APOPKA, Fla. — For nearly a decade, the mysterious stone women lay quietly in a bed of fallen leaves behind the Museum of the Apopkans.
They were not from here, it was clear. They did not belong here, it was clearer.
Unearthed in 2005 by a work crew digging up a broken water pipe on the grounds of the Highland Manor banquet and wedding venue, three of the unusual figures depict busty, topless women — some say Indonesian goddesses — adorned with jewelry and headdresses but toting earthen pots. Each weighs several hundred pounds.
A fourth is a large stone head.
“Maybe they’re some kind of glorified lawn art,” said Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer, citing one of the many casual explanations for the carvings.
Perhaps they are junk, perhaps they are art, thought Annie Belle Gilliam, the 93-year-old curator of the museum, a nonprofit repository for Apopka history. The carvings had been in her care ever since workers on the city crew dumped them in the museum’s backyard because they didn’t know where else to take them.
No one claimed or could explain them. They were mostly ignored.
Gilliam said she once had considered creating a small garden to feature the figures, some of which were in pieces. But she worried that a limb from one of the oaks might snap in a storm and fall and break the stone women worse than they are already broken.
“If they’re of no value, let’s get rid of them,” Gilliam finally said last month to museum volunteer Phyllis Olmstead. “But if they are, they don’t belong here.”
Olmstead, a former educator known as “Dr. O,” sought to solve the mystery by posting photographs of the figures on social-media sites and asking for help on the Internet. “Do you know about these objects,” she asked in a Facebook post. “Please contact us.” Olmstead scoured the Web for clues and suggestions.
A message from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement directed her to the Harn Museum of Art, which hosts a collection of African, American and Asian art and artifacts at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Olmstead sent photos to Allysa Peyton, an assistant curator at the museum.
“I saw enough in the photographs to make me curious,” Peyton said.
Olmstead explained that the Apopka museum was nonprofit and couldn’t afford to pay Peyton for her expertise. She came nonetheless.
Peyton immediately arrived at one conclusion:
These figures were not lawn art.
They are made of volcanic rock, and there aren’t any volcanoes in Apopka.
“Seeing these in person is extraordinary,” Peyton said.
The sculptures could be as many as 1,000 years old and likely originated in the Indonesian region of East Java, a small island between Malaysia and Australia, she said. The giant head, bearing an expression of contentment, may depict Bodhisattva, a being who has achieved nirvana but remains on Earth to help others attain enlightenment.
Peyton declined to estimate a value for the carvings.
But how did they ever get to Apopka?
“That’s the absolute biggest mystery,” she said. “Right now we’re putting together pieces of a puzzle.”
It also may never be solved.
Peyton said the Harn Museum posted photographs of the figures on lost-art registries and is probing stolen-art databases to ensure they were not swiped from a private collection many years ago.
In the meantime, the stone figures were carried from the Museum of the Apopkans to a city storage building where they were placed on pallets and locked up for safekeeping.
If proved authentic, unclaimed art, they will likely be donated to the Harn Museum for exhibition.
“I’m glad they’ll have found a home,” Olmstead said. — (AP)