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Peru and Yale University Battle over Incan Artifacts


Almost a century ago, Hiram Bingham, a history teacher at Yale University in the United States, made a major archaeological discovery, when his mestizo guide led him to the ruins of the ancient Incan city, Machu Picchu. For Bingham, it was the high point in his academic career. For Yale and Peru, Bingham's discovery has led to a decades-long controversy.

From 1911 to 1915, Hiram Bingham led three Yale expeditions to Machu Picchu in Peru's Andes Mountains. Ms. Abigail Bingham-Endicott says her grandfather was a true adventurer. "He [Bingham] was a wonderful, very large man. And he had a very charismatic presence."

Some think Bingham, with his adventurous spirit and distinctive wardrobe was the inspiration for the movie archaeologist, Indiana Jones. During the Machu Picchu expeditions, Bingham uncovered and sent back about 5,000 Incan artifacts to Yale University for display and further research at the school's Peabody Museum. And that's where the trouble began.

The Peruvian government says it had a written agreement with Bingham for Yale to return artifacts. Peru says only half was returned, while Yale claims all loaned artifacts were returned. Over the years, a larger issue has emerged -- who actually has title to the artifacts? Peru claims they do. Last December, it threatened to sue Yale.

In part, the confusion can be traced back to Bingham, who may not have known the proper procedure for cataloguing and removing artifacts, says American University Law Professor Christine Farley. "Bingham wasn't actually an archaeologist. He was an historian, so he didn't have the proper training as an archaeologist."

Neither Yale nor Peru would comment on this issue. But National Geographic, which co-sponsored all the Yale expeditions to Machu Picchu, says the laws in existence at the time the artifacts were removed favor Peru.

National Geographic Vice President Terry Garcia says there should be no doubt.

"Peruvian law at the time was quite clear as well. Any objects excavated in Peru at Machu Picchu specifically, were the property of the Peruvian government, and the Peruvian people."

Yale interprets the laws of the day differently. Christine Farley, with American University disagrees, “Nothing in the law of Peru at the time of the excavations, or expeditions, made anything found in Peru the property of Peru. That is, anybody who found it, could keep it, and claim title to it."

Yale University recently offered to return some artifacts and help Peru display them in a new museum. Peru rejected the compromise.

Mr. Garcia explains, "The fundamental principle that Peru has advanced and the condition that they have indicated they are not willing to waive, is that Yale must acknowledge [Peru's] title to the objects."

Debates between museums and nations over artifacts have been going on for years, and it appears opinion is swinging in the nations' favor.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to return the Euphronios krater to Italy. And the British Museum in London is still under fire for its unwillingness to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

In the case of the Machu Picchu artifacts, both Yale and Peru are standing firm.

Bingham's granddaughter is urging compromise. "If I could speak to the people involved in the controversy, I would just say remember the whole purpose of this -- anyone's purpose -- is to make known the treasures, not just the artifacts, but the actual site, Machu Picchu, which is so magnificent."

Machu Picchu -- a magnificent site, with a past steeped in mysteries and riddles. The future of some parts of it is a mystery as well.

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