Posts tagged: pre-Columbian

Returned ancient artifacts go on display in Costa Rica

Who owns a country’s ancient cultural heritage? It used to be a kind of finders keepers situation, with university-sponsored archeologists and grave robbers alike spiriting away priceless artifacts.  Although that’s much less common these days, centuries of looting, both legal and otherwise, have yet to be fully redressed.

But all over the world, artifacts are finding their way home.

In Costa Rica, for example, thousands of pre-Columbian artifacts shipped out of the country between 1871 and 1929 are finally being returned.

Starting October 20, a selection of these artifacts—which had been gathering dust in the back rooms of the Brooklyn Museum—will be displayed in Costa Rica for the first time, in San José, at the National Museum. The exhibit lasts six weeks.

The artifacts are among thousands of pieces shipped out of Costa Rica by Brooklyn-born railroad magnate and banana exporter Minor Keith, who helped create the railroad (no longer in operation) between San José and Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, and who was instrumental in bringing large-scale banana cultivation to a country that would later be lampooned as a banana republic.

Keith acquired the artifacts before widespread plundering led to a 1938 Costa Rican law that made all discovered artifacts property of the state.

Thousands of artifacts will eventually find their way from Brooklyn back to Costa Rica. The first of three batches arrived in September, consisting of 983 pieces, some more than 4,500 years old. The other two shipments have not yet been scheduled.

One of the valuable pre-Columbian artifacts that the Brooklyn Museum will not be returning to Costa Rica

Ceramic pots, stone sculptures, and figurines are among the artifacts of the Keith collection being returned to their place of origin. Costa Rica didn’t ask for these artifacts to be returned; the Brooklyn Museum was cleaning house, trying to trim from its collection pieces that were not “museum quality.” In fact most of the pieces being returned to Costa Rica were never displayed in Brooklyn. The museum will keep about ten percent of the Keith collection, including valuable jade and gold pieces.

Costa Rica had to come up with $59,000 for shipping the artifacts home; eventually, the National Insurance Institute stepped up to fund the repatriation.

The Tico Times reported that Nancy Rosoff, the Brooklyn Museum’s Americas curator, said she tried to contact Costa Rica’s National Museum years ago, offering up the artifacts, but never heard back. More recent efforts did garner a response, and the return of the artifacts was set in motion.

In La Nacion, archeologists Ricardo Vázquez  and Marlin Calvo were quoted as saying that while the returned artifacts come from various epochs and parts of the country, two-thirds were excavated from Las Mercedes, an archeological site in Guácimo, Limón, where Earth University is now located. They said Las Mercedes was the second most important pre-Columbian site in the Caribbean slope area; the first is Guayabo, one of the few excavated sites in the country open to the public.

How the Weary Hercules statue was displayed before a Boston museum returned the upper half to Turkey

A recent Tico Times story said the returned artifacts “could help fill gaps in the history of the isthmus nation where tens of thousands of ancient artifacts have been lost to looters.”

Another example of returned artifacts in Turkey
And while we’re on the subject of artifacts being sent back to their rightful owners, I was recently in Turkey, where the top half of a looted Hercules statue was being reunited with its bottom half.  The top half was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and comes home after decades of negotiation. Turkey says the top half of the 1,900-year-old statue was stolen from an archeological site in 1980 and smuggled into the US. Scientific testing confirmed the two pieces were part of the same sculpture.

I just missed the reuniting of the two pieces, but in early October Weary Hercules, as the statue is called, was whole again.

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