BANGKOK - The U.S. government on Wednesday returned to Thailand hundreds of ancient artifacts that federal authorities say were looted from an important archaeological site decades ago.
In a ceremony at Thailand’s National Museum, Vira Rojpochanarat, the kingdom’s culture minister, accepted hundreds of artifacts from U.S. Charge D'Affaires W. Patrick Murphy, the highest ranking American diplomat in the country.
The majority of the pottery, bronze items, stone tools, beads and sandstone molds were taken from the Ban Chiang UNESCO World Heritage site in northeast Thailand.
The Neolithic settlement and burial ground was badly looted in the early 1970s.
“Of the artifacts returned to Thailand, we can say that the 554 pieces, most of them are priceless because they are dated to a pre-historic period," said Rojpochanarat.
The collection was found during a raid on a Southern California museum in 2008 after a five year, undercover federal investigation.
Several people allegedly involved in a network smuggling antiquities from Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, face criminal charges.
But the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, agreed to return the items in its possession in exchange for none of its staff facing criminal charges.
Most of the pottery vessels were damaged and cracked and the bronze equipment and tools had not been properly preserved, leaving many broken. But Thai preservation scientists say the objects are valuable and useful for academic purposes to study art forms and production techniques, including what materials and compounds were used by ancient settlers.
According to Murphy, the U.S. has returned some 7,000 cultural artifacts to 30 countries, most recently in Cambodia and Mongolia.
The items returned Wednesday are among the first items to be returned to their homeland after raids on a total of four California art museums and two antiquities dealerships.
Authorities worry that many pieces of pottery and other artifacts from Ban Chiang — considered by many one of Southeast Asia’s most important prehistoric settlements — will never be recovered.