The rule of “finders, keepers” has held true for most archaeological discoveries at least since museums, as we now know them, have existed. Collectors of foreign objects have been around, of course, as long as war, but the officialization of plunder for the purpose of exhibiting foreign treasures in public spaces dates back to the Enlightenment (mid 18th to early 19th centuries), when feeding museums was part of anthropologists’ tasks, an expectation that survived until very recently. Explorers and discoverers were romanticized and immortalized in literature and, later, film. The debate over ownership of archaeological sites and objects has followed a similar arch; now the decolonization of knowledge and critiques of cultural appropriation are central to anthropological debates. Despite growing public questioning of ownership of the past and its objects, the ghost of Indiana Jones continues to capture and seduce many. The battle over who decides over the Mayan archaeological site “El Mirador” in northern Guatemala exemplifies both how the myth of the white male explorer and treasures’ rightful keepers remain alive today, and the scale of its consequences.
Alejandra Colom writes in Platypus, the blog for the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology & Computing (CASTAC).
It is a timely piece bearing in mind the current controversy over the attempts by the US archaeologist, Richard D. Hansen to ‘privatise’ the site. The battle over access and ownership of the El Mirador site has even reached the floor of the U.S. Senate with Senate Bill 3131 Mirador-Calakmul Basin Maya Security and Conservation Partnership Act of 2019. This Bill would seek to allocate USD $60M to the ‘park’. This is all very worrying when also viewed through the lens of chronic corruption lying at the heart of the Guatemala Congress.
Donna Yates writes in the Anonynous Swiss Collector blog about the case – a blog which talks of ‘antiquities theft, art crime, and the complexities of cultural objects’ – and seeks to unpick the connections between Hansen and the proposers of the Bill and what motivates them. Is it their love of Mayan antiquities, is it a way to reduce migration from Guatemala to the North, or is it something else entirely?
Both Alejandra and Donna make reference to a short VICE News video about El Mirador, including an interview with Hansen carried out by Charlet Duboc, which certainly leaves a strange aftertaste. None of this satisfactory.
Hansen’s project could put at risk the forestry concessions that have been in place for the last 25 years in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. These concessions have been successful in that the local population have managed to reduce the rate of deforestation through detering illegal logging and good forestry management.