Mexico Recovers 929 Pre-Columbian Pieces

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mexico recovered more than 900 pre-Columbian artifacts seized from smugglers in the U.S. and Canada, including 800-year-old fiber sandals, spears and hunting bows looted from nomadic caves, officials said Friday.

The artifacts were seized over seven years by customs agents in Texas, Arizona and Toronto, said Alfonso de Maria y Campos, the director of Mexico's National Anthropology Institute. It took several years to recover the objects because of the bureaucracy involved in identifying them and proving they came from Mexico, he said.

The 929 artifacts include anthropomorphic figurines, miniature bowls, sculptures and clay jewelry from northern, central and western Mexico.

But the most valuable are wooden spears, arrow heads, hunting bows, fiber sandals and textiles from the Pueblo Indians and other nomadic cultures in northern Coahuila state, de Maria said. Officials have concluded the objects were looted from caves because none are registered with museums.

De Maria said the objects are rare because not many northern caves have been explored by archeologists. Many are remote and vulnerable to looting by smugglers seeking to sell antiquities abroad.

"The significance is that many come from the cultures of the north, the first hunter-gatherer groups," he said. "There are very few examples of those because they are objects made from organic materials that disintegrate over time."

Mexican officials did not say if anyone had been arrested for the seizures. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials did not return a call seeking comment.

Mexico and other Latin American countries have stepped up efforts in recent years to recover looted antiquities that often end up in galleries, auction houses and museums abroad. Strict laws in most of the region prohibit the export of all archaeological pieces except for authorized exhibits.

De Maria said Mexico has recovered more than 19,000 stolen artifacts over the last five years, the majority with U.S. help. The two countries have an accord stipulating that any archaeological artifacts seized at the border must be returned if they are proven to be of Mexican origin.

Many archeologists, however, say looting and smuggling will persist because of a thriving market for antiquities. Once artifacts are in the hands of collectors or galleries, authorities in the U.S. and other countries are reluctant to look into whether they have been illegally exported, said Karen Olsen Bruhns, a San Francisco State University archaeologist and consultant for U.S. Customs on antiquities smuggling.

"Dealers in the United States exhibit stolen stuff on Web sites, exhibit stolen stuff in their galleries. And nobody does anything," she said.

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