Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Maya Panel Returned to Guatemala

In my thesis I outlined the factors that could lead to a successful repatriation through a detailed analysis of Guatemala's request for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to return the "November Collection".  I make it a point to monitor any other cultural property claims from Guatemala.

Late last month, Guatemala announced the repatriation of a panel from the Maya Classical (250-900 CE) site of La Corona located in the Peten region of Guatemala.

About the Panel

The panel depicts hieroglyphs in two columns indicative of Classical lithographs and codex style writing. It is about 20 inches tall. Guatemala first learned of this panel in 2001, when they learned it was in the hands of a private collector.  When the collector died it passed into an auction, in which Guatemala sought its return.
The "Unknown" Site
When the public became aware of this artifact, experts immediately know that it was looted from a site called "Site Q" based on the heiroglyphs.  Looted sawed this piece away from a larger structure in order to transport and sell (through a cursory inspection one can see saw marks around the edges).
Experts called the location "Site Q" because it was an unknown site which was depicted on many artifacts that came onto the art market in the 1960s and perplexed archaeologists for decades.
In 1997, Harvard archaeologists Ian Graham and David Stuart found evidence suggesting that a site called La Corona might be the infamous "Site Q". In 2005, archaeologist Marcello A. Canuto and 3 graduate students confirmed that "Site Q" is in fact La Corona, when they came across a limestone panel with glyphs matching those found on the artifacts on the market (Abram Katz, National Geographic 2005).
Issues Presented
Two issues present themselves  with the news of the repatriation to Guatemala: Looting and the Repatriation debate. These two issues do not have to coincide but they often do.
Let me first focus on looting.  Latin America, especially the Peten region in Guatemala suffered massive amounts of looting throughout the 1960s to 2000, with its height during the civil wars.  Objects from the Peten began appearing on the art market in high demand.  In 1985, Guatemala ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and in 1999 the country passed its own cultural patrimony laws which established penalties for looting.
I bring this up because it demonstrates how problematic looting was in Guatemala and how looting destroys valuable evidence and sites such as La Corona.  The looters dismantled structures and hacked walls in order to have more sellable objects.
Second, in regard to the repatriation of this object and the unsuccesful repatriation of the "November Collection", experts in this case knew exactly where the object came from and could determine that it originated within Guatemala.  This is impossible with the "Novemnber Collection" because they do not have a site location glyph let alone one from Guatemala.  Experts in the La Corona panel can also dtermine that the object was looted based on the saw marks and that many of the artifacts can fit back into their original structure like a puzzle piece.
In closing I would like to mention that in recent years countries have increasingly sought for the return of archaeological treasures citing cultural patrimony, and in the last decade, Guatemala recovered more than 10,500 antiquities from around the world (Latino News, November 30, 2013).  I suspect that in the next few years we will hear of more cases of repatriation.