90 years later, Peru battles Yale over Incan artifacts
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
The Incas built this mysterious city here, it is told, to be closer to the gods. It was placed so high in the clouds, at 7,700feet, that the empire- raiding Spaniards never found, or destroyed, it.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, visitors to Machu Picchu see well-preserved ruins hidden among the majestic Andes: complete with palaces, baths, temples, tombs, sundials, and agricultural terraces, and also llamas roaming among hundreds of gray granite houses.
But they won't find too many bowls, tools, ritual objects, or other artifacts used by the Incas of the late 1400s. To see those, they have to travel to New Haven, Conn.
Yale historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, and, backed by the National Geographic Society, returned with large expeditions in 1912 and 1915, each time carting out - with supposed special permission from Peruvian President Augusto B. Leguía - crates filled with archeological finds.
But now, Peru is threatening to sue the Ivy League school, claiming the permission was either given illegally or misunderstood. The "treasures of Machu Picchu," states David Ugarte, regional director of Peru's National Culture Institute (INC), were given to the American explorer "on loan."
Peru's tussle with the university is not a unique case. From the time Greece started demanding the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles in 1820, to last month, when Italy demanded that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art give them back objects including the Euphronios Krater, a 500 BC vase, countries of origin have steadily grown more assertive about retrieving their cultural heritage.
"This is our patrimony. This is everything to us - proof that even though today we are poor, our ancestors lived great and proud," explains Mr. Ugarte. "Bingham said he was going to study those pieces and give them back. It was clear to all they were to be returned."
Yale claims in a Dec. 8 letter to Peru that "the civil code of 1852, which was in effect at the time of the Bingham expeditions, gave Yale title to the artifacts at the time of their excavation and ever since."
Colin Renfrew, professor of archeology at Cambridge University in England, says the key to resolving the case hinges on the answer to "what was the deal between Bingham and Peru at the time?" But the answer to that, he admits, "is very murky."
Peru claims that numerous, documented requests to return the pieces - or even negotiate the issue - starting in 1917, were ignored by Yale. "They always wrote back with different excuses - first they said they needed more time to evaluate the pieces, then, in later years, said they were studying our requests for the return," says Ugarte. But, now, with the 100th anniversary of the city's rediscovery coming up, he says, Peru has had enough.
President Alejando Toledo, the country's first indigenous president, who is set to leave office in July 2006, has - together with his anthropologist wife - made the retrieval of the objects a priority.
"Peru has notified Yale University President Richard Levin that a lawsuit is being prepared if its rights to the archaeological pieces are not recognized," Peru's Foreign Minister Oscar Maurtua announced on Nov. 30. "We are convinced that we have sufficient proof to win in court." INC director Luis Guillermo Lumbreras has said the lawsuit would be filed in Connecticut state court in the next few months, but an international tribunal may make the final decision.