Some archaeological news today, courtesy once again of Archaeology.com.
*After many years of disputes and arguments, Peru will be getting back all the Machu Picchu artifacts taken by Hiram Bingham III a century ago, which have been held by Yale University since that time.
Peru claims it will ensure that the artifacts remain accessible to researchers, though, for American researchers at least (and those from most other parts of North America, Europe, and various other parts of the world), they will hardly be anywhere near as accessible as they were up until this point.
I am so happy for the people of Peru, that valuable and interesting research on their history and culture being done by scholars from some of the top universities in the world – those in New York and New England – will be cut off, and will now face serious obstacles – the need for travel funding, for a start – to continue. What a victory for the Incan people.
And Senator Chris Dodd, ever the loyal representative of his constituents’ best interests, leaves us with a statement I should have expected from the Peruvian side, arguing that “These artifacts do not belong to any government, to any institution, or to any university — they belong to the people of Peru,” by which he obviously meant that they belong to the government of Peru and/or to whichever university or institution in Peru will come to house them from now on.
I am tempted when I see these kinds of developments to respond in a snarky, knee-jerk fashion, as I have above. But, of course, in reality, the whole issue is far more complicated than that, and I acknowledge and respect that. The more I read, and discuss, and learn, and think about these issues, the less sure I can be of the right answers. But, perhaps there is no right answer. Perhaps it is so difficult because there is no right answer, no easy way to resolve these kinds of situations to everyone’s benefit.
Because, ultimately, it’s not as simple as Sen. Dodd makes it out to be – there are all kinds of implications and repercussions. What does this mean for Yale’s reputation? The Yale Daily News article that I’ve linked to above doesn’t portray the university in a particularly negative light, but I am sure that plenty of other articles (esp. ones in Spanish-language publications) do. And is that really fair? What does this mean for contemporary understandings and interpretations of historical instances of acquisition? Are we really okay with allowing contemporary political situations dictate how we (re)interpret events of the past? What constitutes theft? What constitutes looting? Fuck, what constitutes “Peru” for that matter? If Hiram Bingham was a looter and a thief, does that make Howard Carter a looter and a thief too? I guess so. Is anyone spared? Or is the entire discipline of archaeology no better than the black market thieves and looters archaeologists are constantly fighting against?
Is there anything to the argument that cultural heritage belongs to the world, to humanity as a whole, or is there not, simply because Peru and Egypt and so-and-so and so-and-so say so, and because we in the West are too full of post-colonial guilt to allow ourselves to challenge their assertions without coming across as the bad guys?
… I really don’t know what to make of this. I wish we had discussed this more extensively in my Museum Studies class this term.
*Meanwhile, in other news, the Bishop Museum has put online, freely and publicly accessible, its database of over 12,800 Hawaiian archaeological sites.
I can’t wait to look through this and find out more about Hawaiian palaces and castles. Wait, no. About metal tools and weapons. No, no, they didn’t have any of those either. Paintings? No. Maybe archaeologists will find more large-scale wooden sculptures of the Hawaiian gods, one of the few forms of high art (read: not crafts, not textiles) the Hawaiians had. I wouldn’t hold my breath – most of those statues were destroyed, along with most other remnants of the traditional religion, when the Hawaiians decided, on their own, freely and willingly, to abandon their traditions, their heritage, their tradition and culture in favor of iconoclastic Christianity.
So… maybe we can go through the database and read about pottery sherds, coconut husks, kapa textiles, and grass huts. Woo.
But, to be serious for a moment, it does appear that this database consists primarily of lists of accession numbers or call numbers, official site IDs, and such like that. To take one example:
Hawaiian Place Name : Not available
Bishop Museum Site Number : 50-Oa-A04-017
State Site Number : 50-80-14-2294
Tax Map Key : 2-9-16:
Puuhonua Heiau. The place now known as the Castle home. (Vicinity of Puuhonua Street, 1957.)
Sterling/Summers, 1962, BPBM Press, Sites of Oahu, p. 285 Westervelt, Legends of Honolulu, p. 131
So, if you’re in the islands, and have the kind of professional researcher authority to get access to the actual archives & artifacts, this database can be a fantastically convenient first step towards finding the call numbers to request the specific materials you’re looking for. If you’re not, don’t expect to find any images, lists, descriptions, or the like here.
Ah, well. It’s a start at least.