Raiders of the Lost Arkansas

Raiders of the Lost Arkansas


The vessels display a variety of creative motifs, including effigy pots in the image of humans, mythological creatures or animals, and elaborately painted vessels with swirls, stripes and other geometric patterns. Courtesy of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma.
Photo by Russell Cothren

He wore a wide-brimmed hat and traveled far and wide looking for precious antiquities, but his name has been lost to time – until a professor of anthropology who works with the Arkansas Archeological Survey dug up his past to preserve it for the future.

His name was Sam Dellinger, and he was largely responsible for seeking out, documenting and preserving the pre-Columbian artifacts of Arkansas at a time when many outsiders were digging up Arkansas’ history for northern museums and private collections.

Bob Mainfort, professor of anthropology, specializes in pre-Columbian societies, and has been working with artifacts found during Dellinger’s tenure for more than 20 years.

When the Old State House Museum decided to develop an exhibit on Dellinger, they invited Mainfort to curate the exhibit and select relevant artifacts to be put on display. The resulting exhibit, “Sam Dellinger: Raiders of the Lost Arkansas, One Man’s Quest to Save Arkansas’s Past,” is at the Old State House Museum until 2007.

Dellinger displaying the fruits of his labor – vessels collected from across the state.
Photo submitted

Looters, treasure hunters and private collectors may sound like something out of the movies, but in 1920s Arkansas, they represented reality. When Dellinger arrived in Arkansas, he noted that places like Harvard, Columbia University in New York and other institutions had ongoing excavations in Arkansas that took historic, precious artifacts out of state. Also, poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers, driven into debt by collapsing cotton prices and devastating floods, discovered that selling American Indian pottery vessels could bring them more money than they could make on the farm in a month.

Long History

American Indians inhabited what is now Arkansas as early as 10,000 B.C. up until the early 1800s. Some lived in bluff shelters along rivers on the Ozark Plateau, leaving behind not only rock shelter art, but some of the best-preserved artifacts in North America. Woven sandals and baskets, even ears of corn, remained well preserved in the arid, protected conditions found under bluffs.

This photograph of the entrance to Cob Cave was taken around 1931. Cob Cave and other caves along the Buffalo River were found to contain well-preserved baskets, bags and cultivated plants, as well as pictographs and petroglyphs on the walls.
Photo submitted

In addition to the rock shelters, culture flourished along the deltas and river valleys. Early farmers settled in communities and built nearby burial mounds, evidence of which is still visible in eastern Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.

By the mid-1800s, few American Indians remained in Arkansas. Exposure to European diseases, Spanish demands for food and labor, and severe drought drove the population down. By that time, the people who had lived in bluff shelters and built the mounds had been gone for hundreds of years.

What they left behind has a rich cultural context that tells an important story of how the original people of the Americas lived and died.

Mainfort is particularly interested in how they died – or, rather, in how people were buried.

“In a broad sense, a person’s social position in life is reflected in their burial treatment,” Mainfort said. “Plus the way in which a society treats their dead is broadly consistent with the organizing principles of the society.”

Looking at funeral and burial customs gives anthropologists and archeologists a snapshot of societal principles as a whole, and differences among burials serve as a reflection of differences in society, Mainfort said.

The legacy of the dead

In Mainfort’s research, he often finds himself examining objects that Dellinger had a hand in excavating. Most of these objects were found in the graves of pre-Columbian American Indians. While such practices were common in archeology in the 1930s, there has grown since then an acknowledgement of the rights of American Indians to have interests in the buried and exacerbated remains of their ancestors. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires that researchers consult with American Indian tribes prior to excavating graves located on federal lands. It also provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain cultural items to lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes.

While Dellinger’s methods did not reach the high standards of today, his legacy still stands: He kept many valuable artifacts out of the hands of private collectors and faraway museums so the history of Arkansas could be preserved in Arkansas. Above: “The vast majority of what we see in the collections is a result of Dellinger’s efforts,” said Robert Mainfort, professor of anthropology and curator for an exhibit about Dellinger, which is currently at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock. Courtesy of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma.
Photos by Russell Cothren

While working to protect what he saw as the cultural heritage of Arkansas, Dellinger amassed almost 8,000 prehistoric artifacts. They include an effigy pipe elaborately carved in the shape of a seated man, pieces of cold-hammered copper and giant carved conch shells the size of a human head. While each object has its own inherent beauty, it also has a deeper story to tell.

“These are expressions of the ways these people saw themselves in relationship to the world,” Mainfort said.

Preserving Arkansas’ past

Dellinger was an archeological pioneer in a day when almost no professional standards existed in the fledgling field. Most excavations were result-oriented and put little to no emphasis on the placement or preservation of the location of artifacts.

But although Dellinger had no formal archeological training, he kept careful notes on his own excavations, which occurred in the Ozarks, northeast Arkansas, the Arkansas River Valley and along the Ouachita River. However, he often wasn’t able to be present, so many excavations were supervised by Dellinger’s students with help from local laborers who were not trained in how to preserve and document archeological sites.

“The vast majority of what we see in the collections is a result of Dellinger’s efforts,” Mainfort said.

Dellinger’s Legacy

During Dellinger’s tenure at the University of Arkansas from the 1920s to the 1960s, he built up an incredible collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from the Mississippi River Valley and the Ozark Plateau, which remains today one of the premier collections of its kind in the country, Mainfort said.

In addition to excavations, Dellinger also acquired artifacts by purchasing them from others, and he actively discouraged the removal of objects from Arkansas by out-of-state institutions.

“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,” Dellinger said. “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.”

For this exhibit, Mainfort dug into Dellinger’s past, thumbing through old museum files, yearbooks, alumni magazines and even old class schedules. He pored over newspaper articles written about excavations in the 1920s and 1930s. And he examined Dellinger’s unpublished correspondence, which now resides in Special Collections in the University Libraries.

“Dellinger was a remarkable man,” Mainfort said. In addition to his passion for artifact preservation, he was interested in the environment. He was involved in the formation of the Buffalo National River: Some of the original plans for its preservation were drawn up on his kitchen table. And he helped get 1,000 dogwood trees planted in Fayetteville.

Dellinger passed away in 1973 in relative obscurity, and Mainfort spent an hour looking for his grave site in Fairview Cemetery in Fayetteville. A plain, modest stone marks the resting place for this man. The collections he left behind mark his legacy in history, but the man Mainfort learned about had even broader interests beyond archeology.

As a zoology professor, he taught thousands of students. He traveled around the state for public speaking engagements during a time when a trip to Fort Smith was a major undertaking. And he became well known for growing ornamental gourds.

“I really wish I would have had a chance to meet him,” Mainfort said. “There’s so much I would have liked to talk to him about.”

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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