Empires of Mystery

Customs uncovers objects archaeologists had missed

Experts believe the treasures found at Miami International Airport must have been plundered from officially undiscovered tombs throughout Peru.

Times Latin America Correspondent

After visiting a mock-up of a U.S. Customs warehouse, museumgoers will move to this “Rainforest” gallery, where they will find this airplane emblazoned with the exhibition title and artifacts including this double-chambered whistling pitcher in the form of two drums from the Chancay era (A.D. 1200-1450) and this bowl depicting monkeys from the Nazca era (A.D. 1-700).
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
MIAMI -- Grave robbers, stolen artifacts, a mastodon’s jaw and a gold-filled copper fox head. They came together -- illegally -- at Miami International Airport, and now, minus the grave robbers, they move to St. Petersburg.

One of the galleries at the Florida International Museum is being done up to look like a U.S. Customs warehouse at the airport in Miami. It was there that a priceless collection of pre-Inca treasures was seized, items looted by grave robbers from Peru’s rich archaeological sites.

The 208-piece collection is one of the largest hoards of stolen cultural artifacts ever recovered in this country. It includes two mummified heads, a withered arm, gold jewelry, ceramics and textiles dating back to the second century B.C.

At a recent ceremony in Miami, the collection was officially handed back to the Peruvian government, three years after U.S. Customs inspectors seized a suspicious crate that was on its way from Peru to Zurich, Switzerland. In gratitude, the Peruvian government agreed to loan a selection of 40 of the most exceptional artifacts to the Florida International Museum.

“We are truly privileged to be able to display these beautiful objects,” said Joe Cronin, the museum’s president.

Archaeologists have been able to identify the origin of each piece, dating them to different civilizations spanning more than 17 centuries, including the Sipan, Moche, Chancay, Inca and Nazca cultures. The collection varies from prehistoric fossils and the huge jaw of a mastodon to intricately woven Inca cloths from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Since no known record exists in Peru of any of the objects, experts believe they must have been plundered from officially undiscovered tombs, of which there are many scattered across the country’s mountainous jungle. Some pieces appear to have come from the now famous second-century tomb of the Lord of Sipan, which was discovered by archaeologists on Peru’s north coast in 1987. That would suggest these treasures have been kept hidden by smugglers for more than a decade.

Peruvian officials have recently cracked down on the trade in cultural treasures, which is estimated to be worth $800-million a year.

“It’s very sad,” said Maria Cristina Baltazar Mateo, an archaeologist with Peru’s National Institute of Culture. “These pieces are being lost not just for Peru, but all of humanity. We don’t have the economic resources to preserve all our historic sites.”

Baltazar, who has studied the stolen collection, said its financial value was impossible to calculate. “They are all important pieces,” she said.

One object from the Sipan tomb stood out though: a gold-filled copper fox head, its tongue sticking out and inlaid with shell eyes, and pendants hanging from the ears. “I haven’t seen anything like that in our museums in Peru,” she said.

The fox head is in the Florida International Museum’s exhibit.

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