Envoy: From Deep to Dark

Hidden away from view behind unassuming doors, under humming fluorescent lights and encased in corrugated steel, rest most of the six million objects in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The place is deliberately hard to find. If you’re lucky enough to be taken inside, it’s hard not to be reminded of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. After two hours of fisticuffs and truck chases, Indy rescues the Ark of the Covenant from nefarious Nazis and hands it over to the government. The relic is crated and wheeled through a vast storage facility, eventually disappearing into anonymity among thousands of identical boxes containing who-knows-what other priceless treasures.

The Peabody Museum was founded in 1866,  the first anthropology museum in the Americas. This was just as archaeology was beginning its transformation, from what had been a hobby for gentleman antiquarians into a regimented systematic science, and the Peabody helped pioneer excavation techniques and methodology. The museum dispatched expeditions around the globe to collect archaeological and ethnographic artifacts. 

At this time museums served two essential functions: to save things and show them. In its first half century, the Peabody focused on exhibiting. As the collection grew, new wings were added to the stately red-brick museum on Divinity Avenue, north of Harvard Yard. Eventually the rate of acquisition outpaced the availability of space and funds for new construction, and the museum’s focus shifted, from display to study and interpretation. Objects were gradually put away. Today, less than half of one percent of the museum’s collection is on public display. The most valuable objects are never exhibited. The museum’s security isn’t good enough. So they stay in the vault, protected from curious eyes as much as loose fingers.

Among the objects in the Peabody’s storerooms are approximately thirty thousand artifacts from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá, collected by the American archaeologist Edward Herbert Thompson at the turn of the 20th century. These objects are among the most storiedfamous and infamousin the Peabody’s collections. Mexico alleges they were removed from the country illegally, and the artifacts have since been the subject of a lengthy legal battle and long-standing antipathy.

I entered this story in the spring of 2008 when William L. Fash, the Peabody Museum’s current Director, hired me to investigate the questions at the heart of the dispute over the ownership of the artifacts from the Sacred Cenote. I searched the archives to determine the legal status of the artifacts at the time, the conditions under which they were removed from Mexico, and the basis and extent of the Peabody’s proprietary claims on the collection.

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Edward Thompson’s zeal for archaeology was born from his childhood rambles hunting arrowheads around Lake Quinsigamond, near his home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Thompson eagerly devoured accounts of adventures in distant lands and took a particular interest in investigating historical riddles. While studying engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Thompson published an essay in Popular Science Magazine titled “Atlantis Not a Myth,” in which he suggested that refugees from the lost island had come to the New World and constructed the pyramids of Mesoamerica. It caught the eye of several prominent archaeologists, and six years later, in 1885, Thompson received an invitation to a dinner party with members of the Peabody Museum and the American Antiquarian Society. They confronted Thompson with a proposal: travel to Mexico, investigate Maya ruins there, and send specimens back to the United States for study. Massachusetts Senator George Hoar arranged to have Thompson appointed US Consul to Yucatán, a post that provided some financial stability, as well as cover for his real objective.

With his wife and infant daughter in tow, Thompson arrived in Mexico in the spring of 1885. He set up shop in Mérida, the drowsy capital of Yucatán Province. The place was sticky-hot, thick with dust in the dry season, bogged with mud in the wet. He took his time before setting out to the ruins in the interior: learned to speak Spanish and Mayan, attended to his consular duties, and studied the customs of the local Maya, the descendants of the people who built the ruined cities he was meant to explore. 

Thompson completed several surveys for the Peabody and made plaster casts of Maya architecture to be reproduced for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That same year, he stumbled on the chance to purchase a moribund old hacienda estate east of Mérida, one hundred acres that happened to contain the ruins of Chichén Itzá. It was a unique opportunityto actually own the remains of one of the most important Classic Maya citiesand Thompson pounced on it. Chichén Itzá would be Thompson’s home for the next three decades, and the site of his most momentous work. The old plantation house, the casa grande, was itself several centuries old, built of stone taken from the ruins, its walls encrusted with statues and carvings. “Can you imagine a more ideal habitation for me while engaging in my work?” Thompson enthused in one letter home.

Chichén Itzá stands amid the flat plain of subtropical scrubland in the north of the Yucatán Peninsula, about one hundred miles southwest of the modern resort city of Cancún. The city flourished as one of the centers of the Maya world, reaching its height around 800 CE. When Thompson arrived, the city sat crumbling, slowly dissolving back into jungle. Trees sprouted from buildings. The iconic Pyramid of Kukulkan could easily have been mistaken for a wooded hill, and not something made by the hands of men. From the city’s nexus at the Pyramid, a stone-paved causeway strays a quarter mile south into the forest. At the end of this path is the Sacred Cenote, an immense hole in the earth, 180 feet around, with sheer chalky cliffs and a perpendicular eighty-foot drop to the turbid green waters below. A collapsed stone shrine stands sentinel on the rim. More than one early visitor remarked on the mysterious influence that seems to pervade the place.

Cenote is a Spanish corruption of the Mayan word tzonot, “fresh water well.” They are sinkholes, created when rainwater erodes the topsoil and limestone bedrock until they collapse to form a natural well. As the only permanent source of surface water in the region, cenotes were critical resources to the Maya, and took on enormous spiritual resonance. Cenotes were regarded as portals between the earth and the underworld, Xibalba. These openings in the earth served as prime points of contact with the gods, and were important pilgrimage sites. There are several thousand cenotes in Yucatán, but this one is the largest and most sacred. From the ruined shrine at its edge, sacrificial offerings were thrown into the Cenote in hopes of appeasing the rain god Chaac. Over a period of about eight hundred years, the Maya cast precious objects and human sacrifices alike into the waters below.

An old Spanish account from shortly after the Conquest told of how, “if this country possessed gold, it would be this well that would have the greater part of it, so great was the devotion which the Indians showed for it.” Thompson set out to test this story, and chose the Sacred Cenote as the subject of his most ambitious archaeological project. In 1904, Thompson and his team of Maya workers constructed a derrick on the Cenote’s south shore, lowered a steel clam-shell dredge more than one hundred feet down, and hauled up pail-fulls of the creamy yellow silt that lined the Cenote floor.

Eventually artifacts began to show up in the muckexquisitely carved jades, embossed gold discs, clumps of copal incense, wooden weapons, and human remains (including an incense burner made from a child’s skull). The thick muck at the bottom of the Cenote helped to preserve artifacts from decomposing, providing some of the only surviving wood and cloth objects from the pre-Hispanic Maya world. The high quality and craftsmanship of many of the recovered sacrificial objects, and the discovery of materials from as far away as Panama and central Mexico are a testament to the importance of Chichén Itzá’s Sacred Cenote as a center of pilgrimage. Together they represent one of the finest collections of Maya artifacts in the world. 

Over the next five years, the team continued the tedious work of dredging the Cenote floor and sifting carefully through the sediment for artifacts. When returns from the dredge slowed, Thompson returned to the United States and learned how to deep-sea dive in Boston harbor. He came back to Mexico with a Greek sponge diver and two primitive globular cast-iron diving suits, and descended into the Cenote’s murky waters to search by hand for objects the dredge missed. A diving accident left his hearing permanently damaged. Two years later, Thompson declared his work at the Cenote done. 

The Peabody Museum sponsored Thompson’s work, indirectly, through remittances from Frederic Ward Putnam, the museum’s director, and Charles Pickering Bowditch, a businessman and patron of the museum. The exportation of artifacts was patently illegal under an 1897 Mexican law, which decreed that all “archaeological monuments existing in the National Territory are the property of the Nation,” and outlawed the removal of antiquities from Mexico. In order to ship his finds back to his benefactors in Cambridge, Thompson presented “quite a sum of money” to Santiago Bolio, the Inspector of Ruins responsible for enforcement. “To obtain this money cost me many sleepless nights and unhappy days,” wrote Thompson, “but I knew that it was the chance of my life to put him under such obligation that he would hold fast to my interests.” The artifacts recovered from the Cenote were smuggled out of Mexico in the luggage of friends and colleagues. Thompson even employed his wife as a courier. 

This amenable political status quo was upended by the overthrow of President Porfirio Diáz’s regime and the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Thompson scaled back his archaeological work and focused on managing the plantation. Maya peasants, angered by the slow pace of land reform promised by the Revolution, torched the hacienda house in 1921. Thompson’s records went up in flame. This was only the beginning of Thompson’s troubles. The post-revolutionary government did not look kindly on foreigners digging out Mexico’s past, and initiated an investigation into his activities at Chichén Itzá. In 1926, the Mexican government seized the hacienda and charged Thompson with the theft and illegal exportation of archaeological patrimony. Thompson fled via sailboat to Havana and returned to the United States. Mexico sued Thompson in absentia for more than a million pesos in damages. The Peabody Museum and Harvard University were named accomplices in the suit.

The case of the purloined Cenote treasure ignited the press in both nations. Thompson was vilified in Mexico and defended in America. The Mérida weekly Revista de Yucatán denounced “the diving ducks [who] took out innumerable ancient objects, among them many of gold ... the treasures, stolen from Tlaloc [a name for the rain god] … were sold to the millionaires of New York which constitutes a great shame.” Back in Massachusetts, Thompson justified himself in The Boston Globe. “I should have been false to my duty as an archaeologist,“ he maintains, “had I, believing that the scientific treasures were at the bottom of the sacred well, failed to improve the opportunity and attempt to bring them to light and thus make them available for scientific study instead of lying imbedded in the mud and useless to the world.”

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Thompson spent his last years in relative poverty, living with his son in New Jersey, delivering occasional lectures, and drafting a memoir titled People of the Serpent, in which he wrote, “I have squandered my substance in riotous explorations and I am altogether satisfied.” He died in 1935, at the age of seventy-seven. Thompson was audacious, even to the point of recklessness, and was prone to being swept away by romanticized notions of adventure.  He seemed to take a certain pleasure in risking bodily harm in the name of archaeological inquiry, such as when he insisted on diving the Sacred Cenote himself. Though his methods were unorthodox, sometimes brazen, the depiction of him as a grave robber is not quite fair. Looters do not bother to take such copious field notes. He was driven by an expansive thirst to uncover the mysteries of an ancient people then unknown to history.

The criminal case against Thompson was dismissed when he died, but the civil suit dragged on for nine more years until the Mexican Supreme Court declared Thompson not guilty, on a technicality. But the affair left the Peabody’s reputation bruised. An internal Peabody memorandum from the late 1940s acknowledged that the court’s decision still “leaves [the Peabody] as the ultimate recipient of objects exported illegally.” The continued possession of the Cenote artifacts left many at the museum discomfited. One director remarked that the museum now had a “considerable black eye in Mexico.” No Peabody excavations had been allowed in the country since. 

Over the next few decades, the Peabody hosted an exhibition and published several studies and catalogues of the artifacts. In the 1960s and 70s the museum returned several sets of jade and gold artifacts in exchanges with Mexico. Several Cenote jades can be seen at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, and a few more in the Peabody’s third-floor Mesoamerica gallery. But the bulk of the thirty thousand objects Thompson sent back to Cambridge remain in the dark of the Peabody Museum’s storerooms. 

***

Neither the battle lines nor arguments have shifted much in the intervening eighty years. Edward Thompson is not well liked in Mexico. He is considered a grave robber, a common thief who stole a significant piece of Mexican history. The clamshell dredge Thompson used to plumb the depths of the Sacred Cenote is now displayed in the expansive commercial complex that welcomes busloads of tourists to Chichén Itzá. The dredge sits across from the restrooms, next to a bilingual sign explaining its significance. The Spanish text is longer and more scathing than the English. Thompson, it reads, “purchased the Hacienda Chichén and made unscientific excavations throughout the site, beginning with the exploration of the Cenote ... the majority of these he removed illegally from the country and donated to the Peabody Museum of Harvard. It’s a disgrace that many materials were damaged at the time of extraction and there are almost no records of what was obtained.”

***

While many countries enacted laws protecting archaeological remains, starting with Greece in 1827, no international law governed the trade, export, or import of antiquities until the UNESCO Convention of 1970. The laws that now regulate archaeology in this country are among the strictest in the world. In 1990, the US Congress passed the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which legally mandated repatriation of archaeological and human remains belonging to existing Native American tribes. The Peabody Museum is considered a star of honoring repatriation requests. But NAGPRA applies only within the US, and so Harvard’s legal obligation for repatriation ends at America’s borders.  

But as Rubie Watson, a former director of the Peabody, writes, “NAGPRA is not a temporary, passing affair. It has ushered in dramatic and, many would argue, long-overdue changes in museums, establishing an atmosphere of openness that one trusts will be a lasting NAGPRA legacy.” A growing conviction, slowly spreading among archaeologists and museum administrators in the West, holds that sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony should not be hoarded away in storage, where they cannot be accessed by the public (let alone by the descendants of those who created them). 

Though Harvard is under no obligation to repatriate the Peabody’s Sacred Cenote collection, there is a strong ethical case for repatriation. The records are clear: by removing the artifacts from Mexico, Thompson violated Mexican law, and did so knowingly. The Peabody’s reputation continues to be stained by its possession of these artifacts. And for what? What purpose do they serve hidden away in the Peabody’s vaults? They were brought to the Peabody to be studied, and studied they have been. Volumes have been published on the jades, metals, and lithic tools from the Sacred Cenote, but now they are accessed only by the occasional grad student. They are simply preserved, and this is no longer a persuasive justification for their extended stay in America. 

In the end, the decision to repatriate rests with the Harvard Corporation: the President and Fellows of Harvard University. The Corporation, however, is in the business of growing Harvard’s assets, not reducing them. In 2002, Dumbarton OaksHarvard’s research library in Washington, D.C.came to suspect that two Byzantine silver pieces in their collection were forgeries. They sent the pieces to the Oxford Archaeological Laboratory for testing. The lab confirmed that the objects were indeed fakes, and asked if they might be allowed to exhibit them in their museum of forged antiquities. Ned Keenan, Dumbarton Oaks’ Director at the time, recognized that the fakes had no real value to the museum and determined that they might as well be given to an institution that could use them. The Corporation refused. Generally speaking, the Corporation doesn’t want to enable any precedents for the repatriation of university property. If the Corporation were to approve the de-acquisition of even a single object (even a fake!) in a Harvard collection, they would risk a deluge of similar requests that could empty the university’s museums, and coffers. Requests from Native American tribes are fulfilled to the extent the law demands, but other appeals are usually rejected categorically. Two recent case studies of successful repatriation could be helpful in laying such a groundwork: Harvard’s return of the Lowell bells to Russia and Yale’s repatriation agreement with Peru.

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Stalin shuttered Russia’s churches and monasteries in 1929 and outlawed the ringing of bells. Many thousands were melted down. The American philanthropist Charles Crane rescued eighteen brass bells from Danilov Monastery, on the right bank of the Moskva in Moscow. The largest, called the Mother Earth Bell, weighed thirteen tons with a 700-pound clapper. Crane gave them to Harvard, and seventeen were installed in the just-completed tower of Lowell House (the last went to the Business School’s Baker Library). Here they remained, rung at 1pm each Sunday and after every Harvard-Yale football game (Harvard’s score was announced on the Mother Earth Bell; Yale’s on the Bell of Famine, Pestilence and Despair). With the loosening of religious restrictions under perestroika, the Russian Orthodox Church began to press for their return. Eventually, a Russian oil magnate named Viktor Vekselberg agreed to foot the ten million dollar bill necessary to commission replacements and transport the bells back to Russia. In September 2008 Harvard’s replacement replicas were blessed by the Patriarch Alexei II in a ceremony attended by President Medvedev, and on March 17 of the following year the bells tolled in their old belfry for the first time in nearly eight decades.

In the fall of 2010, Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History (endowed by the same Peabody) concluded a model agreement in a similar dispute. In 1911, the American explorer Hiram Bingham arrived in Peru and re-discovered Machu Pichu, the misty redoubt of the terminal Inka. Bingham secured permission to conduct excavations at the site and remove objects for study. The objects remained in New Haven for a century, despite public pressure from Peruvian intellectuals and officials. 

The two disputes bear a striking resemblance to each other: both involve collections of pre-Hispanic artifacts removed from Latin American countries at the beginning of the 20th century and retained by Ivy League universities in their respective Peabody Museums. 

After Peru brought a case against Yale in Connecticut court, the two sides began negotiations, mediated by outgoing Senator Chris Dodd. The result was “a very civilized agreement,” that Dodd says he hopes will serve as a model in resolving similar disputes. Yale agreed to return the objects to a university in Cuzco, the ancient Inka capital, which in turn committed to make the collection freely accessible to all scholars. In Dodd’s words, “Going back to the university in Cuzco, establishing a joint relationship, acknowledging Yale’s treatment of these artifacts over the last hundred years: I think sets a precedent that will allow for other such collections to be able to be moved and to be preserved and to be celebrated in ways that people haven’t thought of in the past.”

Perhaps such precedents will spur administrative headway on other deadlocked repatriation cases. Perhaps Harvard will hurry to avoid the Ivy League indignity of being one-upped by Yale. Or perhaps Indiana had it right with the Ark, “Fools, bureaucratic fools. They don’t know what they’re dealing with.”

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Thompson’s self-defense in The Boston Globe echoes the existential mission statement employed by museums today. By what authority do museums possess the past? While the first museums grew out of the collecting tradition of curiosity cabinets and were conceived as instruments of experiential diversion, their focus shifted in the 20th century to embrace the project of research and education. Museums emphasize their responsibility as custodians of the past, stewards of the sacred debris from the shipwreck of time. Thompson conveys this vision of archaeology as a duty and a burden. In order to reconstruct the puzzle of the past, to unravel the mysteries of our ancestors and confront history head-on, it was first necessary to retrieve all of the pieces. 

Thompson articulates an archaeologist’s imperative, a responsibility to make these remnants of the past “available for scientific study instead of lying imbedded in the mud and useless to the world.” It is a sad irony of history that Thompson recovered these objects from the darkness of the Cenote’s deep, only to have them returned back to the bowels of the earth, beneath the green pastures of Harvard University.