Putting the Indiana in Indiana Jones
December 4, 2021 10:08 AM   Subscribe

Don Miller, a resident of rural Indiana, spent a lifetime collecting of tens of thousands of archeological artifacts, showing it off to visitors. His method of obtaining the artifacts though was not quite legal. How the FBI Discovered a Real-Life Indiana Jones in, of All Places, Rural Indiana.
posted by borkencode (25 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I object strongly to the framing "not quite legal" and the folksy Indiana Jones comparison, as if Miller was some friendly rogue. He stole the cultural heritage from people all over the world.

Graverobbing in the United States: "he and his first wife would go out looking for pot shards, often a sign that a burial ground was nearby. Then they’d start digging. "

Stealing while spreading religion and committing tax fraud: "countries like Haiti, where he would build churches the first part of the week, dig the second part, and write the whole thing off as a business expense"

Bribing people: "Miller often gave locals a bottle of alcohol or carton of cigarettes in exchange for the locations of unmarked archaeological sites."

It's a good article. And what Miller did was shamefully pretty standard operating procedure for the 1950s, at least. The remarkable part is just how much shit he looted. Also how badly he took care of it.

For a story of a much nicer handling of stolen cultural artifacts, consider the De Young's musem's treatment of Harald Wagner's collection of stolen murals from Teotihuacan. Apologies I don't have better links at my fingertips, but after many years of work and negotiation the De Young and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City came to a collaboration agreement that's led to a lot of really good archaeology, preservation, and museum display.

Meanwhile our Indiana Jones type here said "Well, if it’s just a bunch of dead Indians that make you squeamish, then go ahead and take ’em". Guess he mixed a little bit of white supremacy in with his stealing.
posted by Nelson at 11:04 AM on December 4, 2021 [55 favorites]

In one image, a skull is sitting inside a kitchen oven. Carpenter says Miller would clean the skulls, preserve them with varnish or shellac, and bake them so they would harden and turn brown.
The idea of someone using my childhood arts-n-crafts technique for making old-timey treasure maps on human remains is just... I have no words.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:43 AM on December 4, 2021 [11 favorites]

Familiar reek of privilege and self-regard in Miller's blithe confabulation about his professional history, in his cobbling together several people's remains and calling it Crazy Horse, because he's always gotten away with everything.

The article names "science and progress, Divine Providence and manifest destiny" as the ideology of genocide and attempted genocide, without explicitly saying Miller took the same license to rob graves, but it's there to be seen.

"Haitian officials told Carpenter no one’s ever repatriated anything to their country."

just "..."
posted by away for regrooving at 11:51 AM on December 4, 2021 [11 favorites]

Would it be wrong to steal the dude's skull? For my trashbag room. So tempting.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:53 AM on December 4, 2021 [13 favorites]

I appreciated the article describing personal reactions like the anthropologists crying, at least some in response to this guy's handling of human remains, because we also live in a world where this happened: The Mercury News, 10/4/2021 -- "San Jose State: Professor smiling with Native American skull ignites fiery debate."
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:04 PM on December 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

DirtyOldTown, I've never wanted an unreal movie to be real more than that. What a great premise!!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 12:38 PM on December 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

The headline's a severe undersell; Miller was a ghoul and a monster who treated the remains of colonized people like collectible toys. What a horrible shame it took so long for his crimes to come to light.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:38 PM on December 4, 2021 [25 favorites]

Is there a defining point at which I get to go dig into graves in the colonies that are 300, 400 years old? I'm sure they were buried with treasure, jewelry and the like. Or maybe their skulls are worth something. But is there a historical dividing line whereafter (wherebefore?) graves are fair plunder?
posted by hippybear at 1:05 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I mean, how careless of them to leave these stone markers. They're so easy to find!
posted by hippybear at 1:05 PM on December 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

Guess he mixed a little bit of white supremacy in with his stealing.

That was pretty obvious from his whole modus operandi in the first place, so his comments to the FBI guy track.
posted by eviemath at 1:38 PM on December 4, 2021

But is there a historical dividing line whereafter (wherebefore?) graves are fair plunder?

All human remains should be treated with respect (and not as Miller treated them) - but this is a serious question. A lot can be learned from human remains - how people lived, what they ate, how they died. I've just been listening to a fascinating book about Neolithic and Bronze Age steppe societies, largely based on human burial remains (and the artefacts that they were buried with). A great deal of history and archeology involves disturbing the gravesites of ancient (and even medieval) people.

But you do have to approach it with care - thinking of who the remains are of, when they were from, and who is doing the digging (e.g., Europeans digging up Europeans is a different story). Native Americans and other indigenous peoples are (completely understandably) much less open to having their own ancestors' remains studied (even very distant ancestors) - because of the history of grave-robbing by others like Miller.

Things are changing. I recently had a chance to observe saw some archeologists doing some "rescue archeology", excavating some historic (19th century, non-indigenous) graves that were about to erode away into the sea. This was within a historical site with lots of tourists and they allowed us to come and see the excavation site - but they also had a sign saying that no photography was allowed, because this is a gravesite. They treated the remains with the same reverence that a mortician would, preparing a body for a funeral.

I think the professor who was smiling when holding the skull - that's a bit of tempest in a teapot. She was not being disrespectful - she's worked with these remains, and probably does think of it as a "friend" - she's not turning it into an ashtray. But things are very sensitive when it comes to white scholars working with indigenous remains, because there are still people alive today who remember their grandparents being dug up in the name of "science".
posted by jb at 2:48 PM on December 4, 2021 [12 favorites]

Having grown up and with three generations of my Hoosier family buried less than 40 miles from Rushville, I find the whole rural "surprise" a weak crutch for the lame "Indiana Jones in, of all places, Indiana" hook. Would it be any less surprising if he'd grown up and settled on a ranch in Wyoming or a plantation in Louisiana or a homestead in Alaska? The only thing that would be more surprising if it he'd somehow managed to bring all those finds home and store them on anything other than isolated rural acreage.
posted by thecincinnatikid at 3:17 PM on December 4, 2021

Fascinating and sad story. I can see how someone of privilege raised in that era would see no issues with those actions, but clearly at some point he realized it wasn't seen as ok and kept doing it. Why else hoard more than you can display? Hide parts of the collection from visitors? It's harmless grandpa vibes until you realize he's not bumbling around and found some arrowheads, he's calculating how best to fool airport security after desecrating the grave of someone that he doesn't see as human equals.

JB - is there some way to flag my grave as robbable/available for science? Something a bit more permanent than an organ donor card?
posted by jellywerker at 4:15 PM on December 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

Jellywerker: I'm not sure about flagging your grave, but if you want your burial to be helpful for future archeologists, you could arrange to be buried with a large number of artefacts that suggest who you were and your place within society and what you valued, ideally with some recent coins for easy dating ;)

Or you can keep a diary. History is easier to write for literate societies. It doesn't replace archeology, but complements it nicely.

(Me, I'm just going to donate my body to science. Some anatomy student can cut me up. But that's my choice.)
posted by jb at 5:01 PM on December 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

But is there a historical dividing line whereafter (wherebefore?) graves are fair plunder?

The dividing line should be determined by the culture that the dead in the graves belong to. If they don't think their ancestors should be subjected to the practices of Western Science, then archaeology is out of luck. If the knowledge gained is important enough, the archaeology has to work on convincing the culture of that importance with no more coercion than that of words. I imagine it helps if that culture still isn't being oppressed by their colonizers. Or better yet, if that culture had archaeologists that could examine the graves in a culturally appropriate way.

Seems like indigenous archaeology describes that sort of thing... or if it's mostly for the benefit of the indigenous culture, internalist archaeology. Just saw that on wikipedia and now I'm interested in reading what Eldon Yellowhorn has written on the subject.
posted by Mister Cheese at 6:36 PM on December 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

Good article, even though the framing is horrible. It was all over my lapsed-archeologist FB feed today, and I read it and felt like weeping. We were always super reverent with human remains the very few times I had occasion to handle them.** As someone who has had a few data recovery projects ruined by bottle hunters, I am not particularly shocked at this type of story. But it is disturing nonetheless.

**We did an inventory/curation project once for a defunct county-level preservation office, and it was very emotional to process the few boxes of remains there (all slated for repatriation, I'm happy to say).
posted by gemmy at 8:40 PM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'd like to have a whole room for my trash bags, that sounds fab.
posted by thelonius at 2:16 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I know a number of archaeologists, including some who work in repatriation, so I heard about this not long after it was first discovered. What they said about just how bad it is, the scale of the looting he conducted, and for years, and lack of records, ugh. They were sickened by it. To properly repatriate, you need to try to determine who remains and artifacts should be repatriated to, and this is exceedingly difficult they way he conducted his looting. It boggles the mind. This man is dead, so it is a moot point, but the sad thing is that legal penalties for looters and thieves (including art thieves), are just too light, and I don't know what it would have taken to deter someone as obsessive as Miller was in any case.

It is by no means an equivalent case, but recently a 78-year-old Pennsylvania man who stole a rare Revolutionary-era rifle from a museum in 1971 was sentenced to one day in prison and a year of home confinement, prosecutors said. He was also fined $25,000 and ordered to pay restitution of $23,385.

"His attorney argued for no jail time in court documents, citing Gavin's age and health problems, which include a stroke he suffered three years ago. "He stole this rifle for his own appreciation," not to make money, and it was sold for a fraction of its true worth, [his] attorney argued in a sentencing memorandum. He added that Gavin is a collector of all kinds of old items that he kept in his barn."
posted by gudrun at 6:44 AM on December 5, 2021 [6 favorites]

It’s like the quote attributed to Mary Harris “Mother” Jones: the more you steal (especially if you steal eg. your employees’ wages), the fewer consequences there tend to be. Thinking about a couple high-profile cases like Bernie Madoff, it seems to be also who you steal from. It’s not just that the US legal system is systemically and foundationally set up to protect property rights over almost everything else, it’s set up to protect and reinforce the existing status quo wealth distribution.
posted by eviemath at 7:07 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I was about to come post the similar story of Thomas Gavin that gudrun beat me to; a little more detail is here.
posted by TedW at 9:01 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

My god, this is horrifying.
posted by suelac at 9:09 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

My late father was taken by an old, old friend to tour this place maybe one year before it was shut down. My dad's friend (and fellow graduate of Shortridge High School in Indianapolis) according to my dad had actually worked on the Manhattan Project as a young man and presumably knew the owner. My dad was impressed by what he saw and found the owner friendly and not at all weird, but then, he apparently only got the nickel tour and wasn't taken into the ossuary rooms. Ugh. My dad never learned the backstory here (and he was trending into dementia even when he made the visit), so I can only wonder what his reaction would be if he had known or been able to comprehend the whole ugly truth. My dad was, to say the least, not a reliable narrator toward the end, and neither was this guy, although he apparently never was.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 1:04 PM on December 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

Jellywerker: I'm not sure about flagging your grave, but if you want your burial to be helpful for future archeologists, you could arrange to be buried with a large number of artefacts that suggest who you were and your place within society and what you valued, ideally with some recent coins for easy dating ;)

Screw that, save up your whole life and get buried in an elaborate tomb full of misleading jewelry and valuables so in 2500 years you can be Jellywerker I, second Emperor of America.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:24 PM on December 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

I thought MeFi discussed this previously: post from 2019.
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:12 AM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

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