Digging into Peru deliberations

For archeologists, even small pottery fragments from Machu Picchu can be important in helping develop a more complete idea of ancient Incan culture.
For archeologists, even small pottery fragments from Machu Picchu can be important in helping develop a more complete idea of ancient Incan culture. Photo by Sarah Nutman.

This is a three-part series exploring Yale’s decision to return artifacts from Machu Picchu to Peru: the history behind it, the negotiations leading up to it, and its ramifications. Part 2 investigates the deliberations surrounding the repatriation of the artifacts. (Read part 1 and part 3.)

Peruvian President Alan García held a press conference on the morning of Nov. 18. He had just returned from an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting where he had met with President Barack Obama. A reporter asked if he had spoken with Obama about the Machu Picchu artifacts at Yale — a question he should have expected after sending a letter to Obama two weeks earlier requesting his intervention in the matter.

The collection of artifacts represent an important part of Peruvian identity, connected to Machu Picchu and the history and culture of the Incas.
The collection of artifacts represent an important part of Peruvian identity, connected to Machu Picchu and the history and culture of the Incas.

García said he had not, but added that he “knows that he convened to the White House representatives of Yale.” And, García said, within 48 hours a group from the University would be in Peru.

The Yale delegation arrived at the Presidential Palace the afternoon of Nov. 19. At 7:14 p.m. that evening, the Peruvian press secretary announced through the Presidential Palace Twitter page that Yale had agreed to return the pieces from Machu Picchu. After half a day’s work, 100 years of animosity had been undone.

Within an hour and a half the basic terms of the agreement had been established. Later that evening, head of the Yale delegation Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, Peruvian Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde and Peruvian Undersecretary for Cultural Foreign Policy Liliana Cino De Silva were beginning to draft a memorandum of understanding, when, as Zedillo recalled, “someone comes in and gives a note to the minister saying that the president is on national TV discussing what we were just talking about.” García announced to the nation that Yale would return all of the artifacts, with the first shipment arriving in the first months of 2011.

The following day, the Peruvian press had its top headline. Zedillo had an invitation to dine with the president.

Cino, Peruvian chief counsel Eduardo Ferrero and professor Richard Burger ’72, who curates the Machu Picchu collection at Yale, all cited the lead negotiators as critical factors in helping the process run smoothly. “One of the real breakthroughs was that Ernesto Zedillo could negotiate on Yale’s behalf because that way he was negotiating with the president of the country,” Burger said. García’s presence, he explained, acted as a guarantee for Yale that the new commitment would be honored, which was of prime importance given that Peru had backed out of a 2007 accord and continually criticized Hernán Garrido-Lecca, the minister who had led those failed efforts.

Before November, the only contact between Yale and Peru in 2010 over the artifacts was between legal teams.
Before November, the only contact between Yale and Peru in 2010 over the artifacts was between legal teams.

Cino, a former diplomat, highlighted the high level of the negotiations. Referencing the failed memorandum of understanding, she said “the right people were not in it.” To include two presidents and a foreign minister, as opposed to a Yale deputy provost and a Peruvian housing minister, meant that “this time, the negotiations were done with the experts,” she added.

Presidents, after all, broker deals about things more contentious, and with more severe consequences, than the whereabouts of artifacts.

The University also arrived in Peru willing to make a different offer. “Yale was finally coming with the right message,” Cino said of the relative speed of the deliberations, which took less than three weeks from start to finish. “Yale came and said, ‘We want to give the objects back.’”

This offer, it appears, was pivotal.

“Once they offered that they were planning to return the pieces all has been set,” Peruvian Minister of Culture Juan Ossio said.

But from Yale’s perspective, much was set long before Zedillo and his delegation landed in Lima. Over coffee in the Peruvian capital that summer, Yale Peabody curator Lucy Salazar and Burger’s wife had met with Victor Aguilar, the rector of the University of San Antonio Abad del Cusco, to discuss the possibility of academic collaboration. Though during the deliberations it would be García who first suggested that UNSAAC act as the depository for the objects, by the time the University’s commission arrived in late November, Burger and Salazar had been in confidential conversation with Aguilar for months.

It had taken some time, but Peru had come to the conclusion Yale wanted, apparently all by itself.

‘THESE ARTIFACTS SHOULD BE RETURNED’

The focus of the conversations was how to provide a home in Peru that would keep intact the collection mostly comprising pot shards and bone fragments. The Bingham collection contains no gold and scant silver, which is mostly in the form of small shawl pins. Of the more than 20 vaults in the laboratory on West Campus where the pieces are stored, only one contains metal and tools made from bones.

Lawsuits between Yale and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu have hindered scholarly work involving them.
Lawsuits between Yale and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu have hindered scholarly work involving them.

Most everything else is ceramic. Of the more than 5,000 pieces in the collection, less than 400 are considered to be of good enough quality to be shown in a museum.

Even these objects are modest. The Inca are known for their citadels and terraces, not for their pots. Their ceramic pieces aren’t painted beautifully like those of the Nazca or Wari, empires that predate the Inca in the Andean region. Nor are they shaped like the whimsical faces found on the vessels of the Moche. There is far less gold, too; the Spanish conquestadores melted much of it down in the 16th century. It’s telling that most of the major Peruvian museums’ Inca exhibits have at least one large architectural model.

The Bingham collection is, perhaps, especially simple. Machu Picchu is thought to have been abandoned as the empire was collapsing; the valuable objects are thought to have left with the people.

Yale ends a 100-year controversy by beginning the process of returning artifacts to Peru.
Yale ends a 100-year controversy by beginning the process of returning artifacts to Peru.

But both Yale and Peruvian officials agree that to discuss the nature of the objects is to miss the point.

In explaining the impetus for returning the objects, Yale emphasizes the distinct importance of these objects to Peru. “The collections are unique in a sense that Machu Picchu has become synonymous with Peruvian national identity,” Burger said. “That is the reality that Yale’s acknowledging.”

Peruvians, however, highlight another reality, one that goes beyond the issue of national identity. “It is about Yale keeping its word,” Cino said. “Yale promised to give [the objects] back and, if you promise to give something back, then you should.” It is a case of rightful ownership and one that Ossio said should have been solved “in previous years.”

For their part, many members of the Bingham family have taken a position similar to Peru’s, though they emphasize that there is not an official family position. “I think back to when I was at Yale in 1961 which was the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu, and remember feeling somewhat embarrassed that the artifacts were still at Yale,” recalled John H.L. Bingham ’61, Hiram’s grandson. “We had all known in the family that they were supposed to be returned to Peru.”

Abigail Bingham Endicott, recalled a letter that her father, Hiram Bingham IV, wrote to his father the explorer in 1942 that “used the phrase ‘these artifacts should be returned,’” citing the amount of time that had passed and the relative importance of the objects to Peru as compared to Yale.

The Nov. 23 memorandum walks the fine line between the two positions. Everyone acknowledges that the objects will belong to Peru once they are returned, but the accord conveniently leaves ambiguous the issue of current patrimony. “We’re not in anyway acknowledging that Hiram Bingham or Yale violated any agreement,” Burger said.

TAKING CARE OF A COLLECTION

There is a third reality though. To an archeologist, tiny, rather unceremonious shards are important regardless of to whom they belong. “By measuring this,” Salazar explained gesturing to the curvature of a piece of ceramic smaller than her thumb, “we can tell that it came from a pot that size,” pointing to a fully restored jar nearly two feet tall on the other side of her West Campus laboratory. Examining residue on the pieces and the composition of the clay used offers insights into what people ate; analysis of bone fragments can show how old a person or animal was when he died or how different people were related.

As Peruvian archeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters explained, “These are the only witnesses that we have of what really happened at Machu Picchu. Everything else is bologna.” At his home in Lima, he lamented the fact that the objects were infused with ideological issues like nationalism and identity because such a conception can hinder scientific inquiry.

In this case, he says the Peruvian fight to get the pieces back has overshadowed the issue of what will happen to them, especially the non-museum quality pieces, when they return. Much like DNA in criminal records, archeological evidence can, many years later, become meaningful. But much like DNA, if not stored properly, it can be rendered useless. Pieces in good condition are required to answer the core questions of archeology: Who was here and what were they doing? If you cannot answer those, Castillo explained, you cannot answer anything.

So archeological evidence had better be protected.

That was tone of the 2007 memorandum of understanding, which revealed Yale’s reluctance to return pieces in the research collection. The University requested to hold “usufructuary rights” to the non-museum-quality objects for up to 99 years, a provision heavily criticized in Peru. Yale also set forth that the center that would house the museum-quality objects, “shall meet standards of security, and other technical specifications agreed upon by the parties.” No objects would go back until the center was built.

Peruvians heard only another imposition. But many pointed out that Peru does not have a stellar record of preserving its artifacts. “So much stuff has been lost, destroyed, stolen … vanquished in the national depositories of archeological collections,” Castillo said. He believes that Yale wrongly held the objects, but still remains concerned about their safety when they return to Peru.

Peruvian officials are aware of this perception. “[There has been a lot of talk] that we were not able to keep the pieces,” Cino said, adding, however, that such a concern should never compromise Peru’s right to its artifacts. “It’s like a mother with a child. She’s poor and does not have enough to give it as much food as we might give. Do we have the right to keep the child?”

Asked about Castillo’s serious concerns, Ossio, an anthropologist by training, said, sighing, “Some people think that nothing can change,” conceding that Peru has a rocky history of preservation. “Now Peru is much better at protection. … [T]hings are improving — it’s not as in the past.”

Ossio pointed to the new Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Chiclayo and the Museo Larco, which reopened in September after an extensive renovation and has opened its storehouse to the public. Both have been widely praised for their conservation and museography. Both museums are also privately run.

Yale has wanted to keep the collection out of the national depositories. “We were afraid if it simply was returned, say, to the government, and it went into the storehouses … as just one more collection, that those kinds of worries that Luis Jaime [Castillo] had might become really prophetic,” Burger said.

FROM COFFEE TO COLLABORATION

The agreement signed on Friday between Yale and UNSAAC is designed to do that. It creates a jointly run research center in Casa Concha, a 16th-century mansion just off of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas — an especially meaningful location as one of Yale’s chief concerns has been the objects’ placement near the capital of the Inca empire. The terms set out a framework for making the pieces accessible to academics across all disciplines. “That, in a sense, keeps them of interest because they are objects of study. They’re not objects to be counted and then warehoused,” Burger said.

He knows this firsthand. Though he is primarily an expert on Chavin culture and the formative era, he came to Yale as an undergraduate in part because of the Bingham collection, having been to Machu Picchu in high school. He finally got to start working with it nine years later, when he returned as a professor with Salazar in 1981.

They found a collection that had been largely untouched for more than 30 years. Administrative records show that students and pottery specialists began restoring the pieces as early as 1913, but in 1980 most were sitting in storage. Some pieces were in their original boxes.

“It was time that someone really focused on it,” Burger said.” That’s why the collections are here — to be worked [on].”

The first task to be done was organization. Over the course of two years, Salazar, with the help of students, painstakingly counted and recatalogued the pieces. She and Burger then began a 15-year research process that culminated in “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas,” the largest American exhibit about the civilization ever assembled. “There had been so many advances in archeology,” Burger said. “It was prime to re-examine using new techniques.”

Their work paid off.

With the help of physical anthropologist John Verano and zooarchaeologist George Miller, the studies disproved many of Bingham’s theories, as well as those of his contemporaries. The ratio of females to males, for instance, was not 4-to-1 as George Eaton had asserted in 1916, but closer to parity; Bingham’s 1948 hypothesis that Machu Picchu was inhabited by “Virgins of the Sun” was no longer plausible.

Ultimately, the studies carried out in the 1980s and 1990s in New Haven allowed Salazar and Burger to posit that the people buried at Machu Picchu were the yanacona, or servants who cared for the royal families. Their findings inspired Burger to reach out, first to prominent Peruvian academics, to incorporate their research into his narrative of the mountain, and then to Eliane Karp-Toledo, who was then the first lady of Peru, to propose a museum at Machu Picchu.

The government’s response, to try to win the objects back from Yale, and the subsequent antagonism generated toward the University made Burger’s goals much harder to achieve. Credibly presenting findings is difficult when you’re seen as the gatekeeper of an embattled collection. “You can’t do any displays,” Burger said.

The dispute’s progression to the courtroom, he felt, made it worse. “Courts are inherently adversarial,” he said. The lawsuit between Yale and Peru stalled work on the collection. “It’s totally disruptive,” Salazar explained. She added in January that even the negotiations process had taken her away from her work, a DNA study on the pieces, for nearly six weeks. Burger concurred: “You’re just tied up in this.”

Worse yet, even a final decision in a prolonged lawsuit would not provide closure, as “the two sides [would be] even further apart and less satisfied,” Burger said. As Salazar put it, “It was a no-win situation. We could win the lawsuit but what would it have left us.”

This, the University maintains, was always its position — that the case had to be decided around a negotiating table rather than at a judge’s bench. “They always wanted to have some partner,” Salazar said of Yale officials. With the encouragement and support of University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson, Salazar and Burger tried to find one.

At the end of the summer, Castillo, a good friend of Burger and Salazar, recommended Aguilar and UNSAAC, explaining that the rector had expressed interest in working with Yale archeologists to resolve the issue.

Castillo arranged for the two to meet over coffee in Lima. The discussion turned into an excited phone call to the jungle, where Burger was conducting research with a student. Days later, Burger, Castillo, Salazar and Aguilar took an impromptu trip to Cusco where they spoke in more detail and explored Casa Concha among other potential homes for the artifacts. For the next three months, the informal conversations about the possibility of working together continued by phone and e-mail. Burger and Salazar brought the idea to Yale’s officers.

On Friday, their collaboration became official.

ROAD TO RESOLUTION

The atmosphere around the coffee table was calm. But just outside the café’s walls, where the decisive conversation taking place was privy to few, a fight was brewing.

On Sept. 27, García gave an ultimatum to Yale: Return the pieces by July 7 or be considered “treasure hunters.” A month later, Prime Minister José Antonio Chang announced a legal, academic and media campaign to recover the pieces. And in November, the president launched his national and international campaign, which Aguilar said came as a surprise.

“But happily,” he said, “we already had the guarantee from Yale University so that it would be the two universities working together.”

And at the end of the first week of November, days after García asked for Obama’s intervention and thousands had protested in Lima and Cusco, Levin sent an e-mail to Zedillo, who has run the University’s center for globalization since 2002 and was in China at the time. Levin asked if he knew anyone in the sitting Peruvian government. There had been “many conversations behind the scenes,” Levin said Monday, but Yale was having trouble getting in touch with the highest levels of the Peruvian administration. Zedillo recalled a sense of urgency in the message — Yale needed to reopen a dialogue about the artifacts.

There would be no convention at the White House and Levin said, “no direct intervention [from the U.S. government].” White House spokesperson Shin Inouye confirmed that the Obama administration “was not involved with the transfer.”

Beneath the surface of Peru’s rhetoric were, according to Levin, “signals that they’d be interested in getting back into discussions.” And Levin realized Zedillo could help the two parties move around the impasse.

“Professor Zedillo is very well-respected throughout Latin America,” Levin said. “I thought his involvement would make clear to the Peruvians that we were serious about trying to reach an agreement.”

Having received Levin’s e-mail, Zedillo helped put Yale in contact with García Belaúnde, Peru’s foreign minister, which was the first official step in brokering the November agreement.

“Whatever crisis there was at that moment, this helped to mitigate it,” Zedillo said.

Judging from the response to Zedillo’s presence at the negotiations in Lima, it did. Less than two weeks separated Levin’s initial contact with the former Mexican president and the Yale delegation’s arrival in Peru.

The November agreement Levin and García Belaúnde would come to sign marked the only agreement not subject to further ratification the two parties penned in the decade they battled for the artifacts. It would cause celebrations throughout Peru and changed the reputation of a university stressing its role in the global community.

Knocking on wood has been a common gesture among those anticipating the benefits of the joint venture whenever a potential new project has been mentioned. Even now that the ink has dried on Friday’s agreement, a further guarantee of the good faith so many on both ends are quick to emphasize, some remain concerned about whether the future will, in fact, bring all the artifacts back to Peru — they have not stopped knocking.

For the final installment of this three-part series — a look both at the concerns surrounding the agreement and the legacy it is expected to leave behind — see tomorrow’s News.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Now complete the final two panels of the Yale Reformation Triptych: ***Peru*** /***Geronimo***/ ***Slave Labor***

  • howardn

    Can’t wait for the Wikileaks version of what really happened.