A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Investigating a Decades-Old Disappearance
Volume 65 Number 4, July/August 2012
Prehistoric clay female and male figurines (left and right) from Utah’s famous Pilling collection. (Courtesy Bonnie Pitblado)
The "missing" figurine (top row, second from left) has been reunited with the collection for the first time in decades. (Courtesy Bonnie Pitblado)
In 1973, Deseret Magazine showed a photograph of 11 pre-historic figurines on display at exhibit at the Zions First National Bank, Carbon-Emery Division, in Utah. By 1974, when the College of Eastern Utah (CEU) Prehistoric Museum included the figurines in their centennial celebration display, there were only 10. What became of the 11th figurine has been a mystery ever since.
The unfired clay figurines, created by the Fremont culture that inhabited parts of America's Great Basin between A.D. 400 and 1300, had originally been found by ranchers Clarence, Art, and Woodrow Pilling, and two ranch hands, Dusty Pruit and Tony Finn, in a rock shelter in eastern Utah’s Range Creek Canyon in 1950. After their discovery, Geneve Howard Oliver, a Pilling family friend, brought the figurines to the Smithsonian and then to Harvard’s Peabody Museum for examination. At the Peabody, anthropologist Noel Morss studied the collection (which has since been dated to A.D. 995–1000) and concluded the figurines all had been made by the same artist. Later that month, Oliver returned home with the collection, and for more than two decades, it was displayed at the CEU museum and in banks, courthouses, and a hotel in Utah, becoming an unofficial yet much beloved state symbol.
Last November, Utah State University anthropologist Bonnie Pitblado opened a small box that had arrived in her office. Inside she found a ceramic figurine wrapped in leather and an anonymous typed note expressing the sender’s wish that the artifact be returned to its "proper place." Pitblado knew instantly that it was the missing figurine. "First, my colleagues and I went to the computer to check the figurine against old photos of the Pilling collection when it was complete. And then we immediately thought about what we could do to demonstrate scientifically that he matched at least one of the other 10 figurines so I could reunite him with the group," says Pitblado. "I also wanted to be sure it wasn’t a fake," she adds.
Pitblado assembled a multidisciplinary team to test whether the figurine was in fact the artifact that had disappeared. First, archaeologist and prehistoric textile expert James Adovasio from Mercyhurst College looked at the backs of the figurine and his mate (the assemblage was arranged as five pairs of male and female figures and an additional eleventh figure). He examined impressions made by the baskets the figurines sat on while they dried, and concluded these two were from the same basket, and that the impressions could not have been faked. The team then used X-ray fluorescence to characterize the geochemical signature of the clay and pigments of the figurine and mate. They were able to match trace elements in both figurines and found that not only did the clay used for all the figurines come from the same source, but that the signatures of the unknown figurine and its mate were more similar to each other than they were to any other pair. Finally, knowing that Morss had coated the figurines in an organic lacquer called Alvar in order to stabilize and protect them, Brigham Young University geochemist Steve Nelson suggested that the team use a scanning electron microscope to check if the newly returned figurine was coated with the substance. It was—and that was all the proof they needed.
Now, after almost 40 years, visitors to the recently renamed Utah State University-Eastern Prehistoric Museum can see the Pilling figurines displayed together as envisioned by the Fremont people who made them almost a thousand years ago. “With all the lines of evidence that we have, our research team is 100 percent sure he is the missing figurine,” says Pitblado. “There is no way that anyone could duplicate all the elements we have found.” For more images, visit archaeology.org/pilling.Share