Archive for December, 2011

Tax bill paid with 2,000-year-old Celtic fire guard

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

The Welsh government has taken a most beautiful payment in kind for an outstanding inheritance tax bill: an elaborately decorated 2000-year-old Celtic iron fire guard known as the Capel Garmon Firedog. The owners of the firedog had previously lent it to the Amgueddfa Cymru – the National Museum of Wales, who generously sent me the high resolution pictures included in this post that I couldn’t find anywhere else — where it was one of the most important artifacts in its exhibit of early Celtic art.

The Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme allows owners to transfer “pre-eminent” heritage objects (works of art, archives, manuscripts) to public ownership as full or partial payment of their inheritance taxes. The Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage approves the artifacts on the advice of independent experts and allocates them to a public museum.

The firedog was discovered in 1852 by a man digging a ditch in a peat field near the village Capel Garmon in county Conwy, north Wales. It appeared to have been buried deliberately, probably as an offering to the gods, as it was found intact deep in the peat, lying on its side with large stones placed at each end. This is in keeping with the well-established tradition of burying metal objects in lakes, rivers and bogs as a religious devotion in Iron Age Wales.

It certainly was not a commonplace object when it was first crafted between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D. (The date is an estimate based on comparisons with other firedogs found at chieftain burials. There was no archaeological excavation following its discovery in 1852, so we have no access to the original context where stratigraphic analysis or radiocarbon dating of nearby organic elements could give us a specific burial date.) It would originally have been one of a pair, used to hold logs or skewers on the central hearth of a chieftain’s round-house, an emblem of the chieftain’s wealth and power.

As part of an experiment to duplicate the firedog, conservators X-rayed it and found that it was made of 85 pieces shaped separately and then put together. Archaeologists estimate that the initial weight of iron used to make the twin firedogs was a staggering 38 kilos (84 pounds). The single firedog today is approximately 42 inches long, 30 inches high and weighs nine kilos (20 pounds).

Iron was hard to come by and very valuable. To use this much of it for a decorative (albeit practical) item must have been a prohibitively expensive proposition. The craft itself represents an enormous investment of time. Experts think it would have taken Iron Age blacksmiths perhaps as long as three years to create the firedogs, from gathering the ore, to smelting it through to crafting all the individual parts and then putting them together.

It’s no wonder the Minister approved this trade. For now, the Capel Garmon Firedog will remain on display in the Early Wales gallery of the National Museum in Cardiff. It will eventually be moved to new galleries currently still in the planning phase at St Fagans: National History Museum, another of seven national museums under the aegis of Amgueddfa Cymru.

Share

Hearse that carried body of JFK to be auctioned

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

The white 1964 Cadillac Hearse that transported the body of slain president John F. Kennedy from Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital to Love Field Airport will be sold at the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, on January 21.

The hearse was built by the Miller-Meteor company as a display vehicle to introduce the new model year body at the National Funeral Directors Association Convention held in Dallas in October of 1963. At the end of the convention, the O’Neal Funeral Home bought the hearse. Just a month later, on November 22, President Kennedy was shot in Dealey Plaza. The Secret Service announced at 1:00 PM that the President was dead. They enlisted the funeral home closest to the hospital — the O’Neal Funeral Home — to carry the president’s body and the First Lady to Love Field. They asked O’Neal to provide the finest conveyance possible and a suitable casket. This hearse was the newest in O’Neal’s fleet and the only one with swag drapes (the curved, bunting-style drapes at the top of the windows) rather than simple airline drapes.

Vernon O’Neal, the owner of the funeral home, drove the casket and hearse to Parkland. O’Neal Funeral Home employee Don W. McElroy happened to be at Parkland Memorial when the President and Texas governor John Connally were brought to the emergency room (funeral homes also occasionally provided ambulance service back then; he had just transported a patient). He helped load the bronze casket the home had provided into the hearse, and then helped First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy into the back with the casket. She had sat in the front seat at first, but then decided she wanted to be in the back with her husband. A Secret Service agent got in the back with her and another agent drove them to Love Field where Air Force One waited to take the president’s body back to Washington, D.C.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was waiting for them on Air Force One. Ninety-nine minutes after President Kennedy was pronounced dead was pronounced dead, Lyndon B. Johnson, a stricken Jacqueline Kennedy by his side, would be sworn in as President on Air Force One while it was still on the tarmac at Love Field Airport.

O’Neal traded the hearse to another funeral home a few years later who sold it to a third firm and then got it back in a later trade. Then funeral home owner and collector Ardeen Vaughan bought it and restored it. He kept it for decades before selling it a few years ago to Desert Autosport who are now selling it at the January Barrett-Jackson auction.

Share

Stylish cockerel found in Cirencester Roman grave

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The team from Cotswold Archaeology excavating the site of a major Roman-era cemetery in Cirencester (the one with the surprisingly high proportion of inhumations) has unearthed a beautiful little artifact that embodies three of my favorite things: chickens, decorative enamel and harlequin patterns. Just shy of five inches tall, the cast copper alloy (probably bronze) figurine was discovered in a child’s grave adjacent to another child’s grave where an intact pottery flagon was found earlier this year. Archaeologists estimate that it dates to the 2nd century A.D.

The breast, wings, eyes and probably the ‘comb’ of the cockerel are beautifully inlaid with enamel, which now appears green and blue. There is a separate plate at the tail end which could be its fanned tail feathers, although it is difficult to tell at this stage. The cockerel also has its beak open as if crowing – could this be a message to one of the gods of the afterlife?

Neil Holbrook, Chief Executive for Cotswold Archaeology commented: “The cockerel is the most spectacular find from more than 60 Roman burials excavated at this site. It was excavated from the grave of young child and was placed close to its head. Interestingly a very similar item was found in Cologne in Germany and it looks like they both could have come from the same workshop based in Britain.”

Roman Britain was an important center of enameled decorative objects, especially the north of the province. The Cologne piece has different colored enamel and is missing its tail, but it’s so similar that archaeologists have little doubt it came from the same shop, possibly even the same maker.

As for why the cockerel was buried with the child, it was probably an offering to Mercury, messenger of the gods and mover between states who escorted the souls of the newly deceased to the afterlife. The rooster was one of his symbols. Julius Caesar noted in Book six, Chapter 17 of his Gallic Wars that Mercury was the most popular deity among the Celtic peoples of Gaul and Britain.

They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions.

Caesar, in keeping with interpretatio Romana, the Roman practice of equating local deities with those in the Roman pantheon, may have actually been referring to the Celtic god Lugus which shared some of Mercury’s characteristic attributes, including the rooster. Once Roman occupation was established, dedications to Mercury proliferated over Gaul and Britain, marking him as a far more prominent and popular deity than he was in Rome itself.

As with the other artifacts discovered in this excavation, after it is cleaned and conserved the cockerel is destined to go on display at Cirencester’s Corinium Museum.

Share

Original offering found inside Pyramid of the Sun

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Archaeologists have discovered what they think are the original ceremonial offerings made by the builders of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun before construction began around 50 A.D.

Using a 380-foot-long tunnel originally dug towards the center of the pyramid by archaeologists in the 1930s, researchers added an additional three short tunnels and dropped 59 exploratory shafts with the aim of reaching the foundational layer. The old tunnel turned out to stop just 20 feet west of the center, so the new extensions led archaeologists to the pre-construction base of the pyramid where they found the remains of three structures that pre-date the pyramid and the ceremonial offerings they were hoping to find.

The offerings found at the base of the pyramid in the Teotihuacan ruin site just north of Mexico City include a green serpentine stone mask so delicately carved and detailed that archaeologists believe it may have been a portrait.

The find also includes 11 ceremonial clay pots dedicated to a rain god similar to Tlaloc, who was still worshipped in the area 1,500 years later, according to a statement by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH.

The offerings, including bones of an eagle fed rabbits as well as feline and canine animals that haven’t yet been identified, were laid on a sort of rubble base where the temple was erected about A.D. 50.

“We know that it was deposited as part of a consecration ritual for the construction of the Pyramid of the Sun,” said INAH archaeologist Enrique Perez Cortes.

They also found seven human burials, some of them of infants, who were probably sacrificed in the same consecration ritual that claimed the animals’ lives. Obsidian artifacts were discovered in a variety of forms — projectile points, razors, anthropomorphic designs — along three large discs of pyrite. One of the pyrite discs is almost 18 inches in diameter, the largest ever found at Teotihuacan.

The exquisite serpentine mask was not the only stone mask. There were two other human figures found with shell and pyrite eyes. The greenstone mask is the most unusual, however, because of its top quality artistry and its relatively small size. It’s just over four inches square, smaller in dimension and volume than other Teotihuacan masks which have been discovered. Those masks are not carved in such detail, nor have they been found in a ritual context.

The city of Teotihuacan was founded by an unknown culture approximately 2,500 years ago. By the time the Aztecs settled in the area in the 1300s, the town had long since been abandoned. It was the Aztecs who named it Teotihuacan meaning “the place where men become gods.”

Share

Rich Viking era graves found in Poland

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

In 2007, an archaeological survey of a highway construction site near the central Polish town of Bodzia uncovered a Viking era cemetery with several dozen chamber graves dating to between 980/990 A.D. and 1030 A.D. Over the next two years, an excavation of the site revealed the remains of 14 men, 21 women and 14 children, and an extraordinarily rich collection of grave goods including weapons, jewelry, coins, amulet containers and the remnants of silk fabric, marking the cemetery as the final resting place for the élite.

Some of the artifacts are Scandinavian in origin, like silver beads with a traditionally Scandinavian granulation decoration, the weapons buried with a young man whose broken jaw and sliced face indicate he died in battle, and a few of the coins. The north-south orientation of the graves also suggests a Viking presence, since Slavic custom placed graves along an east-west axis while in the Scandinavian tradition people were buried north to south. The graves are relatively spacious, another Scandinavian style element, with wooden coffins lined in fabric and reinforced with iron fittings placed in deep burial pits. Eastern European graves at this time were more shallow and snug to the body.

A unique feature of this cemetery is the remains of wooden palisades enclosing small groups of one to three graves. “Fences of the dead” have been found before in Britain, but they’re centuries older than the Bodzia cemetery and they weren’t fastened together at the corners like the Bodzia fences. Another rarity is a bronze balancing scale possibly used to weigh precious metals. Such artifacts are rare finds in Europe in general, and the first of its kind ever found in central Poland.

Scandinavians had been trading and raiding in central and eastern Europe since the 9th century. Some of them settled in the area and became prominent citizens, often as mercenaries for kings like Mieszko I, founder of the Polish state and father of Boleslav the Brave, the first crowned King of Poland. The young warrior may in fact be connected to Boleslav. Bronze belt fittings found in his grave bear the insignia of Sviatopolk the Accursed, Boleslav’s son-in-law and ruler of the powerful Kievan Rus state east of Poland between 1015 and 1019. (He was Accursed because he killed three of his younger brothers to secure the throne. One he didn’t kill, Yaroslav, killed him and took the throne.)

The warrior cemetery of Bodzia, composed exclusively of chamber graves, is unique in early medieval Europe. It is located near the trading route of the rivers Vistula and Bug, connecting the Baltic Sea areas with the Byzantine world, and from Bodzia it is not far to the borders of Prussia. In the Kuyavia region, where Bodzia is sited, there are rich saline resources.

The discovery of Bodzia’s cemetery is the most recent and most spectacular example of a growing number of funerary sites found in Polish lands, dated to the period between the end of the tenth and the middle of the eleventh century and connected to the presence of migrants, mostly from Scandinavia. There is a certain regularity in the evidence. While in the pre-state period grave goods indicate a ‘domestic’ status for the deceased, many graves from the early Piast period, dated to the late tenth to mid-eleventh century, are distinguished by the frequent occurrence of weapons. Penetration of Scandinavians on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea was associated at that time with both the merchants’ commercial objectives and their military purposes

The artifacts found are an eloquent testament to that synthesis: Scandinavian weapons for fighting, bronze balancing scale for trading, glass beads from Byzantium, silk from even further east, coins from Germany, England and Scandinavia.

Share

Early sound recordings heard for first time

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California together with digital conversion experts at the Library of Congress and curators of the work and industry division of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History have succeeded in playing some of the earliest experimental sound recordings by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell, his cousin Chicester Bell and their colleague Charles Sumner Tainter created a business called Volta Laboratory Associates dedicated to research and development of sound recording technology. Between 1881 and 1885, they studied and experimented with a number of recording technologies at their lab in Washington, D.C., recording sound on metal, rubber, glass and beeswax, among other media.

It was a heady time for inventors, with the likes of Bell, Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner all competing to unlock the key to playable sound recordings. To ensure they had evidence to support any contested patent application, the inventors stored recordings and research notes with the Smithsonian. The National Museum of American History thus has been the proud owner of 400 of the earliest audio recordings ever made since the late 19th century. None of them were playable, however, so it was a collection of 400 silent audio recordings.

When Carlene Stephens, the curator in charge of the collection, read an article (which I blogged about at the time, oh yeah) about how the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had found a way to read the sound off an 1860 recording that was basically squiggles on paper, visions of 400 previously untastable sugar plums danced in her head. She set up a collaborative pilot program that would attempt to read six of Bell’s recordings use the new technology.

Advances in computer technology made it possible to play back the recordings, said Carl Haber, a senior scientist at the Berkeley Lab. He noted that 10 years ago specialists would have struggled with computer speeds and storage issues. The digital images that now can be processed into sound within minutes would have taken days to process a decade ago.

Many of the recordings are fragile, and until recently it had not been possible to listen to them without damaging the discs or cylinders.

So far, the sounds of six discs have been successfully recovered through the process, which creates a high-resolution digital map of the disc or cylinder. The map is processed to remove scratches and skips, and software reproduces the audio content to create a standard digital sound file.

For more technical details, pictures of the discs and most importantly, all six converted recordings, see the program’s website here. They’re very short audio tests, basically, like the first few verses of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, random trills and countdowns. My favorite by far is the second “Mary Had a Little Lamb” recording which is interrupted by an “Oh no!” at the end. It’s the first recorded mistake! (That we’ve heard, anyway.)


We don’t know who the speakers are right now. They could be either Bell cousin, Tainter or someone else entirely. Researchers are hoping as they convert more and more of the Volta recordings they’ll be able to identify the voices. The pilot was funded by a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. The Smithsonian is working to secure more funding so they can make their whole audio archive speak for the first time.

Share

Threesome + extra head on Roman knife handle

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

This is not a new find but it’s new to me and it’s too awesome not post about. In 2008, metal detectorist David Barker found a bronze Roman knife handle buried under a farmer’s field in Syston, Lincolnshire. It wasn’t a big money find, but what made it stand out was its erotic design. There’s a male on the right engaging in coitus with a woman facing him, her legs around his waist. A second male figure is behind her, his back to hers. In his arms he’s holding a decapitated head, clasping it to his chest.

Erotic knife handles have been found before in Britain, but they’re rare. None of them also include a severed head, which makes this particular artifact unique, as far as we know.

Barker reported his find to the Portable Antiques Scheme and then sold it for just under £1,000 (ca $1,500) in December of that year to Lincoln museum The Collection which put it on display in its Roman gallery.

Collections officer at The Collection, Antony Lee, believes it is the cheekiest relic ever to be unearthed in Lincolnshire.

He said: “This has to be one of the county’s rudest finds. We have had some amazing finds in the past, but nothing quite this overt. The Romans certainly seemed to have no trouble expressing themselves. Other erotic knife handles have been found all over Britain, but ours is the only one with a decapitated head. It created quite a stir among staff and we’re expecting it to continue to draw lots of interest from the public.”

Mr Lee believes the knife dates from the 4th century and that it was fashioned for a specific and delicate task.

He said “We don’t yet know the full significance of the decapitated head, but we think it may not be as dark as it seems. For the Romans, decapitation was regarded with some reverence and respect.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about this piece, on top of the mysterious role of the decapitated head in the ménage à trois. It might not even be a knife handle, for example, but the grip of some other tool.

Lincolnshire finds liaison officer Adam Daubney, to whom Barker first reported his discovery, thinks that it might be a symbolic design not meant to be read as a literal threesome with severed head. The imagery could have some religious significance for 4th century Britons, or it could be something as simple as a scene from the theater.

Share

Viking silver hoard reveals previously unknown king

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Proving yet again that Britain is basically one giant buried treasure disguised by a thin layer of loam, another metal detector-wielding hobbyist has discovered a Viking hoard of 201 pieces of silver, including ingots, coins and arm rings, in a well-preserved lead container. It’s the fourth largest Viking hoard ever found.

Darren Webster found the hoard in September near the village of Silverdale in North Lancashire. When the metal detector his wife had given him for Christmas went off, he dug down 18 inches to find what turned out to be a lead pot. At first he thought it was just a sheet of lead, but when he picked it up silver fell out and he saw that the lead had been folded into a container. He reported the find to the authorities and the recovered hoard went to the British Museum for expert analysis.

Yesterday the British Museum unveiled the hoard to the press in anticipation of the coroner’s inquest to determine its treasure status next week. The final tally is 27 coins, 10 arm rings from various Viking periods, two rings (for fingers), 14 ingots, six brooch fragments, a wire braid and 141 pieces of hacksilver (chopped up bits of silver from arm rings and ingots that were used as bullion currency). The coins date the hoard to around 900 A.D. They are a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Frankish and Islamic coins, including coins of Alfred the Great, first self-described King of the Anglo-Saxons, his nephew Alwaldus, the Viking king of East Anglia Guthrum (who was defeated in battle by Alfred, converted to Christianity, took the baptismal name Athelstan with Alfred as his godfather) and one mysterious Viking ruler previously unknown to us.

The mystery coin is inscribed “AIRDECONUT” on one side, and has the words DNS (for Dominus) and REX in the shape of the cross on the other. Experts believe “Airdeconut” is an Anglo-Saxon attempt to spell the Viking name Harthacnut, and the Dominus Rex indicate that Airdeconut was a Christian ruler. The style of the coin is similar to coins from the Viking kings of Northumbria around 900 A.D., but unlike those kings, Airdeconut/Harthacnut hasn’t appeared on the historical record before now.

Another featured player in the hoard is one of the arm rings. Arm rings were given to Viking warriors by their leaders both as rewards and as symbols of allegiance. This one is elaborately carved in a style that synthesizes Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Frankish decorative elements. Researching these unique features might help elucidate their origin and fill in the blanks in our knowledge of Viking trade networks and economy.

The Silverdale hoard has pieces in common with one of the famous Viking hoards ever discovered, the Cuerdale hoard, which was found just 60 miles away in 1840. It was a far larger find — 8,600 pieces of silver — but includes several of the same coin combinations. The coins dated the Cuerdale hoard to around 905-10 AD, which supports the dating of the Silverdale hoard’s burial to around that time or a little earlier.

At this time Anglo-Saxon forces were fighting the Vikings, who had settled in the area, converted to Christianity and become farmers and traders in the generations since the Norsemen first invaded, for control of the north of England. The hoard was probably buried by a Viking settler/warrior to keep it safe from pillaging while he was off fighting.

Once the inquest determines that the hoard is treasure according to the Treasure Act (and it’s a given that it will because of the silver and its age), the experts will assess its market value. Institutions can then secure the hoard by paying the finder and the property owner the assessed value. The Museum of Lancaster is hoping they’ll be able to raise the funds and secure the hoard for display.

Share

Glastonbury Grace Cup returns to the abbey

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

The Glastonbury Grace Cup, a 16th century oak tankard intricately carved with images of the 12 Apostles, the crucifixion of Christ, birds, beasts and flowers, is going on display at Glastonbury Abbey, its reputed ancestral home, for the first time since 1886.

Legend has it that the tankard belonged to the abbots of Glastonbury, the last of whom, Abbot Richard Whiting, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1539 during the Dissolution of Monasteries. Whiting had been a supporter of King Henry VIII, even signing the 1534 Act of Supremacy that made the king the head of the Church of England, but when Henry’s men showed up to loot Glastonbury Abbey and confiscate its lands, Whiting tried to stop them so they executed him as a traitor on the spot.

Grace Cup was smuggled out of the abbey and given for safekeeping to a Catholic branch of the Arundell family of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, according to Arundell family lore. A hundred years later the tankard had another brush with the pointy end of British history, this time narrowly avoiding destruction when Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces set siege to Wardour Castle in 1643 during the English Civil War. It was Lady Blanche Arundell, left alone at the castle with only 25 men-at-arms while her husband was off fighting with King Charles, who fended off the attackers for nine days and was able to hide the cup before she finally surrendered.

We can’t know for sure that the tankard came from Glastonbury Abbey. The decoration on the cup suggests that it may have been carved in Germany or elsewhere central Europe. One theory is that the cup was brought to Wardour by Thomas Arundell, 1st Baron Arundell of Wardour, returned from fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II against the Ottoman Turks in 1595. Sir Thomas, nicknamed “the Valiant” for his bravery in taking down the Turkish standard and replacing it with the Imperial one during a battle in Gran, Hungary, could have picked it up during his travels.

However, Sir Thomas was in a shipwreck on his way home from the war and lost everything. He made it to shore with only the clothes on his back, so if the tankard was picked up by an Arundell on the continent rather than saved from the violence of the Dissolution, it probably wasn’t Sir Thomas after fighting the Turks.

Also, this kind of tankard is called a Grace Cup because it was traditionally shared around a table after a prayer of thanksgiving, aka saying grace. On the inside of the cup there are vertical rows of pegs that apportion an equal amount of beverage to each drinker. Add that to its religious decoration and it makes the abbey provenance plausible even setting aside the Arundell family stories.

The cup was tracked down and put on display in Glastonbury in 1886 to celebrate the founding of the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society. Now, to celebrate the society’s 125th birthday, Lord Talbot of Malahide, Arundell descendent and current owner of the cup, is loaning the Grace Cup to the abbey again. The exhibition opens December 14th and runs until January 31th.

Share

US returns looted Moche gold monkey to Peru

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Moche gold monkey's head pendant, ca. 300 A.D.The New Mexico History Museum returned a gold pendant shaped like a monkey’s head from the pre-Columbian Moche culture (ca. 100-800 A.D.) to Peruvian embassy officials in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. The monkey is 1.75 inches high by 2.25 inches wide, with turquoise and shell eyes, a turquoise tongue, a lapis lazuli nose and a ball inside that makes the head rattle when you shake it. It’s a superb example of Moche workmanship, probably worn on a necklace by royalty or other august personages.

So superb, in fact, that Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva, who along with his wife Susana Meneses discovered the spectacular Moche Lord of Sipán tomb in 1987, thought it looked a little too familiar when he saw it on display at the Art of Ancient America exhibit in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe in 1998. The Sipán tomb, which Alva had discovered intact, was looted shortly after its discovery by brothers Juan, Samuel, Emilio, and Ernil Bernal. They dragged dozens of sacks full of gold from the tomb to their house, buried the loot in their backyard and then sold it all off to eager collectors who, as usual, asked no questions.

The monkey was purchased by collector John Bourne in the late 80s along with a number of other Moche artifacts for $120,000. He donated it to the New Mexico History Museum in 1995. He also loaned two Moche ear spools and a gold rattle for the 1998 exhibit, although he retained ownership of those items. Bourne denied that the monkey’s head (or the other pieces) came from Sipán. He claimed instead that it came from La Mina, another Moche archaeological site in north Peru which was looted in 1988. This is no rebuttal to the charge that Bourne bought stolen goods, of course, since even if it did come from La Mina its theft and export were just as illegal as they would have been had the artifact come from the more famous Sipán site. As a legal maneuver, however, it was damned effective because establishing which site an artifact was stolen from is a basic requirement of making the case in a court of law.

The Peruvian government officially requested that the artifact be repatriated since it had been looted from the Sipán archaeological site and exported against Peruvian law. Alva went directly to the FBI, which opened an investigation in September of 1998. Citing the National Stolen Property Act, the FBI seized the monkey, ear spools and rattle, but since experts disagreed on whether they had been stolen from Sipán (as Alva and Peru alleged) or from La Mina (as Bourne claimed), in 2000 the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Albuquerque declined to prosecute. The pieces went back to the museum where they remained on display until 2008 and then the loaned objects were returned to Bourne.

That’s where things stood until this Spring. In May of this year, Peru wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Department of Justice to look into the situation. In October, the Board of Regents of the Museum of New Mexico voted to return the monkey head to Peru.

Pet peeve time. U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly III made the following statement about the return of the gold monkey:

“This repatriation is the result of the joint efforts of this office, the FBI Art Crime Team, the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the Museum of New Mexico. I commend all parties for their efforts in producing this positive outcome. In particular, I commend the Museum of New Mexico for its selfless and noble action in returning this invaluable artifact to Peru. Artifacts like this Moche monkey head represent the history not only of the source country, in this case Peru, but the history of all mankind. We hope that this repatriation will help repair at least some of the damage caused by the looting of Moche sites.”

What is with the legal authorities kissing the ass of museums and collectors who finally return the stolen goods they refused to cough up for decades? The Museum of New Mexico was not selfless and noble in returning this invaluable artifact they KNEW was stolen all along.

Share