A month ago, Karol Lawson surveyed the trunk of her Volkswagon Jetta and judged its contents — carefully packed in clean white boxes wedged among quilted blankets — ready for a journey of more than 1,000 miles. Though she didn’t know it then, in two days’ time a man from the Quapaw Tribe of Indians would sweep a frying pan filled with smoldering hickory, red oak and cedar over the emptied trunk, fanning the smoke with an eagle feather.
If the smoking custom was unknown to Lawson, director of the Sweet Briar Art Collection and Galleries, she understood very well the cultural significance of her cargo. She had driven to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville to repatriate funerary objects excavated in 1932 from the Nodena archaeological site in Mississippi County, Ark., and donated to the College. The boxes contained 10 ceramic bottles, jars and bowls once buried with human remains.
The items likely predate European contact with the ancestors of the people known today as the Quapaw — making the ceramics at least 400 years old. Lawson carried them into her hotel room each night for safekeeping.
In June 1932, then-Sweet Briar president Meta Glass received the objects from Alabama Museum of Natural History archaeologist Walter B. Jones, who excavated hundreds of artifacts from the Nodena site in northeast Arkansas. It appears from the records Lawson has reviewed that Lena Garth of Huntsville, Ala., initiated the gift. Her daughter and granddaughter both attended the College.
The ceramics were given to the history department and subsequently overseen by the library, then anthropology. At various times, they were displayed or used in instruction. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Sweet Briar dedicated gallery space — renovating the former Refectory to create the Pannell Center — and hired professional art gallery staff. Over the next decade, Lawson’s predecessors assumed responsibility for the objects.
She learned of the artifacts when she became the galleries director in 2008.
“Once aware of them, I felt compelled to act,” Lawson said, explaining that, first, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires it.
“Second, the return of grave goods is the morally correct choice, even if there were no law compelling us. I teach museum studies in the Arts Management Program. A key tenet of the museum profession is that we care for the material culture of humankind in trust for the present as well as for generations to come.”
Such material is essential to understanding the history of human civilization, she said. To respect the integrity of all artifacts and artworks and also recognize their importance to the cultures that produced them is to “walk the walk” as an example to students.
“The Nodena artifacts are of a special type — buried with human remains — and thus deserve particular care,” Lawson said, noting that today’s museums continually assess their collections and pursue repatriation efforts when called for.
“Simply put, if I am going to teach the museum professionals of tomorrow, I — and by extension the College as a whole — have to model good behavior and adhere to the best professional practices. But, in any case, this was the right thing to do and long overdue.”
Lawson’s trip to Fayetteville was the culmination of two years spent scouring the art collection for the vessels, gathering all the accession records she could find and identifying to whom they belong. Caroline Bailey ’13 used her anthropology practicum to assist Lawson’s early research in 2012. She also worked with the anthropology department and with the support of the dean’s office.
Longtime professor of anthropology Claudia Chang says the ceramics were not integral to the curriculum, although she and her colleagues did occasionally show them to students or use them in class.
Archaeology is about context and removed from their origins, Chang says more valuable lessons were learned by students who assisted Lawson with the items’ return than from studying them as objects.
Records show the Garth family arranged for a second shipment of Indian artifacts from the Nodena “Mound Builder” site in October 1932 and another in 1939. The deliveries included a number of stone objects not associated with burials and there is nothing to suggest the College ever received human remains.
Although there is no full accounting of how many ceramics were given to Sweet Briar — it is believed as many as 20 — there is enough documentation to know that they were excavated from burials. The catalog sheets that exist for eight of the pieces include sketches of human remains and the location of the object relative to the skeleton. A catalog sheet for two items — one of them now broken into three pieces — document that they were found in separate but unspecified graves.
Lawson summarized her research, including photos and accession records, in a NAGPRA report. She learned from Arkansas state archaeologist Ann Early that the items appeared to be Quapaw — the main tribe in the state before the U.S. government moved them to a reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, where they remain today.
Last summer, Lawson heard from Quapaw NAGPRA representative Carrie Wilson, who had received the summary. Wilson requested the items’ repatriation. Lawson also filed notice in the Feb. 5, 2014, Federal Register as required by NAGPRA to give other parties the opportunity to claim the objects. When no one else came forward, she made arrangements to deliver them to the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, which maintains a repository of Quapaw antiquities.
When she arrived at the survey office in Fayetteville, several Quapaw Tribe members greeted her. With white-gloved hands and a small fire in an iron skillet, they began the ritual of smoking each item as it came out of the box — a cleansing and blessing before it could be moved into the building with the rest of the collection. Lawson was struck by their reverence and their gratitude.
She paused as she recalled the moment.
“They thanked me,” she said, tearing up a little. “They thanked me and my Sweet Briar colleagues for taking care of their patrimony. That is very gratifying to a museum professional. That’s why we do what we do.”
In a later conversation, Wilson compared the return of the ceramics to discovering a family heirloom in an obscure place.
“To get it back is the completion of a whole,” she said. “It touches you on a number of fronts, but mostly it makes the tribe more complete.”
Wilson has repatriated more than 25,000 cultural items, but it’s not often someone offers to drive a thousand miles to deliver them.
“Karol understood how fragile they are and she didn’t want any damage,” Wilson said. “It’s exceptional that she said, ‘I’ll do this.’ I think we had a good day being able to experience that together. Another piece brought home.”