Return of the Etowah Spatulate Celt

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

A spatulate celt originally found at the Etowah site recently returned to the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

Image of spatulate stone celt.
The Etowah spatulate celt, recently returned to the Peabody.

Warren K. Moorehead, then director of the Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology, conducted excavations at the Etowah site near Cartersville, Georgia from 1925 through 1929. He published his results in 1932 as The Etowah Papers, through an arrangement with Yale University Press. A few reprint editions were available in the 1970s and in 2000 the University Press of Florida reprinted that publication as Exploration of the Etowah Site in Georgia: The Etowah Papers. Contemporary scholars have struggled to correlate and interpret Moorehead’s work. For example, writing in their compendium of Southeastern shell gorgets, Brain and Phillips (1996:135) note “many conflicts between the published report, the field notes, and the RSPF catalogue entries, and the artifacts that could be located at the RSPF in Andover, Massachusetts.” Despite the issues with Moorehead’s approach, he recovered many amazing objects and in his publication presented the two prevailing models about the origins of Mississippian imagery.

Moorehead’s Etowah collection has garnered attention over the years, including work to conserve some of the copper specimens (Byers 1962), as well as research into the preserved textiles (by Lucy R. Sibley, clothing and textile specialist from Ohio State University in 1985) and the incredible array of shell gorgets recovered during the project (Brain and Phillips 1996; Muller 1966). For more on Etowah and the history of excavations at site see Adam King (2003a, 2003b).

Black and white image of mounds at Etowah site, circa 1925-1926.
Etowah’s Mound C, probably 1925-26. From nitrate negative 2009.0.1088, Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

In 1991 it became clear that objects had been pilfered from the Etowah collection assembled by Moorehead. Then director of the Peabody James Bradley learned that Jan Sorgenfrei of Old Barn Auctions in Findlay, Ohio was offering to sell a shell woodpecker gorget from the collection. The prospective purchaser discovered that the gorget had originated at the Andover Peabody and that there was no evidence that the object had been legally traded, transferred, or sold into private hands. Bradley worked with local law enforcement and the FBI to recover the shell gorget, which served for a time as the museum’s logo (see Figure 31 in Moorehead 1932). Dr. Arthur Cushman, the prospective buyer, generously agreed to pay Sorgenfrei for the gorget and donate it back to the museum (Britton 1992). Bradley suspected that other objects from the Etowah collection also were missing.

Such thefts are not unknown. Art crimes in general have garnered more and more attention, beginning with the high-profile theft of paintings from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston and continuing with the wholesale looting of European and Near Eastern sites, often to fund terrorism. In terms of other objects like the Etowah collection, thefts of southeastern Native American pottery occurred in 1974 at the Kolomoki site museum in Georgia (see Georgia Department of Community Affairs website 2006) and, in 1980, at the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository at Moundville in Alabama (see Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama website 2003). A few of the objects from Kolomoki have been recovered, but the majority of the Kolomoki and Moundville vessels remain at large. No arrests have been made in either theft.

Museum records and information provided by the late Eugene C. Winter Jr., volunteer and longtime friend of the Peabody, documents at least one known theft. The thefts included the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology as we were then known. Mr. McLaughlin had systematically removed catalog numbers from artifacts. The large number of bifaces and other objects recovered from his parent’s home were divided among the institutions involved since it was impossible to positively identify the bulk of the objects. Both Winter and Bradley suspected that other thefts had gone undetected. In 2005, collector Kurt Spurr returned a number of Maine stone gouges and chipped stone artifacts that he had purchased from Jan Sorgenfrei. The Etowah and Maine recoveries suggest that there were multiple thefts, since those objects retained their catalog numbers, while McLaughlin removed numbers from the objects that he took.

At the beginning of January 2018 I entered into correspondence with Mr. Thomas Rachels of Cordele, Georgia. Mr. Rachels had purchased a spatulate celt at a private sale and was researching the piece, which was reputed to be from Warren Moorehead’s investigation of Etowah. In fact, someone had written “Etowah” on the artifact. Figure 50c in The Etowah Papers seemed to match the artifact and a partial catalog number was written in India ink on the side of the piece. Mr. Rachels wrote and asked if we had any paperwork on the artifact, including documents indicating that the celt had been deaccessioned from the Peabody. I located an archival image of the artifact in question and consulted our original ledger books. Object # 61783 was described as “a beautiful spatulate ceremonial.” There was no indication that the object had been deaccessioned. We searched the collection and found no object bearing this catalog number. I inquired about the celt’s provenance, and Mr. Rachels shared the name of the seller and that of the late Jan Sorgenfrei, who had been in possession of the celt at some time in the past.

Upon learning about Mr. Sorgenfrei’s involvement, I contacted the Andover Police Department to seek advice about how to proceed. I also shared with Mr. Rachels that I believed the artifact had been stolen, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, when security was lax. Mr. Rachels immediately decided that the piece should be returned to the Peabody. The local law enforcement and FBI art crimes division personnel agreed that Mr. Rachels had not been involved in the theft and had purchased the celt in good faith. They encouraged us to work with Mr. Rachels on the amicable return of the object. At that point Mr. Rachels and I began to work on an agreement for the celt’s return. We ultimately offered Mr. Rachels a $2,500 reward and completed an IRS form 8283, covering the donation of art objects valued in excess of $5,000. The celt was returned on March 2, 2018.

Brain and Phillips (1996:140, 377-379) provide a brief discussion and preliminary chronology of this rare, though widely-distributed artifact type. They note that these artifacts have a short poll and broad bit, often exhibiting a biconically drilled perforation. Other authors suggest that lack of use wear, specialized manufacture, exotic materials, and mortuary associations make these elaborate weapons markers of social status (see, for example, Mainfort et al. 2006). Hally (2008:561) suggests that spatulate celts were markers of an achieved war honor or perhaps even the marker for town war chief. The Etowah example is particularly important, since, as Brain and Phillips (1996:14) note, this is the only site that exhibits the complete range of their proposed chronological sequence; the example discussed here is considered a late form.

We spent four months completely inventorying the Etowah collection and checking our holdings against Moorehead’s original artifact ledger entries. This was complicated. We faced many of the issues raised by Brain and Phillips (1996), including some objects that were not given catalog numbers, some with duplicate numbers, and other objects that were re-cataloged in the 1950s and 1990s and have multiple numbers. At this point we are certain that the following objects are missing:

Image of Etowah monolithic celt of blue limestone.

  • Monolithic ax (Ga-Brt-E63 in Brain and Phillips 1996:141; Moorehead 1932:82 and 100).

Image of shell gorget with dancing birdman figure.

  • Hightower (Big Toco) style shell gorget (Ga-Brt-E8 in Brain and Phillips 1996:45, 141, 418; Moorehead 1932:51 and 54).

Image of shell gorget with stylized rattlesnake design engraved on surface.

  • Citico style shell gorget (Ga-Mu-LE12 in Brain and Phillips 1996:97, 195, and 426; Moorehead 1932:153) from the nearby Little Egypt site.


  • Canoe or basket-shaped ceramic pipe (see Moorehead 1932:Figure 62a).
  • A Brakebill style rattlesnake shell gorget from Etowah, as depicted in a Peabody catalog photo from 1943 and never previously published.

We anticipate that the FBI will list these and any other missing objects in their art loss database.

It also is worth noting that the pertinent laws and legal process for recovering stolen artifacts, like those from the Peabody Etowah collection, are not immediately clear. Stealing such items is a violation of both state and federal law. For example, the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) provides additional federal penalties for artifact crimes covered under state law. When so much time elapsed, however, and those involved in the initial theft are deceased, unknown, or outside the statute of limitations, what recourse does an institution have? Possession of stolen property is an offense, but law enforcement may be unwilling to penalize those who have unknowingly purchased or obtained stolen artifacts. Much of the case law revolves around recovery of art that was stolen or disposed of under duress during the Nazi regime in 1930s and 1940s Europe. Now, museums have obtained this artwork, either through gifts, bequests, or purchase. Heirs are interested in recovering the artwork, while museums want to retain valuable parts of their collections. Several legal theories are at play, including the efforts made by former owners and heirs to recover the art.

We are grateful to Mr. Rachels for returning the Etowah spatulate celt. We are hopeful that other collectors will come forward with other objects from the Peabody collection, especially those from Etowah and Little Egypt. We look forward to working with the folks who have these objects in the same spirit of cooperation most recently exhibited in the return of the Etowah spatulate celt. If you have information on the whereabouts of objects from our collection, please contact me and know that our objective is to restore our significant museum collection.

To learn more about the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology visit us on the Web or see our online collections website.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Horizon & Tradition: The Newsletter of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference. I’m grateful to SEAC editor Sarah Bennett for publishing this account and helping to spread the work about stolen artifacts.

References Cited

Anonymous. 2013 In Memoriam: Jan Sorgenfrei, Old Barn Auction owner, 70. Electronic resource,, accessed March 20, 2018.

Bean, Linda. 1988 Phillips Pair Helped Nab Thief. Eagle-Tribune, Sunday, June 12, 1988. Pages A1, A7. North Andover, MA.

Blustain, Malinda Stafford, and Ryan Wheeler. 2018 Glory, Trouble, and Renaissance at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Brain, Jeffrey P., and Philip Phillips. 1996 Shell Gorgets: Styles of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Southeast. Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Britton, Sharron. 1992 Honest Man Made Their Day. Boston Globe (regional edition), Sunday, December 27, 1992, pages 1, 4.

Byers, Douglas S. 1962 The Restoration and Preservation of Some Objects from Etowah. American Antiquity 28(2):206-216.

Foley, Michael. 1988 Phillips Artifacts in $1 Million Haul. Eagle-Tribune, Thursday, June 9, 1988. North Andover, MA.

Georgia Department of Community Affairs. 2006 Electronic document accessed March 26, 2018.

Hally, David J. 2008 King: The Social Archaeology of a Late Mississippian Town in Northwestern Georgia. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

King, Adam. 2003a Etowah: The Political History of a Chiefdom Capital. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

_______. 2003b Over a Century of Explorations at Etowah. Journal of Archaeological Research 11(4):279-306.

Mainfort, Robert C., Jr., Rita Fisher-Carroll, and Daniel G. Gall. 2006 Sociotechnic Celts from the Upper Nodena Site, Northeast Arkansas. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 31(2):323-343.

Moorehead, Warren K. 1932 The Etowah Papers. Yale University Press, New Haven.

______. 2000 Exploration of the Etowah Site in Georgia: The Etowah Papers, with an introduction by Frank T. Schnell. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Muller, Jon D. 1966 An Experimental Theory of Stylistic Analysis. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama. 2003 Electronic resource accessed March 26, 2018.