some of his “scientific colleagues” in the field of archaeology.  Can’t imagine what Moorehead meant by “aloofness.”

The amateurs were especially destructive in Florida between 1880 and 1930.   Upon arrival from the Northeast to Florida, hundreds of non-professional collectors ransacked sites in Florida, where there were relatively few long term residents, who would be the most likely to oppose destruction of Native American sites.   Until the late 20th century, literally, hundreds of shell mounds were destroyed in Florida by amateur collectors.

Since very few of these digs involved government oversight,   the dispositions of the artifacts were solely at the discretion of the lead archaeologists.  Of course, during this era Native Americans had no say whatsoever in the excavation of their heritage sites or the fates of the artifacts.   They were not even American citizens until 1924.

Between 1880 and 1894, archaeologists employed by the Smithsonian Institute’s Bureau of Ethnology excavated over 500 mounds in 198 American counties in the Eastern United States and Mississippi Basin.   The goal of this mass excavation program, was to prove that American Indians built the mounds.  It was quite common for over a thousand artifacts to be excavated from a large burial mound –  sometimes several thousand.  Of course, many of these were potsherds,  projectile points or stone tools,  but they also include “trophy artifacts” such as statues, intact pottery, shell gorgets and copper items.

It was the search for trophy artifacts that drove the first two generations of American archaeologists from the 1870s until the Great Depression, when the federal government became the main player in the archaeology business. Most of the American archaeologists were born into the nouveau riche aristocracy of the industrialized Northeast.  Whereas archaeology began in Europe as a specialty of practicing architecture,   American archaeology began with affluent young men, who had the leisure of studying the Classical Arts and then financing expeditions to collect their own art collection . . . albeit Native America art.

From 1870 to 1928,  American  and British archaeologists essentially functioned as members of the elite, who were the grand viziers supervising the distribution of rare art in great potlatches that they called archaeological digs. This focus on singular objects mesmerizes many Southeastern archaeologists today.  No matter what they say, their focus is still on individual examples of pottery and stone implements.  In doing so, they neglect architecture,  town plans, linguistics and regional cultural relationships that are such an integral part of investigations by European and Latin American archaeologists today.  In the case of the Highland Apalache, an entire civilization flew right under their radar, because the Apalache  built 2-3 mile long towns.

Museums in the 1800s and 1900s sponsored digs to obtain exceptional artifacts to draw visitors to their museums.  However, the vast majority of artifacts, which were not quite as showy or duplicative, were given to museum donors, university donors, politicians,  visiting dignitaries,  personal friends at Christmas and birthdays,  state museums in the state where the museum was located, etc.   Neither the descendants of the Native Americans, who made these artifacts, nor residents living near the archaeological sites, ever got to see them.

This was cultural colonialism.  There is no other word for it.  The defeated Southeast was viewed as a third world country, whose natural and cultural resources could be exploited at will.  No thought at all was given by the Northeastern archaeologists into providing museums and artifacts to Southerners as a means of educating them about their rich and ancient cultural heritage.

The Smithsonian Institute is a private entity, chartered by Congress like the Federal Reserve Bank.   It owns massive warehouses, where supposedly are stored the Native American artifacts that its archaeologists extracted from the Southeast.  Are they still there?  We don’t know.  It most cases, only the boxes are labeled, not the contents.   They might have been “loaned” elsewhere and forgotten.

Federalized archaeology

The programs of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration to fight the Great Depression radically changed American archaeology forever.   Large scale archaeological digs were viewed as excellent economic development projects for struggling communities.   The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired thousands of men and women to work under the supervision of a new generation of middle class archaeologists.   The artifacts that they excavated belonged to the federal government.  Those involved could go to prison for giving away federal property.

What happened to all those millions of artifacts excavated by the WPA that are federal property?   That is a good question.   Those obtained at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, GA are for the most part are still in the thousands of boxes where they were packed in the mid-1930s.  Unfortunately,  many archaeological parks have no clue what happened to the artifacts, not currently on display.

In the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Administration (TVA)  embarked on a massive dam-building program that continued into the 1970s.  It proved to be such a popular economic development tool, that the US Army Corps of Engineers entered the dam-building business after World War II.

A federal was passed, which mandated that archaeological surveys henceforth precede the creation of federally funded reservoirs and national parks.  It spawned the golden era of American archaeology which lasted until the late 1970s.  Dozens of Southeastern universities created Departments of Anthropology to supply the archaeologists and student grunt laborers to do the work.   Archaeology ceased to be an option for unemployed laborers.

The TVA always utilized the University of Tennessee for its dam and nuclear power projects.  The Corps of Engineers sometimes contracted with the Smithsonian Institute for archaeological services and increasingly later on,  university professors.   The strict federal control of artifacts and skeletons ceased.   Sometimes they ended up at the Smithsonian, sometimes at universities, sometimes at TVA warehouses and far too many times, people today don’t have a clue where the artifacts and skeletons ended up.

Rumors persist of over 13,000 Native American skeletons being located in TVA warehouses and perhaps 200,000+ skeletons being stored in warehouses owned by museums in Washington, DC and the Northeast.  There is no way to verify the rumors.   There is also no way to determine how many millions of artifacts are in storage facilities owned by these museums.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 mandated a comprehensive survey of all historic and prehistoric resources, which might be impacted by a planned federally funded project.  This is called the Section 106 Review Process.   It started out as a great idea, but in 2016 is more of a cash cow for large, interstate engineering firms, who have bought up most of the archaeological firms and then hired small staffs of young historic preservation architects.

This law did not describe a clear process for disposition of Native American artifacts.  That was not so much a problem when most Sec. 106 contracts went to university professors.  Now,  it is a big problem.

Section 106 archaeological work is typically done by contract employees, whose last day of employment is when the artifacts are boxed.  The engineer executives of these firms are often located hundreds or thousands away from the archaeological sites.  Their primary concern is maximizing the wealth of themselves and the stockholders, while minimizing the wealth of the people doing the work.  Where are the artifacts now?    Who has responsibility for curating them?  Often no one knows.

NAGPRA-Southeast -POOF1


The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was supposed to fix the above problems.  It requires the repatriation of skeletons and grave offerings to their original territories.  The primary impact of NAGPRA in the Lower Southeast has been that several museums were forced to remove centerpiece exhibits of royal burials.  These were exhibits that generations of Creek parents took their children to see with pride because being monotheistic, they viewed these exhibits (including the skeletons) as inanimate objects that described our culture.   The hundreds of thousands of Native American skeletons and millions of grave artifacts still remain in warehouses, mostly in the Northeast and Tennessee.

The central exhibit of the royal burial at Etowah Mounds was made compliant with NAGPRA by replacing the real skeleton with a a plastic reproduction.  However, it  was hastily removed after a group of white people, claiming to be Cherokees, but wearing Plains Indian clothes, staged a “demonstration” by burning sage to honor their desecrated ancestor.   It turned out that none of these wannabes were originally from Georgia and most were recent transplants from Ohio.

The federally-recognized tribes were supposed to be responsible for implementing NAGPRA so the Department of the Interior began giving grants to these tribes to create Tribal Historic Preservation Offices.   However, many indigenous ethnic groups in the Southeast became extinct and several more do not have federal recognition.

Then, during 1991, the George H. Bush Administration did the most idiotic thing, one could imagine.   It labeled most of the Southeast as Unknown Tribal Identity.   This was a direct response to a complaint from the Muskogee-Creek Nation about the original 1990 map, which showed all of Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee ALWAYS being solely occupied by the Cherokees.   In the 1990 map, the Cherokees had complete control over most of the major mound  sites in the Southeast – which they had absolutely nothing to do with culturally.

In the meanwhile, the new map adopted by Congress completely left out the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Shawnees, Catawbas, Alabamas and Uchees.  They are federally recognized, but have no official jurisdiction in the Southeast.

State governments and the archaeology profession are supposed to enforce NAGPRA in areas where no tribal affinity is shown on the map.  Most states initially created State Indian Affairs Commissions to handle NAGPRA.   Several states, including Tennessee, have terminated their commission.  Most of the remainder have minimal budgets, which prohibit them from fulfilling their assigned roles.

Then there is the situation with the anthropology profession. Archaeologists were supposed to be the “policemen” of NAGPRA in areas where there is no designated tribal affinity.

Unfortunately, the archaeology profession has the highest unemployment rate of any profession in the United States – 85%.    They are not in a position to hold stewardship over vast territories of the Southeast’s indigenous legacies. They are also the only profession in the United States that have been given statutory authority, but yet neither are they licensed nor required to take a certification exam.   Southeastern states have much higher standards for hairdressers and pest control technicians.

As a Registered Architect, I could have had my license yanked for making public professional statements on Mesoamerican architecture, if I did not have professional education and experiences in that subject.   As we saw in the “Maya myth-busting thing”  several Southeastern archaeologists stated numerous public professional opinions on Mesoamerican cultures even though none had credentials in the subject.  In fact, the ringleader had never even been in Mexico.  Lack of professional licensing made that possible.

So we have a situation in which millions of artifacts are basically “missing” and umpteen thousands of Native American skeletons are still stored in cardboard boxes, when a 26 year old law says that it is illegal.   We have a semi-profession that is supposed to be responsible for enforcing those laws, but in fact seems to be headed toward obscurity.    Obviously,  Native Americans will have to take the bull by the horns if the situation is to change,  but even then, fixing the problems will take a long, long time.


The following two tabs change content below.
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.



    You got this right.
    I was also told that the mounds at Etowah used to be almost ice cream cone shaped. And that artifacts were supposed lying everywhere to pick up and carry off.
    For that matter, What happened at the bottom of Carter’s Lake to all those wagons, trains, and pack mules carrying off all the goods taken by bulldozer and excavator and sold I heard in the early 1960’s? I remember a flat bottom boat trip with my family.
    That river had many carved gryphs, stone turtle statues, stone blocks, and building foundations out of huge stone.
    Where did it go and who has them now?

    • Mound A at Etowah used to be star-shaped. The other mounds are pretty much their original form.

      That’s just the point about my article, thousands and thousands of artifacts left Etowah, often in boxes packed by archaeologists, but where are they now?


    Many years ago, around the 1990’s, while researching my PAGE line, I had corresponded with Jack Wingate, who grew up in the Climax area. I finally had the opportunity of meeting him at his Lake Seminole fish camp near Bainbridge. While there he showed me all the Native American stuff he had collected over the years. Jack died several years ago and I don’t know what happened to his very nice collection. The Bainbridge newspaper Post Searchlight ran many articles about Jack and he was the local expert on the area. I have a lot of info on his family, but its more his family history with mention of his NA interest. I do not believe he had any NA in his background. Robert Page, Islamorada, Fla.

    • Absolutely not! The photos are from a book published in 1916 and the photos were by George Gustav Heye himself. There are photos of stone pipes on another page in the book. The Yonah-Cherokees thing contains the imitations, but the originals were definitely not made by Cherokees.

    • That photo has been enhanced and converted to a sepiatone with my software, so people could see the object. The original photo in the book is very fuzzy, but I wanted y’all to see the object.

    • Remember copper would have oxidized to a pale lime color over that many centuries.


    I am getting interested in Japan’s program of preserving antiquities. They seem to run things more responsibly than we do here.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to POOF via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this website and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 846 other subscribers

The Information World is changing!

People of One Fire needs your help to evolve with it.

We are now celebrating the 11th year of the People of One Fire. In that time, we have seen a radical change in the way people receive information. The magazine industry has almost died. Printed newspapers are on life support. Ezines, such as POOF, replaced printed books as the primary means to present new knowledge. Now the media is shifting to videos, animated films of ancient towns, Youtube and three dimensional holograph images.

During the past six years, a privately owned business has generously subsidized my research as I virtually traveled along the coast lines and rivers of the Southeast. That will end in December 2017. I desperately need to find a means to keep our research self-supporting with advertising from a broader range of viewers. Creation of animated architectural history films for POOF and a People of One Fire Youtube Channel appears to be the way. To do this I will need to acquire state-of-art software and video hardware, which I can not afford with my very limited income. Several of you know personally that I live a very modest lifestyle. If you can help with this endeavor, it will be greatly appreciated.

Support Us!

Richard Thornton . . . the truth is out there somewhere!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!