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Artifacts from Machu Picchu To Be Displayed at New Cusco Museum

By Paige, Nicaragua, June 2011

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For decades, the government of Peru has asked museums and universities around the world to return ancient artifacts recovered during the chaotic early years of archaeological discovery. Most experts admit that these early adventurers operated more like Indiana Jones than responsible scientists, but convincing first-world facilities to relinquish their priceless collections has been a difficult proposition.

“In older times, archaeology and anthropology were viewed as a Western profession going to look at…what they may have called in the old days ‘primitive cultures',” explains Willard Boyd, former president of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History—adding that the word “primitive” has fallen out of favor.

In 1911, the fantastic ruins of Machu Picchu were “discovered” (another old archaeological term now falling from favor) by US archaeologist Hiram Bingham III, a Yale alumni. By all accounts he was led to the site by a local farmer, Melchor Arteaga, and had been preceded by Peruvian explorers. Regardless, it was Yale University and the National Geographic Society who bankrolled Bingham for the further investigation and first modern excavation of the now famous site.

After years of relatively diplomatic negotiations that failed to secure Yale’s collection of 46,632 artifacts, Peruvian President Alan Garcia began using more bombastic language, proclaiming that Bingham and Yale University ”robbed” the site of pieces including ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and even human remains.

"Either we come to an understanding about the integrity of Machu Picchu,” Garcia said in a public address aimed at Yale’s Peadbody Museum of Natural History, “or we'll simply have to describe you as looters of treasures.”

At first, Yale said they were "dismayed" by the Peruvian government's claim, stressing that Machu Picchu was all but forgotten, and covered with dense vegetation, at the time of the excavations. Today it is South America’s top tourist attraction. Regardless, President Garcia continued with the increasingly confrontational rhetoric, threatening to accuse Yale of theft "wherever you are—at the United Nations, OAS, UNESCO, in an embassy.”

Though some Peruvians felt Garcia’s lack of tact was a bit tasteless, in March 2011—four years after they agreed to begin sending the pieces home—Yale finally began, the delicate process of cataloging and shipping the pieces, beginning with 4000 artifacts to be displayed in a new Cusco museum.

While many details about the new museum are not yet available, it is set to open in July 2011, exactly 100 years after Bingham arrived at Machu Picchu. San Antonio Abad University in Cuzco will manage the artifacts, a fraction of which will be displayed in the 16th century manor Casa Concha, in Cuzco’s beautiful city center. Though many wealthy and powerful Peruvians have inhabited the house, the 21,000-square-meter (226,000-square-foot) abode is most famously the former home of Martín Concha, governor of Cuzco in the early 1800s.

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