ANDERSON, Ind. —
James Laswell was wading through White River and searching for scrap he could resell or reuse.
A scavenger for decades, he knew that collectors want old bottles and that metal can be shaped into yard ornaments.
On July 16, the river near Anderson was more shallow than normal due to the drought-like summer. The sun glistened across the water, enabling Laswell to see the mud just 2 feet under the surface.
“I’ve been over that spot year after year, but the water happened to be low enough that ... I could see the bottom,” said Laswell, 44.
He reached into the muck and pulled out an elongated tube.
“I thought it was a black powder pistol.”
About 10 inches long, the piece was stone with a small bowl attached. On closer look, one end was shaped like an animal head, a turtle perhaps. It resembled a smoking pipe.
Within a few hours, he was talking to a specialist who deals in ancient Indian pipes. Laswell offered to sell it for $125,000. The dealer didn’t buy the pipe, but he didn’t say the price was far-fetched.
Laswell, a self-employed carpenter, won’t say exactly where he was scavenging that day. But up river from his find is Mounds State Park, home to 10 earthworks believed to have been built by the Adena or Hopewell Indian cultures. The state park’s main feature, the Great Mound, was built around 160 B.C., experts say.
In the other direction, near County Road 800 West, there’s a former Indian burial ground.
Maybe Laswell’s find — appearing to be carved as an effigy to an animal — fell from an Adena canoe. Maybe it floated down river after a Hopewell ceremony. Laswell could only speculate on the pipe’s origins so he took to the Internet. An effigy pipe discovered in Kentucky with a more pronounced animal head and body was selling for $47,500. Yet, a stone effigy pipe from Missouri in the 1800s was going for $56 on eBay.
The prices varied so widely that Laswell’s best hope was to get his pipe authenticated.
He showed the pipe to Michele Greenan, director of archaeology at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, and Kevin Nolan, an archaeologist who works in the Department of Anthropology at Ball State University in Muncie.
“I just want an archaeologist to be able to tell me more about where it came from,” Laswell said.
Nolan said tests need to be conducted on the pipe to verify its authenticity. Nolan said he would help pursue a grant to conduct isotopic tests to confirm the age of the item.
Greenan isn’t in a position to quote a price but said she believes Laswell’s claim that he found the object.
“It may be that we can never fully validate it,” she said. “We want to try and keep going and take every avenue to validate this. It’s beautiful.”
She is quite familiar with effigy pipes. The first artifact ever recorded in the Indiana State Museum collection, in the 1800s, is an Indian wolf-headed pipe found in Kentucky.