FBI officials are speaking out about an investigation begun in 2014 that led agents to discover about 2,000 human bones — belonging to at least 500 people — among an Indiana man’s stash of stolen antiquities from around the world.
Tim Carpenter, head of the FBI’s art crime unit, told CBS News that Don Miller had about 42,000 items, including pre-Columbian pottery, Chinese items dating from around 500 BC and an Italian mosaic, inside his Waldron home about 40 miles outside of Indianapolis. A life-sized Chinese terra cotta figurine sat on his front porch and, in the basement, he kept an Egyptian sarcophagus, the Indianapolis Star reported.
“Roughly half of the collection was Native American, and the other half of the collection was from every corner of the globe,” Carpenter told CBS News.
Friends and acquaintances who described Miller’s charisma, wit and charm had no idea the majority of his collection was obtained illegally. USA Today reported that Miller, who died in 2015 at age 91, never faced criminal charges or lawsuits prior to his death.
“When I first went into his house and saw the size of the collection, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen,” Carpenter told CBS News. “Roughly half of the collection was Native American and the other half of the collection was from every corner of the globe.”
Miller knew he had broken laws to obtain his collection, Carpenter confirmed. The elderly adventurer admitted to FBI agents that he’d conducted digging expeditions on both U.S. and foreign soil over the years in violation of antiquities laws.
Miller agreed to let agents seize 5,000 of his artifacts so they could be returned to their countries of origin, Carpenter said. The agents collecting the items were shocked when they stumbled upon human remains in Miller’s collection.
“About 2,000 human bones,” Carpenter said. “To the best of our knowledge right now, those 2,000 bones represent about 500 human beings.
“It’s very staggering.”
The majority of the bones were dug up from ancient Native American burial sites, Carpenter told CBS News.
Holly Cusack-McVeigh, an archaeology professor brought in on the case, said the looting of burial sites “comes down to a basic human right.”
“We have to think about the context of: Who has been the target of grave robbing for centuries? Whose ancestors have been collected for hobby?” Cusack-McVeigh told the network. “And this comes down to racism. They aren’t digging white graves.”
Experts have determined the remains are likely those of members of the Arikara tribe, which, according to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, lived along the Missouri River in what is currently North Dakota and South Dakota.
Arikara tribal official Pete Coffey told CBS News he is working with FBI agents to bring them home to North Dakota.
“All too often here we have been treated as curiosities rather than a people here,” Coffey told the network. “They could very well be my own great, great, great, great grandfather, or grandmother, you know, that had been — I characterize it as being ripped out of the earth, you know.”