USU’s Dr. Pitblado speaks about Pilling Figurines

LOGAN— Doing her best Indiana Jones impression, Dr. Bonnie Pitblado, archaeologist and professor of Utah State University, discussed her journey and involvement in solving a forty-year archaeological mystery. Pitblado spoke as part of the speaker series at the historic courthouse, and told how she reunited the once-missing Pilling figurine with the other 11 figurines. 

The Pilling figurines are small statues roughly six inches tall and made of clay by the ancient Fremont indians that once populated eastern Utah. The statues have been dated to A.D. 1000 and were found by rancher Clarence Pilling in March of 1950. As he was looking for stray cows, Pilling found them in Range Creek Canyon, lined up under an alcove next to a small wood and clay brick structure.

“To be able to get inside of the head of the person who made these figurines and make something of that, is really hard for archaeologists to do and to know what the exact thoughts were is almost impossible,” Pitblado said. “But it gets us thinking and it reminds us that these were people like us who had beliefs and whose beliefs were strong enough that they would express them in very artistic ways. The same way we do and they treasured these things enough that they left them in a very special spot   where nobody found them for over a thousand years.”

The Pilling figurines have been studied by many scholars and archaeologists and are very rare and significant because of their detail and condition, along with the fact that such a large set was found together. Pitblado described the differences among the statues that show that there are six pairs of men and women figurines that form “couples.”

“Anytime you get a window into anything other than eating, sleeping, or technology in a culture, you’re seeing something that makes us human,” Pitblado said. “It’s the human element, and there are clues for that, art, religion, that is something that makes us uniquely human.”

After the figurines had been studied, they made their ways through museums and other galleries throughout Utah. Between 1973-1974 after a change in museum venues one of the figurines went missing. This surprisingly wasn’t noticed until 2004, when earlier pictures of the 12 figurines were compared to the 11 on hand.

Pitblado had a stroke of luck when a person anonymously have her a box with the missing statue with an attached note that explained that he had been in possession of the statue since 1982 and had been given it by a friendly “vagabond.” The note also explained that the figurine was in the best of care the entire time he owned it, but wishes it to finally be with the rest of its “mates.”

After months of research and a series of scientific tests that proved the figurine to be authentic and a match to the other figurines it is finally at home and currently on display at the College of Eastern Utah.

“There is a connection across centuries,” Pitblado said. “It feels amazing because it’s like human to human contact. Those moments of connection is why I do it, I love that. I can’t always find all the answers, but I can come to a pretty good conclusion most of the time, and I can feel that I know what this person was doing. I can’t always prove it and I can’t say it in print but I can feel it and that’s the human part of my science that makes me love it.”

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