Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ethical and Legal Issues

What repatriation issues are related to the archaeology of the Inca Empire?

In 1911, Hiram Bingham III of Yale University rediscovered the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru; over the next few years (1912- 1915) he excavated the site (Alderman, 2010, p. 3; Orson, 2012). The artifacts he uncovered, including ceramics, jewelry, and human bones, were brought from Peru to Yale under a special government decree (Orson, 2012). However, conflict arose regarding the artifacts. In a 1916 communication with the National Geographic Society, Bingham wrote, “Now they do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in 18 months… The whole matter has assumed a very large importance in the eyes of the Peruvians, who feel that we are trying to rob their country of its treasures” (quoted in Alderman, 2010, p. 3). There was increasing disagreement over whether the artifacts, especially the human remains, should remain at Yale or be returned to Peru. In 1921, several boxes of artifacts, presumably including the human remains, were returned to Peru, but Yale kept other artifacts. The Peruvian government demanded the return of these Machu Picchu artifacts in 2000, but Yale claimed they only had artifacts they owned (Alderman, 2010, p. 3). This prompted the Peruvian government to file a lawsuit against Yale in 2008 (Needham, 2008).

This case was different from many other repatriation disputes. Unlike many similar incidents, the disputed artifacts were not stolen, but rather left the country by government decree (Orson, 2012). Initially, efforts were made to resolve the situation outside of court, but these were unsuccessful (Needham, 2008). Following this, the Peruvian government tried to focus on legal grounds for their complaint. However, U.S. courts determined that they could not demonstrate national ownership of cultural property dating farther back than 1929, and the statute of limitations on the complaint had passed (since the original formal demand made in the late 1920s) (Alderman, 2010, p. 3). From there, the claimants decided to turn to the moral basis of their demands. The Peruvians claimed that Yale was profiting from the objects at the expense of the people of Peru, and that Yale was not conducting sufficient research on the objects to warrant their continued possession of them (Needham, 2008). The international public became engaged in the discussion as well, placing even greater pressure on Yale to return the artifacts (Alderman, 2010, p. 4). Finally, a two part agreement was reached. Yale will return all objects by the end of this year (2012), with the museum quality objects having been returned by last year for the centennial celebration of the 1911 rediscovery of Machu Picchu (Orson, 2012; Alderman, 2010, p. 4). The second part of the agreement centers on the concern of those at Yale for the continued scientific research of the artifacts (Orson, 2012). They decided that Yale will partner with San Antonio Abad University in Cuzco to continue with research efforts (Alderman, 2010, p. 4; Orson, 2012).

Hiram Bingham III, who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911 and led its excavation . Photo taken from

What legal framework guides the handling of cultural artifacts of Peru?

The Memorandum of Understanding provides an agreement between the United States and Peru that acts as a, “pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” (Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Peru [U.S. Gov.], 1997). The purpose of the Memorandum was to protect the archaeological and ethnological material from the pre-Hispanic cultures that resided in present day Peru. The document is broken up into four different articles, which all focus on different aspects of protecting these invaluable materials.

Article I states the “Designated List” of materials contains artifacts that cannot be imported back into the United States (U.S. Gov, 1997). Another requirement of Article I forces the United States to publish in the U.S. Federal Register all of the items from excavation sites in Peru (Federal Register). Article II deals primarily with the issue of preserving the “Cultural Patrimony” of Peru. This article also encourages there to be cooperation between academic and non-governmental institutions in order to protect the cultural patrimony of Peru (U.S. Gov, 1997). Article III of the Memorandum makes the point that each government must enforce the issues discussed in the document as well as distribute pecuniary funds if possible (U.S. Gov, 1997). The fourth and final piece of the Memorandum, Article IV, explains that both governments will review the document every five years, and make proper changes if needed (U.S. Gov, 1997).

The Memorandum can be compared to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Regulations Act (NAGPRA) because of its great intentions, but its lack of enforcement allows there to be issues caused by both parties involved. One of these issues deals with the treatment of human remains. The Memorandum lacks legal framework that states how human remains should be treated (Turner & Andrushko, 2011). Because of this human remains are analyzed, curated, and exported in different ways by each government, which can lead to concerns about their proper treatment (Turner & Andrushko, 2011). Another issue with the Memorandum is that the preservation of archaeological and cultural patrimony has not included insight from many indigenous groups of Peru (Turner & Andrushko, 2011). This can lead to locals holding a negative view against the scientists conducting research in their homeland.

Works Cited

Alderman, K. (2010). Yale Agrees to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru: Ethics- Based
            Repatriation Efforts Gain Steam. Cultural Heritage & Arts Review, 1(2). Retrieved 
            April 16, 2012 from
The Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Peru.
            (1997). Memorandum of Understanding Between the Government of the United 
            States of America and the Government of the Republic of Peru Concerning the 
            Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from the 
           Prehispanic Cultures and Certain Ethnological Material from the Colonial Period 
           of Peru.
Federal Register. (1997). Peru 1997 Designated List Federal Register Notice. 
            Washington, DC.
Needham, P. (2008, December 10). Peru sues for artifacts. Retrieved
Orson, D. (2012, January 1). Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts to Peru. Retrieved
            April 16, 2012 from
Turner, B.L., & Andrushko, V.A. (2011). Partnerships, Pitfalls, and Ethical Concerns in
            International Bioarchaeology. In Social Bioarchaeology (Chapter 3). Retrieved 
            April 16, 2012 from 

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