Archaeologists and the looting trade

WHAT UPSTANDING archaeologist could argue otherwise? In fact, numerous Mayanists believe that there are great scholarly rewards to be had from studying looted objects and wouldn't think of refusing to work on one. Their interests tend to be art historical or linguistic; looted pots are of use to them because they are more concerned with iconography or decoding a language than with reconstructing patterns of social life, as field archaeologists are.

The undisputed champion decoder today is David Stuart of Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Now a mere thirty-three years old, his career as an epigrapher started at age eight, when he began accompanying his Mayanist father, George, on digs. Stuart, who was artistically inclined, began sketching what he saw on stone monuments, and thus, as he puts it, "Maya glyphs were imprinted on my growing brain cells." Like Jean-François Champollion, who cracked the code of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Stuart was destined both by nature and by nurture for his mission as a decipherer. Not only does he have tremendous linguistic facility and a photographic memory, he is the only Mayanist to have learned his trade as a child.

"I work with looted objects routinely in my research," says Stuart. "I have no qualms about using material if it's going to be scientifically useful. If I'm looking for a glyph--say, the glyph for `cave'--I'm going to look for as many examples as I can get." (Maya epigraphers like to see glyphs in as many contexts as possible; the script is highly varied, and one glyph may be drawn in quite different ways by different scribes.) On the context issue, Stuart's views are clear-cut: "So-called dirt archaeologists do things like survey sites and study settlement patterns and ceramic chronology; they tend to see objects taken out of context as useless. They're not aware of the intrinsic usefulness of visual material because they haven't been trained that way. There are different subcultures in the discipline, and that's where a lot of the intellectual debate comes in."

To be fair, Stuart admits to having certain reservations. "Say a vessel has recently been on the art market, and it's important for its mythological or historical scenes," he proposes. "There's this temptation to say, `Hey, great! I'll put it in my next paper.' The catch is, once you publish an object, it gets a certain reputation, and that contributes to the price of the object. I don't want to influence pricing. It's a dilemma." Of course, when prices increase, so does lootingand so does the amount of blood spilled in the process. Clean hands thus become impossible even for the purest-hearted scholar.

ON THE HORNS of these dilemmas, David Stuart seems resigned. But Michael Coe, now a professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale and an elder statesman of Mayanism, is downright pugnacious. He refers to anti-looting activists like Clemency Coggins as having a puritanical "Mrs. Grundy attitude." He is equally scornful of "dirt archaeologists who are happier with chip-stone tools than with art, which they have no interest in." He likes to tell the story of an archaeologist who said that he would rather see looted objects "ground up into powder" than studied. The way Coe sees it, looting is virtually a nonissue for scholars--a perennial activity that will go on with or without them. Author of Breaking the Maya Code (Thames and Hudson, 1992) and co-author of the new Art of the Maya Scribe (Abrams), Coe would rather focus on the insights to be had by simply looking at pots, context be damned. "If you have the Rosetta Stone, provenience doesn't matter! It's content!" he thunders. "Sure, it would be nice to know where the Maya vases I study came from, but now we can often know that from reading the glyphs."

Coe has never actually done fieldwork on the Maya. He prefers what he calls "armchair archaeology": namely, interpreting the objects retrieved by dirt archaeologists. "Anyone can go and dig," he says. "I like making sense of what people have dug up." Then again, some of Coe's critics say that his stay-at-home methods may also be a result of the resentment he's inspired in Latin America. Recently, the Mexican government, incensed at him for criticizing their excavation policies in Breaking the Maya Code, issued what he calls a "fatwa" against him, banning him from publishing articles there. "I'm the Salman Rushdie of Mayanists!" he chortles. Coe has also alienated many of his U.S. colleagues, who find his attitude toward looting both cavalier and offensive.

The advantages and disadvantages of Coe's approach were displayed at the controversial exhibit that he mounted in 1971 at New York City's Grolier Club, a haven for book collectors. Titled "The Maya Scribe and His World," the show presented an impressive collection of hieroglyphic ceramics from the Classic period. Coe convincingly argued that the iconography of many of the ancient pots represented scenes from myths later recorded in the Popol Vuh, the sixteenth-century religious text of the highland Quiché Maya. Coe's exhibit dramatically underscored the continuity of Maya thought over time. Not only that, these ceramics significantly enlarged our understanding of the Popol Vuh itself, which is believed to be a fragment of a greater myth cycle. Some of the underworld scenes on the Grolier pots appear to illustrate lost episodes from this original story.

Of course, to arrive at such revelations, Coe had to consort with private collectors and dealers. Rather than vet artifacts for provenience, the Yale professor blithely threw together the best stuff he could get his hands on. "I approached collectors and dealers I knew around New York," Coe recalls, "and they were very generous." While most Mayanists frown on private collectors, Coe welcomes them, encouraging them to make what he calls a "contribution to the field."

Coe's 1971 exhibit also included a spectacular codex, or illustrated manuscript--one of only four that survived the Spanish autos-da-fé, and the only one discovered in the twentieth century. The Grolier Codex, a fragment of an almanac tracking the rising and setting of Venus (Venus figures as a malevolent celestial body in Maya mythology), attracted more notoriety than any other object in the exhibit. For years, it was denounced as a forgery--the find seemed suspiciously momentous--but carbon dating has shown that its pages are from about 1230, just right for its stylistic period. It is now generally accepted as genuine. Even so, the codex came to light under the shadiest of circumstances: In 1966, Dr. Josué Saenz, a wealthy Mexican collector, received a series of anonymous phone calls saying that "good news" awaited him if he would just take the next flight to Villahermosa, in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. He promptly did so and was met at the airport by two men who took him on board a Cessna. Although they covered the small plane's compass with a piece of cloth, Saenz could tell that they were flying in the general direction of the Chiapas highlands, an area near Guatemala with a large Maya population. When Saenz and his escorts landed on a crude airstrip in the middle of the jungle, a party of peasants approached carrying various objects--including the codex--which they claimed to have discovered sealed inside a wooden box in a nearby cave. Saenz bought the codex and flew it back to Mexico City. Coe heard about it and headed down to Mexico, persuading Dr. Saenz to lend the priceless book to the Grolier Club.

Because it's a book--and a decipherable one--the codex has tremendous value despite its lack of provenience. Even so, that cave in Chiapas tantalizes. Was the codex placed there recently, or could it have been hidden there during the Spanish Conquest? Unfortunately, since the location of the cave itself is lost, and there are thousands of dry caves in the area, we will likely never know the codex's true history.

Nevertheless, Coe feels good about his Maya exhibit. "Putting together that show was an eye-opener for me," he says. "I'd never seen so many pots together in one place. I began to see patterns." He explains that the pots' connection with the Popol Vuh occurred to him only after observing certain motifs, like the mythical Hero Twins, over and over again. "It was like a blowout at an archaeological site, when a big wind comes and concentrates the artifacts in one spot," he enthuses. "It was a critical mass of stuff, and it never would have happened if I hadn't had the cooperation of collectors and dealers."

COE OBVIOUSLY relishes the game of épater les bourgeois; but other scholars and curators who work with looted goods are more troubled by their flirtations with the antiquities trade. Although Dorie Reents-Budet, the MFA guest curator, features unprovenienced material in the Maya exhibit, she has her scruples. For her, the ethical boundary line was drawn in 1983, the year the United States bound itself by federal law to honor the UNESCO Convention, which stipulates that participating nations only import cultural properties that were legally exported. "For me, 1983 provides a reasonable framework," she says. "One reason I agreed to do this project is that the MFA agreed to abide by the 1983 law. They've refused many gifts in the last five or ten years because the owners didn't prove when they got them." Similarly, Reents-Budet has refused to publish articles on objects where there is some uncertainty about the import date. "There was a ceramic vessel from Río Azul with a fine hieroglyphic text," she recalls somewhat wistfully. "It might have come in in 1982 or 1983, but it was too damn close. It was hot, and I wasn't going to touch it."

Of course, scrutinizing Maya antiquities for exact import dates is far from easy. Rarely, if ever, do they leave Central America accompanied by proper paperwork. Consider the MFA's holdings. They are actually part of a larger group of artifacts known in the art world as the November Collection. This hoard of about 150 ceramics was assembled in Florida--most likely during the 1970s--by one John B. Fulling, the head of a curious entity called the November Corporation. In the early 1980s, November Collection wares were shown around the country in such diverse venues as the University of Virginia and Disney's EPCOT Center. Not long after, most of the collection was acquired by Landon T. Clay, the MFA trustee, who stored his acquisition in the basement of the museum for several years before officially donating it, in 1988. Back in 1981 and 1982, many of these items appeared in two books by Francis Robicsek, an eccentric North Carolina cardiologist and collector whose interest in the Maya is rumored to have been piqued when he heard of their practice of open-heart human sacrifice. (Michael Coe contributed a foreword to one volume.) So these artifacts have a documented history in the United States prior to the 1983 witching hour.

But wait. Guatemala has had laws against the export of artifacts without a permit since 1947, and no one in the field thinks it even remotely possible that the November objects came in before then. So the collection, even if imported legally, was clearly exported illegally. While the MFA probably broke no law, the ethical problems cannot be so easily banished.

In a glossy MFA brochure accompanying the exhibit, the museum delicately handles the question of provenience. "All of the objects in this gallery," begins one section, "came into this country prior to the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.... It is hoped that laws such as these, along with the continued education of the public, will bring to an end the looting by which objects continue to appear on the international art market, stripped of the stories they could tell."

PERHAPS NO ONE has more stories to tell about looting than Ian Graham, the director of the Maya Corpus Program at Harvard's Peabody Museum. (He works closely there with David Stuart.) At seventy-four, Graham has lived through thirty-eight years of mostly solitary work in the jungles of Central America, transcribing as many hieroglyphic texts as possible onto paper. The project's ultimate goal is to record and publish every stone carving that includes hieroglyphs. Creating such a corpus has itself been an act of defiance against looters, who were breaking apart and selling off the written record of the Maya at the very same time that Graham was trying to save it. He has also been monitoring the whereabouts of looted sculpture as it turns up in private collections and museums around the world; he's even taken on thieves and dealers directly, conducting his own investigations and alerting police and the FBI to their operations. In one case, his testimony resulted in two convictions in U.S. federal court.

But Graham hasn't won every battle. In 1971, he and his Guatemalan guides were attacked and fired upon by a ragtag band of looters at the site of La Naya in the Petén. One of the guides was shot and died in Graham's arms.

"The first time I came across looting myself was in 1962," Graham recalls. "I went to Dos Pilas in Guatemala but was beaten to it, unfortunately, by a Russian." Graham initially believed the charming foreigner to be a legitimate archaeologist, but he was soon disillusioned: "When I went back two years later, I got to a stela and jacked it up and found that the top two rows of hieroglyphs had been neatly sawed off. Well, I eventually found out where the glyphs were. They belonged to an importer of whiskey living on upper Fifth Avenue, so I called the guy, and he was agreeable to my visiting them. I saw how much he appreciated the pieces because he'd had marble stands made for them, and custom-made verticals of wrought iron, and clips to hold these things, and they were in the place of honor by his fireplace." The panels were upside down.

Graham tells these kinds of stories with a smile now, but the truth is that looters inspire in him tremendous indignation. As for the collectors, he finds them contemptible, not just because of their ignorance and bad taste but because of the damage they do. Many times, he has had to resort to piecing together composite pictures of monuments that fell prey to looters' saws. Half of a stela may be standing in place at its site, while the other half, sawed off and smuggled, may be thousands of miles away. Recognizing that they form one object can hard enough, but reuniting the pieces physically may be even harder. In the Cleveland Museum of Art there is an important stela, from El Perú in Guatemala, that is missing its base. In the 1970s, as a result of an FBI investigation that he helped launch, Graham was shown photographs of the missing piece, which was in the living room of a major airline executive in San Diego. Graham telephoned the executive, asking to get more detailed photographs. He was flatly rebuffed.

Graham doesn't particularly relish the role of anti-looting crusader. In fact, he confesses, "I think I would rather try to lose some of my notoriety as a campaigner in this field, because it does prevent me from gaining entrance to certain things." Graham's main concern is scholarly access--although he won't go as far as Michael Coe does to get it: "People like Coe are so impatient for scrumptious data that they're blinkered to the damage that is done." Still, he says, the idea of refusing to look at an object because it was looted is absurd. "However much I despise the trade in pottery and stelae, from the decipherment point of view there's an enormous value to be got from a text, even if you have no idea where it comes from."

Scholars who anguish over every object, Graham suggests, can sometimes get out of hand. In 1986, Graham was asked to help develop an issue of National Geographic devoted to the excavation at Río Azul in Guatemala. Richard Adams, the head of the excavation--and a hard-core purist on the provenience issue--became extremely upset when he found out that the magazine wanted to use a photo of a striking jade mask for the cover. The mask belonged to a private collector--and Adams didn't want the public ever to see this tainted object. A compromise was reached, says Graham: "They showed a watercolor version instead." The distinction has a rather Talmudic subtlety, because the artist did such a fine job that it takes a careful look to notice that it is, in fact, a painting. Ironically, a photograph of the mask had already appeared two years earlier in the catalog of Edward Merrin, a prominent New York dealer. In the end, connoisseurs got to see the real thing, the public a mere rendering.

Such absurdities make Graham's pragmatism seem refreshing by comparison. Archaeologists are scholars, not politicians. Why deny yourself key information to protest a criminal system as vast as the antiquities trade?

EVEN SO, THE UGLY methods of the looting business can't give anyone in academia much comfort. Consider an event that recently took place in Carmelita, a rural town that has become a base of operations for looters in Guatemala. Carlos Catalán, a sometime chiclero, jaguar hunter, and expert looter, had been thrown in jail for his crimes in 1994. During his incarceration, Catalán became interested in ecology and in his Indian heritage; he began to study history and archaeology with passion. It was a conversion experience: He suddenly saw the objects that he had previously stolen as full of history and fascination. Upon his release, he began working with eco-tourism groups and archaeologists, became a vocal opponent of looting, and aided police in their efforts to track down its perpetrators. In 1996 he helped guide scientists and members of a group called Conservation International to a previously unknown site, now named La Corona.

Although looters had beat them to it, La Corona still had secrets to reveal. Last May, on a stela there, David Stuart discovered the name of a ruler that is mentioned in only one other place--on a carved tablet, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, that was looted from a mysterious place known as "Site Q." This site has not yet been found; archaeologists know of it only from shattered fragments of stelae in various museums. The fragments have in common a curious snake-head emblem glyph, which, when deciphered, will probably yield the name of the site. Although Catalán did not lead scholars to Site Q itself, Graham believes he brought them very close.

The search goes on, but Catalán will not be part of it. Just weeks after Stuart and Graham's visit, he was gunned down in the streets of Carmelita by a looter.

John Dorfman is on the staff of The New Yorker. He has written for Archaeology and other publications.


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