Stolen antiquities: shadowy network of looters, dealers

International trade in ancient archaeological goods spans a world of ivy league halls and jungle adventures worthy of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The difference: In the underworld of looted antiquities, the bullets can be real.

A US Customs officer, was asked not to be named, called illicit trade in cultural treasures "a true international conspiracy," involving shadowy networks of looters, dealers, and collectors. He said that in the past year Customs has made two related seizures of allegedly stolen Peruvian antiquities worth more than $1 million. The seizures were said to be connected with the capture of a large artifact cache in Peru, which led to the arrest of seven Peruvians.

Customs is holding the artifacts pending an indictment decision in the fall.

But dealings in antiquities can have an honorable side, too. Upholding the high ethical standards of professional archaeology, Harvard University will officially return a collection of Mayan jars to Honduras on July 24.

Taken on loan from Honduras in the 1950s, the collection was studied, restored, and partly displayed at the Harvard's Peabody Museum. Hondurans had sporadically protested its continued presence in the US, according to Hewson Ryan, former US ambassador to Honduras, who helped start an investigation into the status of the cultural treasures several months ago. Harvard Prof. Gordon Willey helped supervise their return, and the United Fruit Company, a US firm with business interests in Honduras, provided necessary transport funds.

Ryan said papers containing the details of the loan had been filed and forgotten when the US Ambassador Whiting Willauer and his wife shipped the boxes of pottery shards and about one dozen intact vases to the Peabody with the permission of the Honduran government.

But the civility of this snafu contrasts sharply with the lawlessness of some "traders" -- and with the growing resentment in Latin American countries over loss of cultural treasures to profit-hungry thieves, often bankrolled from the United States.

In the ancient Mayan haunts of Central america, armed camps of looters, frequently trained in excavating techniques by legal archaeological expenditions , are systematically stripping ruins in remote jungles. They smuggle attractive treasures abroad for sale to collectors, mostly in the US. Bribes, bullets, and wilderness protect them as they slash and cut through sites that archaeologists consider irreplacable parts of the region's cultural heritage.

The Mayans built temples, pyramids, and cities which are the most extensive remains of ancient civilization in the Western Hemisphere. The August issue of National Geographic contains a description of one looted site in Guatemala, as well as an editorial decrying the rise in such crimes. lemency Coggins, chairman of the Committee on Professional Responsibility of the Archaeological Institute of America and a Harvard instructor, said these illicit excavations, aimed at obtaining salable pottery or monuments, obliterate the historical meaning of Mayan ruins.

Because looters often destrroy the site to get flashy pots or carvings, "we are losing the history," Mr. Coggins said. "Often such an object in a museum is only a pretty thing." Because of the way it was pirated away from its origin, the vital historical context is missing.

She described the effects of looting she saw at Mexican sites, where illicit digging collapsed ancient architecture and scrambled trash and artifacts.

Such theft is increasing, according to Coggins, partly because of lack of regulation by the governments concerned, partly because the world economic situation makes ancient treasures a good "hedge against inflation," as well as profitable tax write-offs for wealthy collectors. National Geographic estimates that at least a thousand ancient pots are leaving Guatemala illegally each month , and that illicit trade is "conservatively" in "the multimillion dollar range."

Not all the blame can be placed on the looters: Someone is buying the pieces, though perhaps often without realizing that they're stolen.

According to Coggins, a number of antiquities dealers and even some museums are thought to be knowingly buying and selling ill- gotten artifacts, but as in the narcotics trade, evidence and figures are difficult to obtain. Stripped sites and customs seizures tell the story.

The attitude of some field archaeologists and anthropologists had led to a certain apathy on restricting the trade, Coggins said, although she added that few professionals wished to see the looting continue.

A new emphasis on the remains of daily life in ancient times, rather than on higher levels of vanished civilizations has reduced the attention given to more complex and remote remains, Coggins said. This is turn has made looting easier.

"While they're fiddling, Rome is burning," was her characterization of archaeologists who unintentionally become lackadaisical about protecting sites and restricting illegal trade.

Coggins claims the rising antiquities crime wave threatens to dilute the academic discipline of archaeology itself.

Middlemen smuggle looted items, often disassembled or in fragments, to US dealers, who reassemble the artifacts -- but often in their own unique and inauthentic style.

Scholars, intentionally or not, study and write on the replicas.

the result: "A subspecies of Mayan archaeology dealing with restored objects of unknown genuineness," Coggins says.

What can be done about the situation? tougher professional ethics and stronger international law. Many archaeologists and foreign leaders say the US can take the lead on both counts.

"We felt it was necessary to take a stand," said Garth Bawden, assistant director of Harvard's Peabody Museum.

Harvard's strict guidelines on acquisition of both archaeological and art objects are considered a model by many museums. University experts carefully examine the legal titles of bequests to Harvard collections. but sometimes it's hard to draw the line on what should be returned and what should not. Mr. Bawden notes that Harvard accepts items that may originally have been obtained illegally as long as their current ownership is clear. and because of the laby- rinth-like trails of criminal "archaeologists," the origin of stolen objects may be lost, making them unreturnable.

Archaeologists like Coggins are now hoping for congressional action to put the heat on illegal importers of what international law calls "cultural property."

The present US Pre-Columbian law prohibits only the import of large monuments. Officials say the enactment of the law in 1972 helped shift the antiquities market to smaller pottery which archaeologists consider even more valuable to their work.

Sens. Spark Matsunaga (D) of Hawaii and Max Baucus (D) of Montana are sponsoring a bill to enforce the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization convention prohobiting illicit archaeological trade, which the US has signed. The current bill would enable the US to embargo artifacts on an "endangered species" list of archaeological goods.

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