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Yale Agrees to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru

14 February 2011 2:51 pm
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Ending a bitter dispute over the repatriation of archeological artifacts, Yale University will return to Peru thousands of items excavated from Machu Picchu by 20th Century explorer Hiram Bingham, the university said in a statement.

Peru has been demanding the return of the artifacts for several years. It had sued the university, and last November Peruvian President Alan Garcia led a protest march through Lima, calling Yale's refusal to return the artifacts a "global crime."

In an agreement signed on Friday, 11 February, Yale and the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC) said they would create a new museum and research center in Cusco, Peru, to display and house thousands of artifacts, including pottery, stone tools, and human bones.

"This agreement ensures the expanded accessibility of these Machu Picchu collections for research and public appreciation in their natural context and with the guidance of two great universities," Yale President Richard C. Levin said in the statement.

The agreement comes in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bingham's arrival in Machu Picchu on 24 July 2011. Bingham, a Yale professor, used an early portable Kodak camera to take pictures of the lost city which caused a worldwide sensation. Later, in trips funded by Yale and the National Geographic Society, Bingham shipped back to Yale crates filled with thousands of artifacts.

Prior to last week's agreement, Yale had resisted calls to return them. Lawyers for the school argued as recently as last year in court filings that the items had been exported legally and that Peru had no legal standing because so many decades had passed since Bingham's trips.

"Yale has done the right thing probably if they want a quiet life," said archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Renfrew said the Yale deal could encourage other repatriation claims—such as Greek demands for Britain to return marble statues from the Parthenon in Athens. In his view, however, such demands are misguided in light of the ongoing pillaging of archeological sites. "Governments would do much better to hunt the looters that continue to loot antiquities in Peru and elsewhere. These old collections that are safe in museums should not be their priority."

Yale said the new museum and conservation center would be located at Casa Concha, an Inca palace in Cusco, and will have an exhibit focusing on Bingham's scientific expeditions in 1911 and 1912. Among the trove of thousands of objects are 329 museum-quality pieces, mostly ceramics.

The agreement calls for ongoing research collaboration between Yale and UNSAAC, including access to the objects by Yale researchers. The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History will retain a small number of artifacts on loan. "Our collaboration with the University of Cusco will provide the kind of enduring academic framework that Yale always envisioned for the objects," said Derek Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum, in a statement.

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