U.S. returns pre-Columbian Mayan artifact to Guatemalan government

CHICAGO – A pre-Columbian Mayan artifact at least 1200 years old was returned to the Guatemalan government at a ceremony here today, after it was seized last year from a traveler by federal agents at O’Hare International Airport. This repatriation of an ancient artifact resulted from a joint investigation between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The pre-Columbian era refers to a period before Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas. The artifact, which is about 30 inches high and weighs about 50 lbs., has an estimated value of $20,000 and dates back to between 200 and 800 A.D.

On March 27, 2006, a CBP officer at O’Hare International Airport encountered the artifact after an unwitting international traveler attempted to illegally bring it into the United States. The traveler claimed the artifact had been given to him as a gift by a Guatemalan family in exchange for volunteer work he had performed there. Although the traveler was not criminally charged, the artifact was seized for being illegally brought into the United States which violates the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. The CCPI Act allows the United States to impose import restrictions on archaeological or ethnological material when pillage of these materials places the nation’s cultural heritage in jeopardy. ICE agents had the artifact examined and authenticated by curators Drs. Jonathan Haas and Ryan Williams from the Field Museum’s Anthropology Department, and by Dr. Joel Palka from the Anthropology and Latin American Studies Department at the University of Illinois. It was determined that the artifact is a stone (vesicular basalt) wall tenon with a loop at the end and a Mayan face just under the loop. A tenon is a projection that fits into a notch, hole or groove to form a joint. It was further determined that the artifact originated in the Guatemalan highlands.

"This 1200-year-old artifact is not a souvenir," said Elissa A. Brown, special agent-in-charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Chicago. "It is a tangible link to the proud historical past of the Guatemalan culture. By returning it today we help to reconnect that link. Today’s repatriation demonstrates the success of cooperative efforts between foreign governments to preserve cultural treasures."

"I would like to congratulate and thank the authorities of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection for their continual support and professional work, as well as for the recovery of this priceless Guatemalan carved stone monument of historical significance for our country," said Guatemalan Consul General Gustavo A. Lopez.

"The person who took this artifact was no Indiana Jones," said David Murphy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection director of field operations in Chicago. "This individual tried to take a rich piece of history and national heritage from Guatemala. Our CBP officers at border locations are always on the lookout for pre-Columbian artifacts, which are considered national historic treasures. It gives us great pride in detecting these beautiful cultural properties so they can be returned home."

Source: ICE

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