Peru's archaeological heritage homeward bound

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A CENTURY ago Hiram Bingham, an American explorer backed by Yale University, hacked his way across jungle-clad mountains and came across the ruins of the fabled Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, hitherto known only to local farmers. He later returned to excavate the site.

Cars are not the only interesting Peruvian relics He packed up some 46,000 exhibits, ranging from ceramics to metalwork and human bones, and shipped them back to Yale for analysis and display.

Their export had the permission of Peru’s president of the day, but was supposed to be temporary. Instead the exhibits have remained at Yale ever since, something which has recently irritated Peruvians.

Alan García, Peru’s president since 2006, has continued a campaign launched by his predecessor, Alejandro Toledo, to persuade the university to return the pieces.

With an eye to achieving this in time for the centenary next July of Bingham’s first expedition, Mr García recently led a protest march in Lima, Peru’s capital, and published a letter he sent to Barack Obama asking him to intercede in the case.

Yale has felt the pressure. This month it sent Ernesto Zedillo, a former Mexican president who heads a research centre at the university, to Peru to meet Mr García.

Mr Zedillo promised that the university would return the collection in stages over the next two years.

Mr García immediately made this verbal offer public, while giving credit to Yale for preserving the collection and preventing it from being scattered among private hands.

Under the agreement, which was confirmed by Yale a few days later, 370 of the best artefacts will be returned in time to be displayed during the centenary.

The collection’s new home will be at the main university in Cusco, the former Inca capital. The plan is that Yale will collaborate in setting up a research centre in Cusco for the rest of the material, to which its researchers will have access.

Most of the tens of thousands of artefacts are of interest only to specialist researchers. But the best of them will add a new attraction in a country where tourism is growing rapidly, with Machu Picchu as the main draw.

The agreement may also send a message to less honourable collectors around the world, who continue to buy and deal in illegally exported artefacts that form part of Peru’s rich, if often officially neglected, cultural heritage.


Source: The Economist [November 25, 2010]


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