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Front Page » May 10, 2012 » Carbon County News » Once lost, now found: Ancient figurine, missing for 35 ye...
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Once lost, now found: Ancient figurine, missing for 35 years, returns home to Prehistoric Museum


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By JOHN SERFUSTINI
Sun Advocate associate editor

The "missing man" in the set of world-famous Pilling Figurines is back home. Look for figurine No. 2 in the display case at the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum.

And while you're at it, check out his next-door neighbor, the lady known as No. 3. They were dried on the same woven basket about 1,000 years ago near Nine Mile Canyon.

That discovery was announced Saturday by Bonnie Pitblado, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University in Logan. She came to the USU Price campus to present findings of the sixth-month interdisciplinary, interagency efforts to authenticate that the little guy was in fact the one who disappeared mysteriously more than three decades ago.

It was back in November last year that the missing unbaked clay figure arrived at her office in a little white box. "That's how it ended up in my lap," she told the audience of archaeology aficionados in the Jennifer Leavitt Student Center.

The figurine was carefully wrapped in tissue paper, all in one piece. He (Pitblado anthropomorphizes the small statue) arrived with a letter. The writer explained that the figurine was acquired from a "vagabond acquaintance" in the Vernal area sometime between 1978 and 1982, and that it seemed the right thing to do to return it.

It is still a mystery exactly when and from where he disappeared. It was back in 1976, when the set was on display in the Prehistoric Museum that a staffer counted the figurines. There were ten. There were 11 in the set discovered by Clarence Pilling and a bunch of other cowboys in 1950. A search of records showed that there were 10 figurines in a photo taken in 1974.

Before that time, the figurines had been celebrity globe-trotters. Shortly after their momentous discovery, they went to the Smithsonian Institution, then to the prestigious Peabody Museum. It was at the Peabody that an archaeologist - using the best available technology at the time - covered each figure with a light coat of alvar, a clear lacquer intended to protect them. The alvar would prove to be important evidence later.

Back in Carbon County, the figurines were displayed at the Park View Motel.

In 1961, Clarence Pilling turned the figurines over to the newly-created Prehistoric Museum. They stayed there until 1968, when they went "on the road" in Carbon County as a traveling exhibit in courthouses and banks.

"Mr. Missing" was in a 1973 photo taken while in Zions Bank. The figures returned to the museum after that. Whether he was in the set or not when the exhibit came back to the museum is unknown.

Where he went is also unknown. "I wish he could speak," Pitblado said.

But even though he can't talk, the little man does tell a story.

First he indicates he was laid out to dry on a woven basket. On the back of the figurine are curved impressions of the weave. The companion pieces bear similar traces but from different baskets. Pitblado was able to compare them because she had contacted the Price Museum's director, Ken Carpenter, and he allowed the pieces to be temporarily transferred to Logan.

Researchers made 3-D scans of each figure, making highly-detailed images that can be rotated for analysis on a computer monitor. Another trick that works well is to make an impression of the pattern in dry corn starch, a harmless procedure because the particles don't scratch or stick.

A colleague identified the basketry pattern as classic Fremont. He discovered that the warrior and the lady now next to him had matching basket marks.

Other surface markings on the figurines raised goosebumps. The artist's fingerprints left faint impressions in the clay. The state crime lab agreed to help analyze them (no dusting allowed). "They said it was a nice break from murders," Pitblado quipped. Unfortunately, all that remain are partial prints, so there's no way of telling whether the same artist made multiple sculptures. The sculptor apparently wanted to smooth away any prints.

The final confirmation came from a technique known as XRF - X-ray fluorescence. This confirmed that the missing man's alvar coating matched that of his companions. It also showed that he had an identical concentration of the element barium with his basket-mate.

As a control, a figurine from Brigham Young University was analyzed. The chemical pattern was no match.

Based on the evidence, Pitblado feels confident that the figurine is authentic. She even titled her presentation: "I once was lost, but now am found!" That's an exclamation point at the end, not a question mark.

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