Feds return 277 pre-Columbian artifacts to Mexico after seizure in Arizona
Objects included 10 pottery figures buried with the dead in shaft tombs, dozens of arrowheads & other stone tools
Federal agents returned 277 pre-Columbian artifacts to Mexican officials during a repatriation ceremony Tuesday morning at the Mexican Consulate in Nogales, officials said.
The objects included 10 Chinesco-Western pottery figures that were produced as far back as 500 B.C., and 267 small artifacts, including stone tools like arrowheads as well as small stone carvings that date back even further between 1,000 and 5,000 years.
The objects were recovered as part of two separate investigations launched in Arizona by special agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and were presented to the Mexican Consul General Ambassador Ricardo Santana, and Jose Luis Perea, the director for Mexico's Institute for Anthropology and History, or INAH, in Sonora, Mexico.
Scott Brown, special agent in charge of HSI Phoenix, presented the ancient artifacts to Mexican officials during the ceremony.
"The cultural significance of artifacts from regions around the world extends beyond any monetary value," Brown said. "The pieces, like those discovered, are fragments of history; and it is an honor to return them to their rightful home country," he said. "HSI fully supports the importance of antiquities and cultural property, and it is through these repatriations that new generations are able to experience a part of their nation’s story."
As the investigative arm for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, HSI is the lead agency in investigations involving the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, and HSI agents specialize in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen, said Pitts-O'Keefe. HSI's International Operations operates 80 offices in 53 countries, and works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, including those in cultural items.
In early January, HSI agents recovered a priceless Buddhist statue from a Phoenix-area home, returning the 500-lb statue of Mahayana Buddhist goddess Cundā to India.
The investigation in the objects from Mexico began in October 2013, when HSI agents in Phoenix were contacted by the director of the Chandler Historical Society, who found the pottery figures during an inventory of the museum's collection, said Brown. The museum's director came across the items, and the review "triggered a bell" that the objects may not be appropriate for the museum's collection, and "could fall into the area of protected cultural property," he said.
An archaeological expert reviewed the pottery figures, and found that they were pre-Columbian Chinesco-Western pottery figures that date back at least to 100 B.C., and may have been made more than 1,500 years ago, far before European colonization of the Americas, including the arrival of Christopher Columbus, and the later Spanish conquistadors.
HSI special agents met with the Mexican consulate general of Nogales, and the director of archeology in Sonora, Mexico, chief archeologist for the Cerro de Trincheras zone to view the artifacts, which were authenticated as "historically significant artifacts" originating from Mexico, said Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for ICE.
The meeting confirmed that the 10 pottery figures were ancient, dating back around 100 B.C. to 500 A.D., and are part of a last rites tradition from the geographic regions of Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima in central Mexico. As part of this tradition objects were buried with the dead in "shaft tombs" — vertical burial chambers dug up to 20 meters below the surface, often in underlying volcanic tuff.
Archaeological analysis from experts found that the 10 pottery figures date back more than 1,500 years, and are valued between $26,100 and $45,700 each.
The other 267 items were found a routine search by officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales in October 2012. Two Mexican citizens attempted to enter the U.S., and during the inspection CBP officers trained to recognized cultural property found the objects, said Brown. This included arrowheads, axe heads, hammer heads, spear heads, and small stone carvings, which were later validated by three research professor archaeologists with INAH in Sonora as being pre-Columbian artifacts from Northwestern Mexico.
The artifacts were believed to be worth over $124,000, according to an appraisal by INAH, Pitts-O'Keefe said.
HSI concluded that all the seized pieces were imported into the United States in violation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention of 1970, known as UNESCO, and the Cultural Property Implementation Act.
"We encounter people who are removing artifacts from Mexico, often with no malicious intent," said Brown, adding that agents often see innocent collectors or tourists coming through with a few pieces, however, the seizure at the Nogales border crossing was interesting because of the number of objects, and their overall value.
These items are often sold to "lower-level" collectors in the U.S., Brown said, largely casual collectors who may buy a single piece in the U.S. During the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, CBP and HSI agents are regularly on the lookout for cultural items that may be sold at the "fringes" of the show, and can be sold in black-market sales, he said.
"This repatriation comes at an opportune time, in the year of a very significant commemoration for Mexico, the 500th anniversary of the taking of Tenochtitlan, which was a heartrending encounter between the cultural universes of Western Europe and America," INAH Director Jose Luis Perea. "This event allows us to deeply recognize the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico, as well as the resistance and presence of its contemporary indigenous peoples."
"The United States government is committed to combating the theft and trafficking of cultural heritage and to preserving and protecting it where it is found, said U.S. Consul General in Nogales Laura Biedebach. "We will continue to cooperate across agencies and borders to ensure that our citizens can enjoy their cultural heritage. We have much work to do to preserve our history for the next generation, but we are in this together and proud to be your partners," she said.
After years of effort and negotiations, the objects were returned to Mexico.
"I think today's ceremony is important," said Brown. "When we talk about our relationships, we often talk about drug traffic and human smuggling, but there's a lot of ways that the U.S. and Mexico's governments work together, and in important ways that celebrate our cultures."