Between 1912 and 1915, Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III excavated thousands of artefacts from Machu Picchu — an Inca site perched high in the Andes Mountains. They were taken back to Yale University in Connecticut for study under a decree of the Peruvian government, but for 100 years they remained in Yale (in the Peabody Museum in New Haven) where they were at the centre of a long-running international cultural property custody battle. Many of those objects have now been returned to Peru, the university is giving back thousands of ceramics, jewellery and human bones to the International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture.
Yale anthropology professor Richard Burger points out that "The Machu Picchu situation and dispute was really fundamentally different from other repatriation issues", unlike many art and artifact disputes, this one was not about stolen goods. Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, explained that "They were never allegedly taken in violation of patrimony laws, or clandestinely dug up [...] This was really much more of a contractual dispute". Peruvian officials contended that the materials were loaned to Yale for research.
After World War I, the university returned some of the artifacts, but argued that the school could keep the rest under the laws of the day. Over time, Peru's demands grew louder. Machu Picchu is an iconic place for the Peruvian people, and the idea of bones and artifacts from Peru being held in the U.S. took on a powerful symbolism. In 2008, Peru's government filed a lawsuit against Yale. Negotiations intensified, and a letter from Yale alumni urging their alma mater to return the artifacts helped move the process out of the courts. Peruvian historian Mariana Mould de Pease was happy to avoid the expensive legal route. She says Yale alumni played a key role in "getting this matter where it has to be — in the academic world." In November 2010, Peruvians held a demonstration in Lima demanding that Yale return the artifacts taken by Bingham.The dispute was finally resolved through two separate agreements. The first, between Yale and the Peruvian government, established that the university would return all of the objects by the end of 2012. The second established a partnership between Yale and the San Antonio Abad University in Cuzco to share stewardship of the collection. The schools will also collaborate on academic research. This agreement shifts the emphasis from the issue of the ownership of the objects to stewardship and preservation and research and exhibition.
As a result of the repatriation of the excavated material,
alongside the hundreds of thousands of tourists who pass through Cuzco each year to visit the terraced stone ruins of Machu Picchu, the citizens of Peru will be able to see the historic relics which many have never seen before.Diane Orson, 'Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts To Peru', NPR 18th Dec. 2011.
Photo: The ruins after excavation.