KING CROWLEY

This is Doctor James Tichgelaar of the University Museum of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Among other things he is in charge of this gray metal cabinet full of carved stone artifacts which were unearthed over the course of decades beginning in 1924 by a deaf gunsmith and jeweler named Denter (I've also seen it spelled Dentler and Denton) Rowland and his partner, George MacAtee.

In the initial flush, the pair produced about twenty pieces and sold them (price $600) to Bernice "Bernie" Babcock of Little Rock, who placed them in the Arkansas Museum of Natural History which she had recently founded in MacArthur Park. She also served as its director. At length Dr. V. C. Case sent a half dozen of them to the Smithsonian which declared them to be unclassifiable of modern origin, essentially folk art. No way were these made by any ancient civilization.

The story related by Ms. Babcock was that Rowland was walking on his property one day when he tripped over a carving of a stone foot about four inches long. When Rowland dug in the spot, about ten feet below the surface, under a layer of gravel he discovered a casket about three feet long and a foot and a half wide. The casket was surrounded by these figures of animals and people. Rowland refused to tell anybody where the hole was until he was sure that he had gotten all the artifacts out. A 1930 article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch says he used a metal divining rod to locate objects. Nobody except Rowland and MacAtee ever found anything in this style here or anywhere else.

It was Bernice Babcock who named the largest piece "King Crowley" in honor of Crowley's Ridge, the chief geographical feature in the area. His highness weighed in at about forty pounds, stood less than a foot high and his girth was about that, too. I've got some pictures of him, but I couldn't get permission from the owners to post them on the internet. If you want to see a picture, go to the library microfilm cabinet and load up the Arkansas Gazette, 2 February 1987, section B, page 1. A picture in the Gazette 14 August 1927 has the worst picture of KC, but it does show the whole initial find including some bones and pot fragments. The best pictures are from the Magazine Section of the Arkansas Democrat 31 December 1944.

For some reason the bad publicity from the Smithshonian did not dent Rowland's business. He and MacAtee continued to "discover" these things and sell them as archaeological artifacts for years and years. Several of his other customers over the years solicited opinions from the Smithsonian and were always told they had been defrauded. The ever trusting Mrs. Babcock clung to her hopes and solicited more professional opinions. Another I saw from the University of Pennsylvania Museum also declared the artifacts to be of modern origin.

In a 1944 article Ms. Babcock continued to tout King Crowley's authenticity explaining that Rowland didn't have the sophisticated stoneworking skills needed to make the figure. Of course he was a gunsmith and a jeweler, and those skills might translate easily to stoneworking. She also noted that one of the figures was found entwined thick in deep tree roots, although nobody ever saw anything discovered. Rowland would just show up with a bag full of dirt-encrusted goodies.

Mrs. Babcock continued to develop the museum and to make the Rowland collection an object of discussion throughout her life. In her later years she offered to sell the collection (she had purchased it with her own money) to the museum for the purchase price of $600. The museum declined. An unidentified out-of-state party showed up with the cash and left with the goods.

King Crowley's present whereabouts are unknown. Ironically the collection would be quite valuable today, far in excess of the original $600 price tag. Not only would it be valuable as folk art, but the fact that it had been for years displayed as genuine in a museum would probably add to its value. As on Antiques Roadshow, the story is most of the value and the value depends on how well you tell the story and finding the right party to tell it to. I'm sure Denter Rowland and George MacAtee would agree.

Even after Rowland's death, MacAtee continued to produce and sell pieces.

Dr. Dan Morse, who studied the available pieces in the mid 1970's, visited Rowland's home site and picked up pieces of sandstone. He took the sandstone to a geology professor who said the stone from Rowland's yard was similar to some of the stone artifacts. Of course, if there was an ancient civilization carving figures, they wouldn't have imported stone. They would have used the materials available, like those right around here in the yard.

Other things were much more of a giveaway. The copper eyes were exactly the same size and composition of harness studs commonly available in the 1920's. The metal heart inlaid in the chest is a heart shape traditional in European art, but not recognized as a heart in pre-1492 America. An art instructer at ASU examined one of the pieces and recognized marks typically made by metal tools. Some of the metal on the figures turned out to be bronze, which is made nowhere in precolumbian America.

The museum usually has a handful of the figures on display. You might be able to talk Dr. Tichgelaar into showing you the pieces in the cabinet. In addition to the figures he has a box containing harness studs and other materials of modern manufacture used by science for comparison. Here's a link to the museum web page.

One postscript. Like so many stories, this one contains one oddball element that will not stop bothering me. There's one piece known as "The Janus Face," which looked to me like it did not belong in the collection. The form was much more elegant and sophisticated and was more expertly crafted. This one piece was the work of a guy who did this for a living. The rest was the work of guys who did it as a hobby. You can see the examples here are crude and blocky. Also the Janus Face, unlike the other pieces, doesn't have any metal eyeballs or ear spools glued in.

If you want to see the Janus Face, there's a picture in the 1944 article. Carved from a single stone, it depicts two heads facing in opposite directions. One head appears to be an ape, one appears to be a man. Bernice Babcock says in the article that a man claiming to be a journalist from Washington borrowed the piece for a story and neither he nor the sculpture were heard from again.

There is no doubt in my mind that this guy came after the Janus Face in particular. He picked it out and took it home, and whoever bought the rest of the collection years later did not get "the" piece, the one piece that might have been legitimately antique.

Those two story elements try to fit together. Rowland and MacAtee come up with twenty pieces. One piece, while less spectacular than many of the others, is obviously not part of the group. Years later a con man employs a ruse to steal that particular piece rather than one of the big pieces with flashy metal inlays. One more nagging mystery.

RTJ--12/1/2004

Sources:

Arkansas Gazette, 2 February 1987, section B, page 1.

Arkansas Gazette, 14 August 1927, part II, page 3.

Edwards, Gladys, "Aboriginal Facts and Artifacts," Arkansas Democrat Magazine Section, December 31, 1944, pp. 4-5.

"King Crowley," Off The Beaten Track, Jonesboro Sun, May 9, 1975.

Sodders, Betty; "In Search of King Crowley," The Ancient American, issue #9, pp. 16-17.

Stuck, Charles; "The Mystery of the Stone Images;" Craighead County Historical Quarterly, vol. IX, no. 3, p. 18.


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