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The past revealed — partly 

Dellinger exhibit hits high points in Indian art.

Painted vessel.
  • Painted vessel.

The soil of Arkansas has coughed up innumerable Indian artifacts. Prehistoric pots and points have found their way to the public by way of museum displays, flea market sales of framed arrowheads and plain old collecting. We are familiar with these tangible facts of prehistoric Indian life in Arkansas, pipes and bean pots and dart points and arrow points, from before the time of Christ to the coming of the Europeans.

But familiarity goes out the window at the Old State House Museum’s new exhibit, “Sam Dellinger: Raiders of the Lost Arkansas,” which opens Friday, April 7, with a reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The artifacts are some of the finest and most unusual in the University of Arkansas’s possession. Engraved conch shells from the Spiro site in Oklahoma, pots made in the likeness of people and animals, bowls and vases decorated figuratively with hands and symbolic creatures and bone and shell necklaces are works of art that embody the desires and needs of people we’ll never know. The little pot from Cross County made in the shape of a child’s foot suggests a 13th-century artisan who had a sense of humor and the luxury of time to create such a clever little pot. Maybe it was used to store foot-soothing herbs. Who knows? Speculation is the point; it makes the cultures who created these works come, if barely, out of the shadows of time and less-than-scientific fieldwork.

Sam Dellinger, who’s been called “golden-tongued” and a “gifted raconteur” by biographers, swelled the anthropology and zoology classes when he came to the UA in 1921 and eventually swept various funders off their feet to acquire, record and store the lifeblood of a fledgling museum’s collection.

He won grants from the Carnegie Corp. to do work in Arkansas’s bluff shelters, which have produced some of the rarest artifacts, like baskets, shoes, mats and rope. He persuaded Arkansas Power and Light head Harvey Couch to fund digs at important sites along the Ouachita River before Couch created Carpenter Dam and flooded the valley. Col. T.H. Barton helped pay for Dellinger’s salary and acquisitions looted from Spiro (a questionable action even in the late 1930s). George Donaghey, Raymond Rebsamen and Winthrop Rockefeller also gave, according to a biography of Dellinger by archeologist Dr. Robert Mainfort of the UA’s sponsored research program.

These artifacts featured at the Old State House, many from late (12th through the 15th century) sites near and along the Mississippi in Eastern Arkansas and from the Ouachitas in West and Southwest Arkansas, and others belonging to the UA, might be called orphans, stashed away in storage at the UA’s Biomass Research Center under the care of two employees who survived the university’s mothballing of its museum in 2003. It was the museum’s closure that inspired exhibit coordinator Jo Ellen Maack to promote the UA’s collection.

For people wanting to know more about Dellinger and the collection, the exhibit will feature an informational kiosk at the entrance to the gallery. A video of interviews with archeologists, Native Americans and a collector will be played in the gallery. The exhibit, Maack said, will offer “subthemes” that the artifacts bring into question, such as their value as art versus cultural information and the right of various entities — museums, tribes, private people — to own them. Dellinger was motivated to recover Arkansas artifacts for the museum in part because so many had been removed from the state previously, sold to the Heye Museum in New York (now the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.) or dug by Harvard and Smithsonian archeologists.

It won’t spoil the experience to describe some of the show’s attractions: A large bowl whose rim is decorated with appliquéd bear paws, an owl effigy pot from Poinsett County, a smiling possum pot from Mississippi County, head pots from Crittenden County featuring the faces of painted, tattooed and scarified Native Americans. Engraved vessels from Carden Bottoms south of the Arkansas River. Fragile artifacts, to be shown from special drawers: a pearl necklace, bone dice, a fishing net fragment, part of a basket, a baby’s moccasin, and Dellinger’s field book from a cave excavation, in which he draws the site in profile (measuring in inches), notes the soil characteristics and describes the artifacts found there. Ceramic maskette ear ornaments. And last, but not least, a large pipe that features a kneeling man. It’s nicknamed Big Boy, but will have a more proper name in the gallery.

The exhibit, which will grow with the addition of more Arkansas artifacts from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the Field Museum and the Museum of the American Indian in upcoming weeks, will run through September 2007. Speakers at Friday’s reception will include tribal representatives who claim descent from the prehistoric contributors to the show.

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