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Authorities Recover Three Moundville Artifacts Stolen in Devastating 1980 Heist

Nearly four decades, ago, the theft claimed 264 Native American items dating back 800 years from the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository

Two of the recovered artifacts feature depictions of winged serpents (AL.com/University of Alabama)
smithsonian.com

Nearly four decades ago, thieves made off with 264 Native American artifacts housed in the Erskine Ramsay Archaeological Repository at the University of Alabama’s Moundville Archaeological Park. While an FBI investigation and repeated appeals to the public failed to lead authorities to the missing items, a renewed publicity campaign launched in May, which offered a reward for any new information regarding the unsolved case, has finally brought some much welcome news. As Stephanie Taylor reports for the Associated Press, three of the stolen artifacts were recovered in August, offering a break in the nearly 40-year-old crime and igniting hopes of the remaining items’ safe recovery.

Although officials are currently withholding details of the development, they’ve confirmed two key facts: No one has been arrested, and no one has claimed any of the $25,000 in reward money.

“We were all thinking we’d go to our graves without anything turning up from this burglary,” Jim Knight, curator emeritus of American archaeology for Alabama Museum of Natural History at the university, said during a Monday press conference. “This is one of the most exciting things that has happened during my archaeological career.”

The missing artifacts, which were excavated in the 1930s from Moundville, one of the largest prehistoric Native American settlements in the U.S., constituted about 20 percent of the museum’s entire vessel collection. The majority of the items, including the three newly recovered, were used during religious ceremonies or observances.

Anna Beahm of AL.com writes that the vessels were amongst the highest-quality items ever recovered from Moundville, once a sprawling, 300-acre settlement that thrived on the banks of central Alabama’s Black Warrior River between roughly 1,000 and 1450 A.D. At the time of their disappearance, the artifacts held a combined value of around $1 million. Today, that figure is closer to $3 million.

Beyond a brief notice published in a scholarly journal, the University of Alabama declined to reveal the 1980 theft to the public until 2003. As the AP’s Francie Grace reported at the time, this decision was likely influenced by both embarrassment and the belief that the trove had been smuggled overseas, where it would be difficult or even impossible to retrieve.

This period of reignited attention coincided with the release of a comprehensive online database featuring photographs and descriptions of the missing objects. The still-active site states that the theft was one of the most significant antiquities heists ever conducted in the American South; not only did the culprits manage to steal a hefty portion of the Moundville vessel collection, but they also targeted the highest-quality specimens, escaping with approximately 70 percent of the museum’s exhibit-quality artifacts and largely ignoring lower-quality items.

Knight tells Taylor of the AP that the recovered vessels are in pristine condition, even retaining their original tags. One boasts engravings of a skull and various skeletal remains, while the other two depict a winged serpent with a rattlesnake tail, wings and deer antlers.

“There are mammals, birds and serpents combined into this dragon-like creature,” Knight explains. “This was important in Moundville, the rattlesnake god that’s master of the beneath-world.”

The public will soon be able to check out the returned items for themselves, according to Moundville Archaeological Park director Alex Benitez. And that’s not all: As Bill Bomar, executive director for University of Alabama Museums, tells Taylor, technological advances made during the artifacts’ nearly 40-year absence promise to yield new insights on their storied pasts.

“All of this has advanced in the last 40 years, and we haven’t had these artifacts to do those kinds of studies on,” he says. “Hopefully with these, and any additional ones that are recovered, our information about Moundville is going to increase greatly.”

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