Archaeologists and the looting trade


Inside the museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in a small room with soothing blue-green walls, four glass cases enclose some of the most quarreled-over objects in archaeology today. They are Classic Maya ceramics--vases, bowls, and mugs for drinking cacao--decorated with startlingly intricate paintings and enigmatic hieroglyphs. One shows a corpulent priest-king dancing with a jaguar. The ecstatic lord is in mid-metamorphosis; his hands have turned into spotted jaguar paws. Another vase shows the mythical Hero Twins making an offering to the Lord of the Underworld inside a palace constructed out of huge hieroglyphs. Some of the pots are cream colored and inscribed with graceful script in dark outline--as if they were manuscripts transformed into crockery.

Last December, when MFA officials unveiled this glittering new collection, they were hoping to redress the venerable Brahmin institution's long-standing neglect of pre-Colombian art. But instead of receiving accolades for this gesture, the curators found their ethics under fierce attack. The accusation? Presenting the public with illegally obtained booty. QUESTIONABLE COLLECTION, blared The Boston Globe. Joining the fray, the Guatemalan government charged that the Maya artifacts had been illegally exported--and demanded their return. According to one Guatemalan official, the ceramics were "pages ripped out of the history book of our nation."

The museum fought back, haughtily declaring that its Maya collection had been legally obtained ten years ago from a trustee. But for many in the archaeology community, this claim was both depressingly familiar and woefully inadequate. Among scholars, it is widely acknowledged that any Maya artifact available for purchase by a collector has almost certainly been lootedthat is, stolen by bandits who rob graves and other ancient sites in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. These objects are then smuggled to the United States and Europe, where art dealers and auction houses hawk them to collectors at enormous markups. Eventually, these collectors may give them to museums (for a huge tax write-off), where they can at last be seen by scholars and the public.

As a discipline, archaeology is sharply divided over whether museums should display these treasures--and over whether anyone, including scholars, should even look at them. After all, it is contended that the display and study of pilfered artifacts may make scholars complicit in the deadly business of looting--and critics can point to a rising body count to back up such claims. "Well before the showrooms and the black velvet, there are criminal acts of vandalism," says Claire Lyons, vice president of professional responsibility for the Archaeological Institute of America. "These people aren't kidding around; they regularly engage in threats and physical violence. It's a sordid and distasteful trade. Scholars must not validate or fund it." The concerns about looted objects are scholarly as well as ethical. As beautiful as they are, artifacts of uncertain origin have little or no historical value, critics argue, and exhibits like the MFA's are mere monuments to vanity, spectacles short on intellectual substance. Lacking reliable knowledge of an object's history, scholars have few means of understanding how it functioned in an ancient society. Clemency Chase Coggins, a Boston University archaeologist, told the Globe that "every single object in the MFA's exhibit represents incalculable loss to our knowledge of the Maya."

Yet not all archaeologists see the situation so starkly. By taking the moral high road and refusing to study looted goods, are scholars sacrificing invaluable opportunities to further their research? What good does scholarly abstinence do, anyway? Some Maya specialists have decided to take a more pragmatic approach. Although he has helped the FBI track down looters, Harvard Mayanist Ian Graham insists that "it's ridiculous to close your eyes" to striking new evidence. After all, like it or not, remarkable new things are being wrested out of the soil every day. So scholars like Graham have decided to risk some colleagues' wrath--by simply daring to look.

IN CENTRAL AMERICA, no known ancient site has managed to escape the plague of looting. Until last spring, the buildings at Naranjo, the second-most-mentioned city in the whole Maya hieroglyphic record, were still intact, ready to be excavated by archaeologists. But before scholars could begin their work this season, every building had been ransacked; the site was virtually obliterated. The theft is getting more frequent--and bloodier--as looting operations increasingly overlap with the drug trade and the military. Last September, armed looters attacked the site of Yaxhá in the rough Petén region of northern Guatemala. They wrenched a massive stone stela, or freestanding inscribed monument, out of the ground, put it on a truck, and drove off; a site guard was later found murdered. Last fall, at the small site of Tziquin Tzakan near the Belizean border, a site guard was killed by bandits in the process of digging a trench into the main building.

In Guatemalan slang, looters are known as huecheros--a term derived from the Maya word for armadillo, huech, because the thieves claw into the dirt with their hands. And indeed, looting today remains primarily a low-tech affair, a matter of pickaxes and powersaws. The typical looter is a poverty-stricken local who, while no connoisseur, knows that any intact pot with hieroglyphs is well worth the time and risk involved in plundering it. The Maya looting business is now huge--$120 million a year and growing--but the looters themselves get the short end of the stick, realizing perhaps a few hundred dollars for each piece. That may seem like a lot to them, but the real fortunes are being made by more worldly sorts, as looting becomes a variety of organized crime. Many looting kingpins are former army officers, and lately marijuana growers have gotten involved, using the networks they have created for trafficking drugs to transport antiquities. (From pot to pots!) In the atmosphere of lax enforcement and bribery that prevails in Guatemala, it is relatively safe and easy for them to export their ill-gotten prizes. They can sell one ceramic Maya vase for $20,000 or $30,000 to a dealer in New York City or Brussels, who in turn can sell it to a collector for over $100,000.

WITH SUCH NEFARIOUS goings-on in Central America, it's no wonder many Mayanists are concerned. For Clemency Coggins, the problem is not merely academic. She confesses to "an almost physical revulsion" to looted ceramics. "What outrages me the most," she says, "is the criminality of ostensibly respectable dealers. They should all be put out of business."

While a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s, Coggins discovered that looted Maya artifacts were popping up in museums across the country. Concerned that there would be few Maya sites left to study if the traffic in stolen antiquities continued unabated, she wrote an article in Art Journal exposing the problem. "I was young and naive," she recalls. "I thought all one had to do was point this out to them. At that time, museums were still publishing lists of their acquisitions. They've since learned not to."

Her 1969 article became a sort of handbook on the subject, and she was asked by the American Society of International Law to serve on a committee whose task was to draft the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the illicit import and export of cultural property. That year, officials at the University of Pennsylvania's museum pledged to "purchase no more art objects or antiquities...unless the objects are accompanied by a pedigree." Other museums followed suit--but too often, the promise of the Pennsylvania Declaration has been honored in the breach. This January, it was reported that Harvard's Sackler Museum had recently acquired 182 Greek vases without documentation. Accordingly, Coggins has continued her often lonely campaign to shame dealers and get museums to change their accession policies. "The last ten years at BU," she says, "I've been sending my students to all the area museums to demand, as politely as possible, documents on whatever they're studying."

Coggins believes that her principles have exacted a professional toll. Without the slightest self-pity, she says: "In many ways it was professional suicide to do what I did. I've never had a museum appointment, and that's what I'm trained for; that's what I love. I haven't been able to work with the materials I want to study." Indeed, the logical outcome of the war against looted artifacts is self-deprivation, a kind of mortification of the spirit. Every so often, Coggins will view looted ceramics when she makes fact-finding expeditions to dealers--but she looks at them with a detective's eye, not a scholar's. "Each one is a little dead end of its own," she says regretfully. "It's not intellectually

honest to study them." Mayanists who draw inferences from decontextualized pottery, she says, are just kidding themselves, "creating a self-referential science. It has a life of its own, disconnected from any historical reality."

THE MAYA historical reality has been slow to reveal itself, largely because of the loss of the vast majority of Maya writings, and because of the sheer intransigence of the culture's script. We now know that the monuments of Classic Maya civilization were produced between about 250 and 900 a.d., and after that the Maya--for some yet unknown reason--deserted their cities in the jungle lowlands of what is now Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, and Belize. They moved to the highlands in the south and the upper Yucatán Peninsula in the north, where they no longer carved stone monuments but continued to practice their religion and write in hieroglyphs. This Postclassic Maya civilization, though politically weakened, continued to exist until the arrival in 1517 of the Spaniards, who burned as many books as they could get their hands on and conducted an extensive anti-literacy campaign to stamp out the Maya religion. But the Maya proved exceptionally tenacious--and simply took their culture underground. Not until 1697 was the last Maya kingdom subdued, and although the Indians adopted Roman Catholicism, they managed to retain many aspects of the old religion. Many still speak Mayan languages to this day. What they can no longer do, however, is read or write them--unless taught to do so by scholars, who themselves have only in the last twenty-five years been able to make much sense of hieroglyphic texts.

With so much irretrievably lost, it's no wonder Mayanists place such value on archaeological context. Clandestinely excavated objects lack what they call "provenience"; that is, a documented origin. Rudely ripped from the soil, looted artifacts are robbed of context and thus cast into a historical vacuum. In archaeology, context is crucial; such information gives archaeologists clues as to the date, ownership, use, and social significance of an object.

In her 1994 book, Painting the Maya Universe (Duke), Dorie Reents-Budet, a Mayanist who is the guest curator of the MFA exhibit, illustrates the importance of provenience by conducting a sort of thought experiment--examining a single artifact from two points of view. She considers the famous Buenavista Vase, discovered in 1988, and initially pretends that its origin is mysterious. What can the object alone tell us? First, we can see that the vase, depicting two triumphant young lords wearing elaborate helmets, is in a regional style called Holmul, distinguished by red and orange paint on a cream-colored background. Second, Reents-Budet notes, the hieroglyphs around the rim tell us that this is a mug for drinking cacao; also on the rim one finds the name of Lord K'ak'-Til, ruler of the city-state of Naranjo, in what is now Guatemala. Presumably, the vase was created for the lord's drinking pleasure.

Not bad, right? In fact, Reents-Budet reveals, we know exactly where the Buenavista Vase comes from. Instead of being found, as might be expected, in K'ak'-Til's tomb at Naranjo, the vase was dug out of a tomb on top of a pyramid at the smaller, less important site of Buenavista del Cayo, in Belize. Also in the tomb were the remains of an aristocratic adolescent boy. What happened here? Potsherds found in the pottery workshops at the site show a far less sophisticated style than that of the Buenavista Vase, indicating that it wasn't made there but brought from Naranjo. Accordingly, Reents-Budet infers that it was a gift from the lord of Naranjo to the lord of Buenavista, signifying the latter's acceptance of vassal status. The name of K'ak'-Til on the vase signifies not that it was for his personal use but that it was a symbol of his power, a chain to bind the possessor to him. In fact, writes Reents-Budet, since the monuments at Buenavista are too eroded to be read, "the Buenavista Vase is our only surviving documentation of the historical connections between these two sites."

The contextual information here undoubtedly enlarges the picture and corrects wrong impressions. Indeed, Reents-Budet holds that when an object is looted, 95 percent of the historical information it could give is lost. One Mayanist, John Henderson of Cornell, goes even further. "Looted pieces have no research value," he says, "only aesthetic value--and they don't have to be ancient to have that." In a similar spirit, Clemency Coggins blames the art-appreciation crowd for the problem. "There's an aesthetic-versus-cultural division here," she says. "One takes the short-term view--connoisseurship--and can't appreciate the broader view that sees the objects in historical context."


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