LOGAN -- One day last year, Utah State University anthropologist Bonnie Pitblado was given a small box and a typed note from her assistant. The assistant informed her that the box -- holding an ancient Native American figurine in a soft leather covering -- and the note were given to her by an anonymous person.
The note read in part: "Sometime between 1978 and 1982, I came into possession of this piece by way of a vagabond acquaintance. He had told of 'acquiring' it near Vernal, Utah. I have great interest and respect for this continent's native culture and have always hoped to somehow return this to wherever it had come from. ... I am very excited at the prospect of it being returned to its proper place."
The piece is believed to be one of 12 clay figurines discovered in 1950 by Clarence Pilling under an overhang in a side canyon of Range Creek, Utah. One clay piece from the collection, held by USU Eastern's Prehistoric Museum in Price, went missing when the artifacts were toured for display around the state in the early 1960s -- shortly after they were given to the Price museum by Harvard's Peabody Museum.
For the last six months, a team of scientists led by Pitblado, along with the Utah Crime Laboratory, have investigated whether this object is the long-lost Pilling figurine or a fake. The figurines were made by the Fremont culture -- a pre-Columbian group that took its name from the Fremont River in Utah and thrived between 700 and 1300 AD. Pitblado described the collection as one of North America's "national treasures" of prehistoric art.
"When I called (to start the investigation), I said, 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'" Pitblado said.
The case is almost closed, but those involved are still waiting on some chemical test results from Brigham Young University.
"At this point, the chances of it being fake are exceptionally slim," Pitblado said.
The Pilling figurines are between 4 and 6 inches in height. They are constructed of unbaked clay and show evidence of red, buff and black paint. Each is distinctive.
The mystery figurine looks like a male with long hair. It has a necklace and a belt with a loin cloth around its waist. It has red streaks on its face, perhaps face painting that was common among Native American tribes.
"When you see these figures, you can't not be moved," Pitblado said. "What they mean, I don't know, but their significance goes beyond the field of archaeology."
There are some lingering questions about the Fremont people, Pitblado said.
"Some we will probably never answer for sure, including whether the figurines were intended to represent real people," Pitblado said. "Other mysteries might be more penetrable."
With the help of Idaho State University, USU created a three-dimensional scan of the lost figurine and the others borrowed from USU-Eastern, capturing high-resolution digital images of each.
One of the first details Pitblado had noticed on the returned piece was the artist's fingerprints still embedded in the unfired clay. So Molly Boeka Cannon, director of USU's anthropology geospatial lab and a team member, called the Utah Crime Lab and asked them to run some forensic fingerprint tests on the returned figurine and the rest of the collection, to see if they could identify a match between two or more of them.
The lab did the analysis, but they could not make a definitive match. The Fremont artists had purposely smoothed out the clay as they crafted the objects.
Pitblado and the team had also noticed clearly patterned impressions left on the figurines' backs presumably made as they dried on coiled basketry.
Then Jim Adovasio, a University of Utah-trained archaeologist recruited by Pitblado for his expertise in basketry and other perishable artifacts, looked at them.
Adovasio laid the figurines on mounds of corn starch. The starch captured the impressions on the figurines' backs.
Adovasio found that the diameter of the impressions were consistent with the Fremont people's style of basketry.
The team also learned that in the early 1950s, before the figurine in question went missing, Harvard's Peabody museum had coated all the figurines with a substance called alvar to protect the fragile clay. Just last week, BYU scientists, together with Cannon, used a "scanning electron microscope" to try to detect this substance on the returned figurine and its mates. This proved successful and supports the results of the basketry match.
BYU geologists are also using X-ray florescence, which detects geochemical signatures, to determine whether the figurines were produced from the same clay. Preliminary results show a probable match here, too, between the returned figurine and the others, Pitblado said.
When she asked to borrow the other figurines for investigation, Pitblado had promised the Price Prehistoric Museum that when the investigation was complete she would present a public lecture sharing her results with the community.
She will deliver a talk titled, "I Once was Lost, but Now am Found?!" on May 5 at USU Eastern in Price.
She will present the same talk at 7 p.m. May 3 in the Moab Information Center.
Pitblado is working with the Cache Valley Visitors Bureau to try to set a time to share the lecture in northern Utah as well.
The USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum has offered to loan a newly made Pilling figurine exhibit back to the Museum of Anthropology sometime in the next year or so.
"I'm happy to tell people that this is a really good story," Pitblado said of the Pilling figurines and her investigation. "It's a happy ending -- and not all stories have happy endings -- to a compelling mystery."