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Georgia Turns to the Internet to Recover Stolen Indian Artifacts

Archeology: Officials hope to once again display any of the returned pottery and figurines taken from a museum in 1974.

September 15, 2002|ELLIOTT MINOR | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

BLAKELY, Ga. — About 1,500 years ago, one of North America's largest native American civilizations thrived amid the longleaf pines of southwestern Georgia.

The people made human sacrifices, created exquisite pottery, crafted delicate animal figurines and built an imposing temple mound, where chiefs and priests presided.

They were unearthed by archeologists in the 1950s, and the state built a museum into the side of a burial mound to display them.

Over the years, thousands of schoolchildren, tourists and scholars trekked to the site to learn about the Swift Creek and Weeden Island Indians, who lived near Blakely from 250 to 950 A.D. But in the dark of night in March 1974, thieves broke into the museum of Kolomoki Mounds State Historic Park and took 129 artifacts.

A handful of items have been recovered from collectors and flea markets in Florida and Pennsylvania, but the whereabouts of the bulk of them remain a mystery.

Now park officials are turning to the Internet for help in recovering the remaining booty from Georgia's most infamous archeological theft. They've launched a Web site with pictures of the purloined pottery, asking art collectors, museums and others to help them gather the stolen merchandise.

Eric Bentley, the park's manager, said the theft amounted to grave robbing: Many of the clay pots and fanciful figurines were made to honor chiefs and priests who had died.

"From a ceramic technology standpoint, they're absolutely stunning," said David Crass, Georgia's state archeologist. "They would compare favorably with anything from the Southwest. Many incorporate animal shapes. These pots give you a glimpse into how they saw the world."

Crass said the primary purpose of the Web site is recovery, not prosecution.

"If someone has those pots in all innocence, and that happens a lot, then we would hope they would return them," he said.

Kolomoki's early inhabitants built a ceremonial plaza and seven mounds, including two burial mounds and a temple mound that was a religious center.

Today, the temple mound rises 56 feet above the surrounding pine forest from a base the size of a football field. Archeologists believe that it had a temple platform at the top, where chiefs and priests lived, worshipped and governed.

"The folks who lived at Kolomoki were in some ways very different from us," Crass said. "But you would have heard kids laughing, dogs barking, moms yelling at their kids -- the same things we hear in any neighborhood. Those were real flesh-and-blood people with all the same kinds of desires and feelings that we have today."

Tom Pluckhahn, an archeologist who has made excavations at Kolomoki, described it as one of the largest and most densely populated towns north of Mexico between 350 and 550 A.D. He believes that there were about 500 full-time residents, with as many as 1,000 more pouring in for ceremonies.

"Some of the mound alignments may be tied to the solstices and equinoxes," he said. "There was a lot of emphasis on nature and trying to make sense of people's relationship to nature and death. It looks like Kolomoki was drawing people from a couple of hundred miles for ceremonies."

The 1,239-acre site has been a state park since 1938.

Bentley said many of the ceremonial pots had been "killed" so that they could not be used for any practical purpose. The potters intentionally gave them holes when they made them or poked holes in the bottoms later.

"They had a spiritual purpose," Bentley said. "They carried the spirituality of the one who had died."

Georgia's Department of Natural Resources had to close the museum temporarily after the theft, but today it is open five days a week.

"After the theft, there were only empty cases," Bentley said. "Everything you see ... was either recovered or on loan. If we had the pottery back, we could redesign the museum to include the stolen artifacts. I would put all of them on display."

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