ORONO, Maine — It’s an orange and black pot that stands about 5½ inches tall and is about 4 inches in diameter. It’s hidden away in the carefully climate-controlled storage areas in the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum among more than 8,000 other tribal artifacts from across the Americas.
But this pot contains the centuries-old cremated remains of a member of the Hohokam people of the Southwest — and it’s going home after spending nearly three-quarters of a century in Maine.
Sometime between 1929 and 1937, an inn owner in Coolidge, Ariz., obtained the ceramic pot, according to a history of the burial vessel published in the Sept. 13 Federal Register.
The inn owner kept the pot in a private collection before giving it to William C. Wells of Orono in 1937, according to museum records. Wells later donated the artifact to the University of Maine.
The burial vessel — which anthropologists believe came from a ruins complex that is between 800 and 1,200 years old — was donated in the early 1960s to the University of Maine’s first anthropology museum. Richard Emerick, UMaine’s first anthropologist, ran the museum at the time. University records don’t indicate exactly when the object was added to its collection.
In 1986, the museum moved to the Maine Center for the Arts — now the Collins Center for the Arts — and the pot has been preserved in Orono ever since. Less than 10 percent of the museum’s collection is on display at any one time. The rest is kept in carefully controlled storage rooms in the building.
The Hudson Museum publishes much of its inventory online, according to Daniel Sandweiss, a UMaine anthropology professor and the museum’s chief cooperating curator.
Earlier this year, officials from the Gila River Indian Community, on behalf of several Arizona tribes, stumbled across the item in the inventory and claimed they had a cultural link with the remains and asked that they be returned to Arizona.
“It wasn’t brought to Maine or given to us with any bad intentions,” Sandweiss said.
After investigating the tribes’ claim and finding that the pot was consistent with the style, design and burial practices of the tribes’ Hohokam ancestors, the university has agreed to return the pot to Arizona, Sandweiss said.
“It’s just the legally and morally right thing to do,” he said.
According to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums and federal agencies are required to return human remains and funerary or sacred objects to tribes that can prove they are lineal descendants of the original culture.
Given the nature of the pot and its contents, it was never on display in the museum, according to Hudson Museum Director Gretchen Faulkner. Museum officials said they could not allow pictures of the burial vessel.
“We’re very respectful of objects like these, and [this vessel] isn’t even normally handled by staff,” Faulkner said.
Tribal representatives are planning to travel to Maine next summer to pick up the burial pot and take it back to Arizona, but those plans are in the very early stages, according to Sandweiss.
Sandweiss said losing an artifact from the museum’s inventory of more than 8,000 items in order to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a small price to pay for good will between the museum and tribes.
“It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last,” Sandweiss said, adding that the museum is happy to work with the tribes to get the object back to the region it left in the 1930s.
The tribes and groups that proved their Hohokam affiliation in attempts to bring the cremation vessel back to the Southwest were the Ak Chin Indian Community of the Maricopa Indian Reservation, the Gila River Indian Community of the Gila River Indian Reservation, the Hopi Tribe, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community of the Salt River Reservation, the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Zuni Tribe of New Mexico.
Gila River Indian Community tribal historians did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.