Ohio man seeks return of artifact from society

By Alan Johnson
Columbus, Ohio (AP) 12-09

Edward Low knew he wasn’t supposed to play there, high up on a sandy hill in Parkersburg, W.Va., overlooking the silver ribbon of the Ohio River.

But the 12-year-old and two friends, armed with boyish curiosity and a World War II trench shovel, had sneaked away from home to explore.

While digging a foxhole to play soldier, Low hit something hard about 15 inches deep in the soil. The thin piece of sandstone, about 5 inches by 3 inches, was engraved with Indian markings of human faces and birds.

Low didn’t know then that he’d found a valuable piece of prehistory: an Early Woodland Adena cultural artifact created 400 years or more before the birth of Jesus. Its value at auction has been estimated at up to $200,000.

To Low, it was simply his “Indian rock.” For years, he kept it wrapped in a newspaper in his sock drawer at home, bringing it out occasionally for show-and-tell at school or to show colleagues at work.

Now 76 and in poor health, the longtime resident of Reynoldsburg in suburban Columbus finds himself in a bitter legal fight with the Ohio Historical Society. Earlier this year, he filed suit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

In an interview, Low said he lent the artifact to the historical society in 1971 for research and display; the society contends he gave it to the state, and so refuses to return it.

“I feel like I have done nothing wrong and they’re flat-out stealing,” Low said.

Historical society officials would not comment on the dispute. They deferred to a statement by attorneys that said, in part, that Low donated the tablet in 1971, a fact noted in two issues of Echoes, a society publication.

“Although Mr. Low has known since 1971 that the Society considered the tablet to be a gift, he did not inform the Society that he considered the transfer of the tablet a loan rather than a gift until December 2007,” the statement said.

“The Society has protected and preserved this valuable artifact since 1971. It is vigorously defending the suit filed by Mr. Low so that the people from Ohio, other states and other nations may continue to enjoy and appreciate the tablet.”

The saga began in May 1971 when Low, who had moved to Ohio, read a story in The Columbus Dispatch about Raymond Baby, then curator of archaeology at the society. Low subsequently took the tablet and went to see Baby. At Baby’s request, Low left the tablet with him for what was supposed to be a week to 10 days to research its origin.

Low didn’t hear from Baby for three months. When Baby finally called in September, he offered to buy the tablet. Low refused, but agreed to allow the society to keep it for public display for an indefinite period. In return, Low said, he was offered and accepted a lifetime membership in the society.

At no point, Low says, did he sign an agreement to sell or give the tablet to the historical society. He always considered it a loan.

“I never intended for them to keep it,” he said. “I told them it’s not for sale.”

Low said the artifact has great sentimental value for him, not only because he found it as a child, but also because he has American Indian ancestors who could be related to the ancient Adena people who made the carving.

Two years ago, Low decided he wanted to get the tablet back so he could donate it permanently it to the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History in Parkersburg, W.Va.

To his surprise, the society refused.

“We treat donations as permanent and not subject to changes in attitude on the part of the individual donors,” the late William K. Laidlaw Jr., executive director, said in an Oct. 6, 2008, letter to Low. “We have applied this principle in consideration of your request, and we are prepared to defend our title to the Adena tablet.”

More than a dozen similar tablets have been found in Ohio and contiguous states where the Woodland people lived. Historians don’t know exactly what they were used for, but it’s suspected they had ceremonial use. Low’s tablet is unique because it includes human faces interpreted to be shamans wearing costumes of raptorial birds.

In documents released as part of the court case, the society acknowledged that it has no records proving transfer of ownership. However, officials said at that time, many museums did not require written documentation of gifts.

Two letters turned up, dated Sept. 2, 1971, and Oct. 18, 1971, in which director Daniel R. Porter thanked Low for his “gift to the Society of the two Adena tablets which you so generously presented.” Neither letter was on society letterhead, and the September letter was not signed.

Low said he didn’t receive either letter.