When Cheryl Thornhill moved to Greenwood a decade ago to become executive director of the Museum of the Mississippi Delta, one of the main lures attracting her was the L.B. Jones Collection, a massive, nationally regarded stockpile of mostly prehistoric artifacts entrusted to the museum.
Allegations of carelessness, though, in her stewardship of that collection and other archaeological collections in the museum’s possession have now prompted Thornhill to resign.
“I know some people may think I jumped the gun, but I just don’t think so,” she said Thursday, two days after submitting her resignation to the museum’s executive committee. On Friday, the museum’s board of directors accepted her decision to step down immediately.
Tim Stanciel, the president of the board, said it would release a written statement in coming days about the matter. In the meantime, the board will be seeking someone to serve as interim executive director while it conducts a search for a permanent replacement.
Thornhill submitted her resignation after photographs surfaced showing numerous stones, shells, potsherds and other Native American artifacts that she had dumped outside a back door of the museum. In one of the photos is what appears to be a human leg bone. She said she was unaware of any human remains in the artifacts she discarded in 2018.
Still, she suggested that her departure would help minimize any potential fallout for the museum.
“I care so much for the museum that I think it’s the best thing to do.”
Thornhill’s resignation has overshadowed another revelation that could be damaging to the museum: Artifacts, maybe thousands of them, are missing from the L.B. Jones Collection.
• • •
The saga of the missing and discarded artifacts begins in 2018, when the museum was preparing for its second major renovation in four years.
The first renovation, a $450,000 project completed in 2015, had resulted in a total face-lift of the facility’s lobby and main gallery, the renovation of the agricultural gallery as well as the addition of a community meeting room.
The second, a $125,000 endeavor, would include the creation of a Children’s Discovery Room and the renovation of the archaeological gallery, where the artifacts collected over decades by Jones, an amateur archaeologist who died in 1995, have been the main attraction throughout the museum’s history.
Thornhill had received much praise for modernizing the facility on U.S. 82 that once served as the headquarters for a petroleum distributor. Those improvements — as well as the rebranding of the museum formerly called Cottonlandia — were central to Thornhill’s efforts to broaden the museum’s appeal.
In order to prepare for the renovation of the archaeological gallery, the museum was faced with the task of relocating the L.B. Jones Collection — not just the hundreds of artifacts in the gallery’s display cases but thousands more in boxes and bags stored under them.
John Connaway, a veteran archaeologist from Clarksdale with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Anna Reginelli, an enthusiastic protégé from Shaw, volunteered to help organize the artifacts and put them into the museum’s on-site storage.
Thornhill estimates that some 700 hours in all were spent on the painstaking process.
During that time, Reginelli became aware of piles of artifacts that had been discarded by Thornhill into the museum’s lot outside one of its back doors. Reginelli took photos of the dumping, as did Bradley Carlock, an archaeologist with the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University.
In an email to Reginelli sent in January this year, Carlock recalled confirming firsthand in December 2018 the reports he had heard that the museum was “dumping artifacts out of the back door.
“When I went around back to look, sure enough, there were piles of artifacts covering the ground outside the back door,” he wrote.
Mixed among the potsherds and stones used as tools by Mississippi Indians were pieces of a mosasaur, a prehistoric reptile, as well as human remains, according to Reginelli. One photo Reginelli took, which Thornhill saw for the first time this past week, includes a bone that, according to Greenwood orthopedic surgeon Asa Bennett, has the appearance of a human femur, possibly an adolescent’s.
Reginelli said she picked up all the bones she could see, “at least all the large pieces,” boxed them up and brought them back inside the museum.
Carlock, who would come on the scene a couple of months later, said in an emailed response Friday that neither he nor the graduate student who accompanied him “believe we saw any human remains.”
Although Reginelli was stunned to discover the dumping, she said at the time she didn’t raise a fuss because she assumed the discarded artifacts were owned by the museum. Odds are most of them weren’t, since the vast majority of the archaeological objects at the museum are on loan to it.
Thornhill said she was “just cleaning up” around the museum and trying to free up storage space. She decided that several boxes and crates of artifacts could be discarded because they were “unprovenienced” — meaning that there was no information detailing from where the artifacts originated and, therefore, they were of little historical or archaeological value.
“I just feel like they weren’t important, and I had nowhere else to put them,” she said.
Reginelli, though, said it was the method of disposal that decreased the artifacts’ worth.
“It becomes unprovenienced when you dump the artifacts out of the box. Therefore they lose all their context when you mix them together. So you don’t know where they came from,” Reginelli said.
The dumping was “an egregious and unprecedented tragedy,” she said. “I’ve never heard of this ever happening.”
Whether any of the discards were part of the Jones collection is uncertain. What has been determined, though, is that parts of that collection are gone from the museum, and those working to get it all back are not optimistic that they will be totally successful.
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In early September last year, Dale Pillow, a Greenwood farmer, had gotten word that objects were missing from the L.B. Jones Collection.
Pillow, a distant cousin of Jones’ first wife, Carrie Avent, is one of three trustees who administer the archaeological collection, for which the Museum of the Mississippi Delta is the designated repository. Also named as trustees are Donnie Gayle Lay, a second cousin of L.B. Jones, and John Pittman, a retired Greenwood banker whose mother was a close friend of Jones’ second wife, Frances Simpson Jones. Frances Jones established the charitable trust in 1997.
After confirming the report was true, the trust hired Reginelli as curator to do a complete inventory to determine what is missing from the 30,000-plus collection of artifacts and where the objects — ranging from small stones to entire clay pots — might be.
That inventory is ongoing, and although the effort has effected the return of thousands of artifacts, there are still thousands missing, according to Reginelli.
Pittman, a former president of the museum’s board of directors, cautioned, however, that he has yet to see information from the curator to support those kinds of numbers. He said one list he has seen includes less than 50 whole pottery pieces as unaccounted for.
The trust only had a little more than $6,000 in it when it was established, and all of that has been eaten away over the years by tax-filing costs and other expenses, Pittman said. Reginelli is being paid a modest stipend, he said, out of another charitable trust he helps manage.
Thornhill said until she was notified by Reginelli and the trust, she was unaware that any artifacts were missing from the Jones collection. She said since an inventory had not been done at the time she was hired in 2009, she did not know whether the missing items were at the Greenwood museum when she came or whether their departure preceded her.
Pittman also solicited the help of Travis Clark in the recovery.
Clark, a former attorney in Greenwood who now spends his time as a beekeeper, has a family connection to the Jones collection. His mother and Carrie Avent were cousins and “close as sisters,” Clark said. When he was a young boy, Clark would accompany his parents and the Joneses on Sunday afternoon excursions looking for artifacts.
Clark said that Jones either conducted or financed at least 50 excavations during his life. The archaeologist’s finds from those digs, from ground surface examinations and from purchases he made had produced, by the time of his death, one of the greatest collections of artifacts in the South and, according to Clark, one of the top 20 collections in the nation. It spans from about 10,000 B.C. to 1750 A.D.
Late last year, Clark tracked down Bradley Carlock, the archaeologist from the Cobb Institute at Mississippi State who had come to the Greenwood museum after learning of the artifact dumping in 2018. With Thornhill’s permission, Carlock and a graduate student had loaded up and taken back to Starkville much of what they found discarded outside as well as several boxes full of artifacts from inside the museum that “had been shown to me as ready for disposal,” Carlock said.
“There was no formal transfer and no mention either way of loan or gift. My concern was to save the artifacts from disposal and doing what I considered to be the right thing as an archeologist by protecting the artifacts from harm or outright loss.”
At least some of those boxes, according to Clark and Reginelli, contained material from the L.B. Jones Collection. In December, Clark drove to Starkville and retrieved all that Carlock said he had taken from the Greenwood museum and put into storage. Clark said there were 20 boxes, each weighing about 40 pounds, some 600 to 700 artifacts in all. He said he saw no human remains among them.
That was not the only large haul from the Greenwood museum that Thornhill had authorized in 2018. She also gave an estimated 30 cubic feet of undisplayed material to John Underwood, then the chief archaeologist at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, to take back to Jackson for analysis.
She said in the rush to get ready for the archaeological gallery’s renovation, she did not bother to determine to which collection that material belonged.
“I didn’t know they belonged to L.B. Jones. ... We were so pressed for time, just so pressed for time,” Thornhill said. “In hindsight looking at it, we should have done better. I really should have.”
• • •
Thornhill is also being criticized for failing to do the paperwork on all objects loaned out from the museum or, in the case of the L.B. Jones Collection, to get the proper authorization for such loans.
There is no documentation on what Carlock and Underwood received, nor on French trade beads from the Jones collection that Thornhill loaned to John Connaway, the former Mississippi Department of Archives and History archaeologist who was based in Clarksdale.
According to Underwood’s former bosses at MDAH, accepting the material from the Greenwood museum without completing detailed documentation violated record-keeping policies the state agency had established in recent years to keep better track of which objects belonged to it and which belonged to someone else.
“The fact that we had collections moving to and from Archives and History without careful adherence to our protocols was one of the reasons that we reorganized the management of our collections,” said Katie Blount, director of MDAH.
None of these transfers followed the stipulations of the L.B. Jones Collection trust agreement either. Nor did at least two other loans — one in 2015 to the University of Mississippi and another in 2016 to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Washington County.
According to the trust, artifacts can only be separated from the collection for archaeological study, and such loans must be approved in advance by the trustees and the director of the Cobb Institute at Mississippi State.
In 2017, Thornhill followed that protocol in loaning four pots to the Mississippi Museum of Art. As to why she didn’t follow the rules before or since, she blamed it somewhat on a lack of familiarity with the trust document.
“I read that trust agreement 10 years ago when I came, and I didn’t revisit it.”
She also said that it had been difficult to juggle her duties as a museum administrator and manage the collections.
“Museums, no matter what size they are, they need to have collections managers there to take care of things.”
The missing artifacts and the missing documentation are causing Dale Pillow, one of the trustees, to second-guess the faith he had previously placed in the museum’s diligence.
“I feel like as far as being a trustee of the collection, I did not do what I should have done for years because I always felt like the museum was taking care of everything. I didn’t have any reason not to believe that it was being taken care of.”
• • •
In an effort to recover the missing artifacts, Anna Reginelli, the trust’s curator, has made two trips to the Department of Archives and History in Jackson, where she picked up several boxes of them.
There is more still to be gotten, including the materials given to John Underwood as well as whatever was in John Connaway’s possession when MDAH closed down his Clarksdale office in early 2019, shortly following the archaeologist’s retirement after 50 years on the job.
The artifacts’ return to Greenwood, though, may not happen anytime soon.
MDAH officials say they are swamped with consolidating and documenting all of the archaeological material the agency has collected over the past century into one state-of-the-art storage facility in Jackson.
“These artifacts have come to us from thousands of different sources, from our own excavations, from other researchers, from donors,” Blount said. “The rigor with which we keep our collections records now has not always been in place. We are trying to bring all of these various collections up to our current standards of record keeping and care and storage, but it’s a long and involved process.”
Further complicating the process is MDAH’s primary focus on being in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Enacted in 1990, the law requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American human remains and burial items over which the institutions have legal control to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
Blount said MDAH has been advised by the Attorney General’s Office to vet not just the artifacts in its own collection but any in its possession, including those that are privately owned, such as the Jones collection.
Meg Cook, the director of archaeology collections at MDAH, said she believes there is at least one set of human remains from the Jones collection that the state will keep so that the bones can be repatriated for reburial.
At the same time, the L.B. Jones trust and others will continue to look elsewhere for what’s missing, while worrying how the publicizing of the disappearance of the artifacts might negatively impact the museum to which Jones himself was so devoted.
“We hope that this does not hurt the museum in any way. It’s kind of hard not to, though,” said Pillow.
“When people see this and know it’s fact, would you want to give stuff to the museum, not knowing whether they’re going to keep up with it or not?”
• • •
Thornhill is not sure of her next step.
Her husband, Kyle, an advertising sales representative at the Commonwealth, is scheduled to retire at the end of March. She said the couple will be relocating, maybe to a coastal community.
She said she leaves the Greenwood museum with both regrets and fond memories.
“The decisions that I made about getting rid of the artifacts or moving them to other places and not following the Jones trust were a mistake, and I deeply regret it.”
She said she might have done things differently if anyone — including the archaeologists with whom she interacted — had raised objections earlier.
Leading the museum for the past decade has been one of the major professional highlights of her life, she said.
“I want people to know how much I have enjoyed and what a privilege it has been to work at the museum. It’s a fabulous institution with wonderful volunteers and board. It was one of the great pleasures in my life to be here in Greenwood.”
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.