Sam Dellinger & the Raiders of the Lost Arkansas
One man’s quest to save Arkansas’s past
Samuel Dellinger was born January 14, 1892, in North Carolina. After earning an M.A. in zoology, Dellinger moved to Conway, Arkansas, in 1915, to teach biology at Hendrix College. He married Elsie Adkisson while there. Dellinger began his career with the University of Arkansas in fall 1921 as a zoology professor. Shortly after that, he began work at Columbia University on a doctorate that he never completed. Dellinger returned to the U of A in 1925 and was soon appointed curator of the University of Arkansas Museum and chair of the Zoology Department.
Although a zoologist by training, Dellinger quickly realized that Arkansas had a unique and remarkably rich archeological heritage. He developed a passion for archeology and worked to keep Arkansas artifacts from leaving the state to enhance other museum collections.
To build the UA Museum’s collection, Dellinger directed excavations throughout the state, specifically in northeast Arkansas, the Ozarks, the Arkansas River Valley and along the Ouachita River. Dellinger’s busy schedule did not permit much time in the field, so the excavations were typically supervised by his students with help from local laborers. Growth of the UA Museum
“To a state, a museum is not merely a place for study. Here in the University we have specialists who can make a study of the natural history specimens of the state and at the same time instill in our own boys and girls not only a love for their state and its worth, but also give them some idea of her wonderful possibilities.” — Sam Dellinger
The first published reference to the UA Museum appears in 1873. Founded by Francis L. Harvey, a professor of biology and geology, the museum was originally located on the fourth floor of the Old Main Building. By the early 1900s the museum owned specimens for the paleontology, mineralogy, botany and zoology collections.
Dellinger’s appointment as curator in 1925 marked a period of major growth for the UA Museum. He organized a major archeological research program at the museum and helped increase awareness of this institution within the university community and among the general public. Visitation increased, as did donations of artifacts, and contributions and grant monies to fund new artifact purchases. In addition to archeology, he expanded the collection in other areas, adding minerals and fossils, Greek and Roman antiquities, American glassware, bird’s eggs and Arkansas folk pottery.
Over the years, the UA Museum and its collection occupied a variety of spaces on the campus before closing to the public in 2003.
Native Americans in Arkansas
Native Americans lived in what is now Arkansas from 10,000 B.C.E to the early 1800s. The first inhabitants included early hunting and fishing groups, rock shelter artists and the Photo Courtesy of the University Museum Collections, University of Arkansas farmers who built mounds near their settled towns. They traded with other Native peoples from Lake Superior down to the Gulf Coast.
The arrival of European explorers in the 1500s signaled a change in life for Arkansas’s Native population. Exposure to European diseases like smallpox and influenza; Spanish demands for interpreters, food and a healthy labor force; and severe drought nearly wiped out the Native peoples. By the mid-1800s, the number of Caddo, Cherokee, Osage, Quapaw and Tunica-Koroa living in Arkansas was small. The Native peoples who built mounds and lived in bluff shelters were gone for hundreds of years by this time and were considered “vanished” by settlers who began to move into these areas.
Protecting Arkansas’s Treasures
“Imagine my chagrin…when I visited such museums as Peabody at Harvard, the National Museum at Washington, D.C., the one at the University of Michigan, the Heye Museum of the American Indian at New York and found…that their finest and most valuable Indian displays had been sent from Arkansas. Specimens are there that can never be found again in our state. They were sold to the big museums for a nominal sum. They are not like a crop of cotton or corn that can be grown again…when these go out of the state they are lost forever…. Do we want to send our … students to another university in order to learn something of the first inhabitants of Arkansas?” — Sam Dellinger In the early 20th century,
it was common for museums to build their collections through the purchase and excavation of artifacts from other states and countries. Dellinger did the same thing when he acquired Greek and Roman antiquities, as well as artifacts from Spiro, Oklahoma, for the UA Museum. Nonetheless, he was a vocal opponent of out-of-state institutions that removed objects from Arkansas.
Mark Harrington, an archaeologist with the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York City, excavated in several Arkansas Ozark Bluff Shelters in the 1920s. He also obtained a number of pottery vessels from the Carden Bottoms area (near present-day Russellville) in the Arkansas River Valley. In a 1930 article in Arkansas Alumnus, Dellinger railed about Harrington and other institutions excavating in Arkansas and removing artifacts, going so far as to state that “1/4 of the [Ozark Bluff] shelters we are studying were robbed by the Heye Foundation.”
Pot hunters took a serious toll on archeological sites in Dellinger’s time and continue to do so today. Many families living along the Arkansas River around the Carden Bottoms area in the early 1900s were poor tenant farmers or sharecroppers. The collapse of cotton prices after 1920 drove many families into debt. A series of floods devastated this area during the 1920s, washing away crops and fields and exposing a number of Native American graves as well as pottery vessels placed with the dead. Local tenant farmers earned more Zoomorphic Effigy Vessel: Mississippian effigy pottery includes jars, bowls and bottles formed in the shape of humans, mythological figures or animals. (University Museum Collections, University of Arkansas)money collecting and selling pottery than farming.
Dellinger was not the only archeologist to comment on pot hunting in Arkansas. Harrington published this account of the situation he found in Carden Bottoms: “The tenant farmers…had discovered the art of probing with a steel rod in the plowed fields for these unmarked graves, had learned that they frequently contained pottery, and had found that this pottery could be sold. A miniature gold-rush resulted, and before long nearly everyone in Carden Bottoms, from small boys of eight upwards, had become a ‘pot-digger.’ As we approached the ridges the little groups of diggers made a weird picture as they toiled in the mud, unmindful of drizzling rain and flurries of snow. …it was sickening…to see the skeletons chopped to pieces with hoes and dragged ruthlessly forth to be crushed under foot by the vandals—who were interested only in finding something to sell, caring nothing for the history of a vanished people….” Dellinger vigorously protested the removal of Arkansas artifacts by out-of-state museums, but could do little to fight it. Arkansas had no state-sponsored archeology program or laws to protect antiquities in the early 20th century. Although many of the objects collected by museums remain available for study today, far more artifacts were lost to private individuals. The 1906 Antiquities Act was the first federal law passed to protect archeological sites in the U.S. Arkansas did not pass similar legislation until 1967.
Archaeology and the Law
Many of the archeological specimens obtained under Dellinger’s direction were found in the graves of pre-Columbian Native Americans. During the 1930s, when most of the UA Museum excavations were conducted, professional archaeologists throughout the U.S. routinely excavated the graves of pre-Columbian Native Americans as simply another kind of archaeological feature. Human remains and associated artifacts were considered to be scientific specimens and stored in museums.
Today, professional archeologists recognize that modern Native Americans have rightful and appropriate interests in the buried remains of their ancestors—even those whose graves were excavated many years ago. These interests are recognized by federal and state legislation.
The Federal Government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. This law requires consultation with Native American tribes prior to the excavation of graves located on federal lands. NAGPRA also provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items (human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony) to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
The state of Arkansas has passed several laws to protect human remains in unregistered cemeteries, to prohibit the trade or commercial display of human skeletal remains and associated funerary objects, and to protect archeological sites on state lands.
Sam Dellinger’s Legacy In his quest to protect Arkansas’s heritage from dispersal to out-of-state museums and private collectors, Dellinger gathered nearly 8,000 prehistoric artifacts for the UA Museum. His work is now recognized as one of the finest collections of prehistoric Native American artifacts in the United States. Sam Dellinger’s practices were common among early 20th century archeologists. While his goal to preserve Arkansas’s cultural legacy for Arkansans remains important, the results of his work are tempered by the ethics of repatriation. The debate over science versus cultural sensitivity continues to the present, as does the quest for middle ground. Today, organizations like the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, Arkansas State Parks and others work to protect and preserve Arkansas’s archeological sites for future generations. By partnering with Native Americans, the state ensures that graves, sacred sites and artifacts are cared for according to federal, state and tribal laws. Effigy Pipe of a seated male figure (also known as Resting Warrior and as Big Boy): The Spiro Mound Group, located within the Arkansas River Valley in eastern Oklahoma, includes 11 constructed earthen mounds dating between 850 and 1450 A.D. Spiro served as a preeminent civic-ceremonial center in the Caddoan region and was closely connected with Mississippian cultures to the east. This effigy pipe is one of many extraordinary funerary objects looted from the Spiro site by a group calling themselves the “Pocola Mining Company”. Sam Dellinger saw some of the looting of the “Great Mortuary” in the largest mound and actually witnessed some of the objects and human remains being carried out of a tunnel. He later purchased artifacts from the Spiro Mounds for the UA Museum from the looters and some private collectors. (University Museum Collections, University of Arkansas)This program is sponsored in part by the Arkansas Natural & Cultual Resources Council.