Another Maya artefact comes home

There was good news for the Maya of Belize this month with reports that a ceramic vessel from the Maya Classic Period made its way home to Belize after being smuggled out of the country.

Details are sketchy, but it seems that the flat ceramic bowl had been confiscated by US Immigration and Customs officials in New Mexico and turned over to a professor of archaeology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where it was identified as authentic and most likely originating from northern Belize.

According to Dr Jaime Awe, Director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology, “It’s a polychrome bowl, which dates to the early classic period, somewhere between 400 to about 600 A.D. Based on the style, we know that it’s very typical of the types of things being produced around that time at places anywhere between, let’s say, Lamanai and Blue Creek up in the north.”

Dr Awe, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the Maya of Belize, went on to say that it is the type of vessel commonly used in burials or special ceremonies. [pullquote]I think that all these vessels are very important. These are part of the Belizean past, and I think that, for us, the fact that we can bring this back home is of very significant importance.[/pullquote]

“Various archaeologists have argued that these vessels were used for feasting events, when a ruler wanted throw an event, and invited representatives from other neighbouring sites, they would be served tamales, fruit, and other materials in these fancy vessels,” he said.

Fortunately, Belize and the US have agreements in place that make it difficult for would be smugglers to get away with bringing Maya artefacts into North America. In this instance, the bowl was returned under what is known as a hold harmless release agreement, which facilitated its quick return.

It was reported that Diane Haylock, president of Belize’s National Institute of Cultural and History (NICH), was able to bring the artefact with her while returning to Belize from Washington DC.

For many years Belize has suffered from the wholesale rape of its cultural heritage by local looters and the foreigners who buy their ill-gotten goods. Sometimes the buyers are professional profiteers who make their living selling such items to museums, universities and private collectors. In the past, it has sometimes been archaeologists and researchers themselves who removed the items from Belize, or self-styled Indiana Jones types who wanted to bring back souvenirs from their “expeditions”.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous object has been the Crystal Skull, supposedly “discovered” at Lubaantun in Belize and now said to be in the United States.

However, a large number of people participating in these crimes against culture are ordinary tourists, just regular people who couldn’t resist the temptation to take a bit of history back home with them to display on their mantelpieces. When offered small items such as jade beads, jadeite implements of small ceramic figurines easily concealed in luggage, they think, “why not” and purchase them, not realising that they are fuelling a trade with terrible implications – the more people buy looted articles, the more encouraged some locals are to seek and break into archaeological sites and Maya temples .

Imagine the uproar of someone stealing a piece of the US Constitution from the National Archives or the Magna Carta from the British Library. These thefts would represent a severing of a people’s link with their past as surely as stealing a jade ornament from a Maya temple or tomb.

At least there was a happy ending to this latest theft, and as Dr Awe said, “I think that all these vessels are very important. These are part of the Belizean past, and I think that, for us, the fact that we can bring this back home is of very significant importance.”

Mick Fleming owner of The Lodge at Chaa Creek, where their Natural History Centre houses some fine (and legally registered) examples of Maya artefacts found around Chaa Creek, said he’s seen a shift in attitude about the trade in artefacts over the years.

“Years ago, it was quite common, unfortunately, to hear of people selling Maya artefacts in the bars and other places around San Ignacio. But people began waking up to how important our Maya history is to all Belizeans, and how destructive the trade in artefacts is.

“We hope that by educating our visitors to what an integral part of Belize the ancient Maya culture is, they’ll treat the archaeological sites, and even the smallest pieces left behind by this great culture with respect,” he said.

Many people will be visiting Belize to take part in the historic Maya celebrations and cultural activities running throughout the Belize Maya 2012 observations , and we can only hope that this will result in greater awareness and respect for our natural heritage. The ancient Maya produced beautiful works of art and craftsmanship that are best appreciated in their natural home where they can continue to be shared with the world.

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