Hike a mere half-mile up Hillhouse Avenue, take a right on Sachem Street, and a mysterious world 3,500 miles away suddenly emerges: the ancient Inca society at Machu Picchu, Peru.
Unassumingly sandwiched between plain classroom buildings, the Yale Peabody Museum, home to the exhibit, features an epic photo of rolling canyons and ancient clay homes. An Inca Aryballos for holding corn beer sits in a glass case. Three Sapa Incans are dressed in colorful robes. An eerie whisperer utters over the PA system in Quechua, the native Incan language.
On the dark wall, a photograph of Yale historian Hiram Bingham III, who excavated the artifacts and many more from the region in 1911, is pictured as part of the original expedition that, the poster reads, included topographers, medical doctors, a geologist, an osteologist, an archeological engineer and even several Yale students.
But one central part of the story is conveniently missing from the exhibit: a 95-year-old tale of discovery and deceit, world-class research and nationalist movements, politics and pride, ambiguity and conviction. It is the illustrious tale of the ever-changing relationship between Yale and Peru, a partnership that hit its lowest point yet last month when the Peruvian government reiterated its demand for the artifacts to be returned and declared its intention to sue the University in the coming months.
Long before relations turned sour, though, Yale and Peru were close partners. Peru had benefited from the endless publicity Yale was garnering for their country. Meanwhile, Yale researchers had gained an edge over other archeologists, suddenly possessing mysterious artifacts bound to provoke endless intellectual discovery.
In fact, it took a cooperative effort, between Bingham and a Peruvian named Melchor Arteaga, to reach Machu Picchu, the only remaining undiscovered city of the lost Incan empire. And Peruvian academics and indigenous people relished his fascination.
Peruvian President Augusto Leguia granted a 10-year extension to Bingham’s efforts, and local newspapers hailed the tourism boom that Bingham’s expedition would surely bring, according to Chris Heaney ’03, who received a Fulbright Scholarship to live in Peru and write a book on the controversy.
“Where others had seen rubble or tombs for looting, though, Bingham saw perfect white granite stonework and temples recalling the Incas’ oldest creation myths,” Heaney wrote in a recent Legal Affairs article.
But just as Bingham reached the pinnacle of his popularity in Peru, the showdown that would come 95 years later was subtly foreshadowed. Some Peruvian intellectuals expressed dismay at the exportation of precious Peruvian treasures.
And according to documents obtained by the News, the Peruvian government, too, had no intention of transferring property rights to Yale or to the National Geographic Society, Bingham’s co-sponsoring organization. If not immediately, records show that Peru expected everything back.
One document, an agreement signed between Bingham and Peru in 1912, included a caveat that may prove central to impending legal arguments: “The Peruvian Government reserves to itself the right to exact from Yale University and the National Geographic Society of the United States of America the return of the unique specimens and duplicates.”
Yale, 95 years later, had a counter-argument. It cited, without specifics, an 1852 civil code in Peru that gave Yale “title to the artifacts at the time of their excavation and ever since.”
While many archeological experts agree that Yale has taken great care of the artifacts, few said they support their legal position.
“The position of Yale, as reported, seems a very contradictory one,” said famed archeologist Lord Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University. “If it’s a loan, then it’s legally the property of the lender. I find the whole thing breathtakingly arrogant.”
Yet the story had not entered its nearly century-long hibernation yet. In 1921, after Bingham had served as a high-ranking officer in World War I, a Peru consulate invoked the contract, requesting that all the excavated artifacts be returned. Bingham himself had even expressed in a letter obtained by the News in 1915 that artifacts were property of Peru, not Yale.
But Heaney said relations between Peru and foreigners soured in the years during the war. Bingham had become suddenly disappointed in Peru. Yale returned no artifacts from Machu Picchu and a little over half of the essentially worthless boxes of bones obtained in a 1915 expedition elsewhere in Peru. In one sense, the issue was whether Peru could be trusted to care for artifacts still brimming with mystery.
“Peru has a long history of problems in terms of security of its collections,” said Yale professor Richard Burger, the Yale-Peabody Museum exhibit curator who helped to resurrect research on the controversial artifacts.
Citing a recent robbery of more than 4,000 artifacts from the Peru national museum, Burger said the law is clearly on Yale’s side, but also acknowledged Yale’s ability to have preserved them over the past century.
After all, at the time of their introduction to Yale, students on campus may have seen the Peru artifacts as having been rightfully obtained as “treasure” only after a long and tiring struggle by Bingham and his team. In an article published in the News on Jan. 13, 1913, the artifacts are curiously referred to as “trophies” in the headline.
From another perspective, Yale does indeed have much reason to be proud of its unmatched work on the Machu Picchu. Burger, who is largely credited along with his wife for popularizing recent research on the site, said that all students throughout the world who learn about the Incan culture are able to do so much in part due to Yale research.
The question of timing also has rich historical roots. One explanation, as suggested by Roger Atwood, an author on antiquity looting, is the convergence of political, cultural and global factors. Politically, Peru’s current first lady, who is of French descent and is relatively unpopular in Peru, has outspokenly advocated for the artifacts. Culturally, Atwood said, there is a counter-globalization feeling among the people that inspires them to support such policies.
And globally, there has been a recent trend of showdowns between universities and countries that claim that their exhibits were looted. But Atwood said the circumstances surrounding Yale’s apprehension of the artifacts must be distinguished from looting cases.
“Whatever the standards were, it seems pretty clear to me that Hiram Bingham wasn’t looting,” Atwood said. “It reminds me [more] of colonial plunder. We know exactly where they are from, and the removal from the place of origin does have this kind of whiff of colonialism to it.”
The other explanation is a solution in disguise. In some sense, the recent success of Machu Picchu research in America — Burger said, “Wherever you go, people are saying I want to go to Machu Picchu” — lends itself to the idea that Peruvians are in some way envious and looking to expand the very scarce collection of Incan artifacts that currently exists in Peru.
Thomson said Burger’s fundamental interest in discovery will likely lead him to devise a creative solution that perhaps concedes Peru’s rights to the artifacts but also works out a loan or creative joint venture for the shared benefit of both parties.
Ninety-five years after the relationship between Yale and Peru began, it is at a low point, but an uncertain one. Elections in Peru have entered a runoff, which may elect either a free-market advocate or a nationalist left-wing candidate. And even if the lawsuit is filed, neither party — given the utter significance of the precious artifacts in question — will concede easily.