Ancient Mayan Artifacts Returned to Guatemala and Mexico | Cultural | Reports on the arts, music and lifestyle of Germany | DW



The discovery and return of Mayan artifacts has been making headlines lately – with some private collectors in Germany and elsewhere voluntarily handing over the objects.

At the end of 2020, a man from the town of Klötze in the state of Saxony-Anhalt in eastern Germany contacted the police to hand over WWII weapons that belonged to his father.

Its cellar also housed a collection of 13 objects – including figurines, plates and cups dating from AD 250-850. Claiming not to know their origins, he said they were purchased for less than € 100 ($ 116) at a Leipzig flea market in 2003.

An expert later confirmed the authenticity of the objects and said 11 of the pieces were produced in what is now Guatemala and two more were from Teotihuacan, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the northeast. of present-day Mexico. The ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. Police suspect that these items were looted by grave robbers.

On Friday, the Prime Minister of the State of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff, handed over priceless Mayan cultural artifacts to Guatemalan Ambassador Jorge Lemcke and Mexican Ambassador Francisco Quiroga at a ceremony in Berlin.

Saved from resale: fragment of the archaeological site of Piedras Negras in Guatemala

“Goodwill of private collectors”

The handover came a week after another private collector in France returned a Mayan artifact to Guatemala after it was first auctioned in 2019.

Thought to have been looted from a Mayan archaeological site in the 1960s, the stone fragment represents the head of a ruler of Piedras Negras wearing a headdress in the shape of a bird of prey. Piedras Negras was the capital of a Mayan kingdom that existed between the 4th century BC and the 9th century AD, and was located in what is now northwest Guatemala.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the object changed hands several times before it was finally acquired by private collectors Manichak and Jean Aurance in Paris. It was later included in a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts slated to be auctioned off in Paris in 2019. It had been estimated between € 23,325 ($ 27,000) and € 33,692 ($ 39,000).

Guatemala objected and produced proof of provenance, with drawings and images dating back to its discovery in 1899, and the sculpture was later removed from the auction.

Negotiations ensued between Manichak Aurance, the French and Guatemalan governments and UNESCO, which then issued a statement indicating that Assurance had chosen to voluntarily return the fragment.

“The voluntary handing over of this Mayan stele fragment to its homeland in Guatemala illustrates the evolution of the international environment in favor of the return of emblematic cultural objects and artefacts to their homeland under the leadership of UNESCO over the years. Past 50 years ”, declared the Director of UNESCO. General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

“It also shows the importance of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects,” Azoulay said. “This success story was made possible thanks to international cooperation and the goodwill of a private collector; it is a model for others to follow.

An ancient Mayan clay drinking vessel with engravings

One of 13 items returned is a clay drinking vessel estimated to be 1,500 years old

Antiques market

In May, two German collectors voluntarily returned 34 pre-Columbian objects to Mexico. Twenty-eight of the objects were in the town of Monheim am Rhein in western Germany and the other six in Recklinghausen, some 70 kilometers (43 miles) away.

Commenting on this event, Diego Prieto, director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, underlined the “growing sensitivity” of the world community to the need to respect cultural heritage and to return artefacts.

People of Mayan origin constitute more than 40% of the population of Guatemala. In the north of the country are the ruins of the city of Tikal, one of the ancient centers of Mayan power.

Meanwhile, near Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, lie the sprawling ruins of Teotihuacan, the center of a culture that dominated Central America in the first century CE. reported in February that informal markets selling Mayan artifacts still exist in Guatemala. Citing an expert from the La Ruta Maya Foundation, the report explains how Mayan sites were looted between the 1960s and 1980s, when a trend of pre-Columbian exhibitions in the United States led to an increase in demand for cultural objects from the share of museums and private collectors. The civil war in Guatemala had also forced some archaeologists to abandon excavation sites, leaving them exposed to impoverished rural communities in search of additional sources of income.

A clay figurine sits cross-legged while holding a basket on her head

A 1,500-year-old clay figurine that also serves as a candleholder, depicting Huehueteotl, the fire god of Teotihuacan

Who are the heirs?

Nikolai Grube, professor of ancient American studies at the University of Bonn, told DW in May that the indigenous peoples of the Americas are the rightful heirs to these artifacts.

“Their ancestors created these cultural assets. But nowadays they are not even allowed to speak their language; it does not appear in school, their culture is not part of national life. A real kind of apartheid reigns. people live in poverty in the countryside or in the favelas of big cities, ”he said, adding that cultural institutions like museums often operate without their participation.

“The debate over looted African art is in full swing, and rightly so, and should have taken place much earlier, especially since the debt is particularly large due to the German colonies. And it would be necessary now for the ‘South America too, “said Grube. “There’s blood on all of these items too – it’s just older.”


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