Recovering lost treasures

Practice of returning looted artefacts

Published on 12 March 2012

Author(s): The Justice/Selene Campion

Type:  Feature

Prof. Golden identifies authentic smuggled Guatemalan artifacts

Prof. Charles Golden (ANTH) knew from a young age that archaeology was his calling. "I never wanted to do anything else, really, and it mainly had to do with the fact that I was terrified of mummies as a kid." He has come a long way from his childhood fear. After completing his Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania in 2003, he decided to travel to Egypt. His plans were crushed, however, when he realized the exorbitant price of the plane ticket. Instead, he decided on the cheaper destination for young, eager archeologists: Belize. Today, his focus remains on Mesoamerica, and in addition to teaching at Brandeis, he often travels to Central America to conduct archaeological research.

One of his recent projects is concerned with allegedly smuggled Guatemalan artifacts. Golden is part of the process that safely returned Mesoamerican artifacts to their home country. The artifacts, a set of pots, arrived in Houston in 2011. They reappeared several months later at the Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers auction house in Boston, where they were put up for auction and added to an online catalogue. A Guatemalan official saw the pieces online and, after evaluating their history and individual pottery styles, identified them as potentially smuggled. He alerted the United States State Department, which gave Golden's name to the U.S. which eventually contacted him for assistance with returning the pots to their country of origin.

Prof. Golden excavates and searches tight spaces and caves in Chiapas, Mexico..jpg
Prof. Golden excavates and searches tight spaces and caves in Chiapas, Mexico. (Courtesy of Charles Golden)

Golden viewed the four pots and analyzed the shape, texture and design in order to decipher if the objects were indeed ancient artifacts. Secondly, he had to identify their origins and declare whether they were made in Guatemala. "I looked at four objects and was only able to securely identify two of them as being both authentic and from Guatemala. There was another piece that was maybe real and maybe truly ancient, but I couldn't say for sure whether it was from Guatemala, and that's a big part of the puzzle," Golden said in an interview with the Justice.

Further chemical testing was undergone to prove their Guatemalan origin and confirm the year they were made. "Lots of stuff gets stolen, lots of stuff gets imported into the United States, but you have to prove not only that it is stolen but what country it is from," he said.

Both the United States and Guatemalan governments have taken measures to combat the illegal trade of artifacts. They have agreed to a bilateral treaty that states the intention to return the stolen objects to their respective countries. However, the process involves a great deal of paperwork and extensive court hearings. "Everything's in place that we need to do to prevent the illegal transportation of these objects, but the actual enforcement of those legal frameworks is pretty complicated," Golden explained in an interview with the Justice.

The process of returning artifacts to Guatemala is long, complex and tedious. "One of the biggest impediments to getting stuff back from the country it was stolen from is proving it. You have to prove that the materials are here illegally, you have to prove that there is this chain of ownership that is wrong, that is illegal and illicit and that just takes a long time, like any other criminal case," Golden said. As an expert relied upon for determining the objects' origin location and dates, Golden was an integral step in the process.

Prof. Goldens team uses a sieve to separate artifacts from dirt in Tecolote..jpg
Prof. Golden’s team uses a sieve to separate artifacts from dirt in Tecolote. (Courtesy of Charles Golden)

The smuggling of these artifacts is "a huge, multinational business. It is just like drug-trafficking and even moves sometimes through the same people and through the same routes, but it is very hard to prove. You can look at it, you can say I think that's here illegally, but you cannot do anything about it," Golden said. "It requires resources: people resources and money resources. On the part of the country asking for the items back and on the part of the US customs enforcement."

Some may look at illegal artifact smuggling as insignificant compared to drug trafficking and other dangerous trades. Golden believes otherwise, however, as "the people who are in favor of collecting antiquities tend to look at the pot and say, ‘It's just one pot'; some of them are no bigger than coffee mugs. But to get the coffee mug, or to get that ancient pot, you might destroy a whole pyramid. We see this all the time."

According to Golden, the illegal trade has proved detrimental to Guatemalan and other Mesoamerican cultures and monuments. Throughout his extensive travels, Golden has witnessed archaeological sites completely decimated by smugglers. Not only does the smuggling business impede cultural preservation, the leaders of the smuggling trade often cheat the people employed to unearth artifacts, who are generally paid minimal wages. The smugglers can sell one pot for thousands of dollars, so they are "actually selling money out of the mouths of people in these countries," according to Golden.

Due to the lucrative nature of the business, there are few archaeological sites in Central America that remain completely intact. Looting is rampant among the ancient pyramids and many times the sites are so destroyed that only the four corners of the pyramid are left unharmed.

While the process of returning artifacts may appear to be futile, it is crucial to the protection of Mesoamerican culture that Golden and other archaeologists work to preserve. Without legal frameworks such as the United States' bilateral treaties, it would prove nearly impossible to bring artifact smugglers to justice. With Golden's abilities, the United States repatriated the stolen objects to Guatemala in February 2012. Golden sees his work as important to preserving the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica through archaeological sites.

Golden believes in the importance of recovering artifacts and ancient ruins. "If properly maintained [pyramids] could become a tourist attraction, it could become a piece of national heritage. But if it's destroyed, it's nothing," he said.

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