Released today, Christopher Heaney’s ’03 book “Cradle of Gold” tells the story of Yale explorer Hiram Bingham’s expeditions in Peru at the turn of the 20th century. Bingham discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu, the last Incan city, and brought home artifacts that still reside in the Peabody Museum, and lie at the heart of a century-old dispute between Peru and Yale. In an interview with the News, Heaney said the research for his book, which he began as an undergraduate, has made him think deeply about his alma mater and about the role of academic inquiry in history.

Q.How did you become interested in this story?

A. I was a senior at Yale in the fall of 2002. I was a Latin American studies major, and for one of my history seminars I wrote about Hiram Bingham’s career in politics. It got me familiar with the Bingham family papers in Manuscripts and Archives. That spring, I began working on my senior essay, about the Yale-Peruvian expeditions. In March it became public for the first time that Peru was trying to press Yale for the return of the artifacts.

I worked two years in journalism, and while working I knew this was a story I didn’t quite want to let go because I didn’t understand it fully yet. I had only worked with the American archives, and I was curious as to what would happen if I tried to tell the story using both sides, also using what was kept in the archives in Peru. I applied for a Fulbright and tried to do research in local and national archives in Peru to get a sense of how the expedition was perceived from that side.

Q.What was the research process like?

A. I was in Peru from August 2005 through November 2006, with a couple spells when I was back in the U.S. for a few weeks. I went through a lot of shifts in how I felt about the project and about Bingham and Peru and Yale. I went down there thinking I understood how things worked, but realized how much the Peruvians had contributed to the Yale expeditions, and how much Bingham did promoting Machu Picchu, turning it into an engine of local prosperity. As I got a better sense of Bingham’s contributions, I was also forced to think of this not just as a historical project, but also as a present, personal and political one.

When I told a guide in Peru where I went to school, he said, “Maybe you can tell us where the gold is.” My first reaction was that Hiram Bingham didn’t take gold from Machu Picchu — that’s a misconception, a black legend about what the Yale expeditions did. But I realized that at the heart of that statement was a real desire to know and have some accounting of what happened. Bingham didn’t loot Machu Picchu. He found no gold at the site. But he had to submit to government control of his excavations, which meant at the time that the artifacts only left the country on the condition that Yale would return them if asked. Writing the book was a response to that question from the guide. Though there wasn’t gold per se, there was history that hadn’t been told yet, and that explains why Peru is at loggerheads with Yale today.

Q.Do you see Bingham as a hero or a villain?

A. Anybody looked at under a microscope is extremely complicated, and any decision is especially hard to understand a century afterwards. I don’t think my portrayal of Bingham is specifically heroic or, on the other side, morally compromised. What I do think is interesting about him is that he embodies so many of the different ways that we as Americans or graduates and or members of the Yale community interact with the world.

The beginning of his work in Peru is marked by this fascination, curiosity and inspiration with the local culture. He set out to do incredible things with a lot of help from the Peruvians. No one had taken the Spanish chronicles, laid them on the landscape and really tried to find where these last Inca capitals were, and he did so. He didn’t understand everything that he saw, but he’s been credited with opening up the field of Inca archeology. It was the perfect marriage of his ambition, knowledge and ability to build networks in Yale and Peru that could give these last cities their due.

It’s the perfect parable: What happens when you love something so much, and you’re so fascinated and taken with it that you begin to think it belongs to you, and that you should be the sole interpreter of it. Bingham came to feel that the best place for these artifacts was not Peru, which was developing its museums at the time, but rather was at Yale. It’s unclear whether he told Yale or not, but he didn’t publicize the decree that said Peru could ask for the artifacts back whenever they wanted.

It’s an ambiguous story for me, beyond heroism and moral compromise. It’s about academic ambition and inspiration, and not being able to let go, not really seeing that in studying the past sometimes we can make ourselves part of it, and enter these stories of colonization and possession that have been ongoing for the last 500 years.

Q.Did working on this story alter your relationship with Yale?

A. Yale made me who I am. I went to a public school in New Jersey, and hadn’t really been exposed to the type of scholarship and incredible people who are at Yale. In that sense my opinion of Yale hasn’t changed, and if anything has been enriched through working on this project. It began at Yale and came to life through the archives of the University.

That said, I think if you love something like I do Yale, you have to also have a very critical feeling towards it, too. Yale’s motto is “light and truth.” It’s about enquiry and understanding and telling the truth about what you find. That’s what I feel like I had to do given what was in Yale’s own archives.

Everyone at Yale should be able to have access to the information about this case and be able to weigh the moral questions, as well as the legal questions. Yale has done some amazing work with the artifacts, and my book by no means diminishes that — the artifacts at Yale contributed to our understanding of the Inca in many ways. But that should be on balance with the ethical implications of the fact that the artifacts left Peru under the assumption that they should be returned.

Personally, I believe, and say in my book, that the artifacts should go back, but I would never say what I think Yale should do, and don’t have an opinion about the legal matters of the case.

The majority of the Yale-Machu Picchu collection is the contents of burials and things found in cemeteries. We’re not only talking about silver and bronze — we’re talking about bones and human remains of people that the Incas or their predecessors or ancestors buried on the slopes of Machu Picchu expecting that they would remain there.