Archaeological traffic on the web, global combat, not national

On 1st July, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the German cabinet, annalena baerbockand the Government Minister for Culture and Media, claudia rodriguezsigned an agreement with the Nigerian state to return the “Benin bronzes”, a collection of more than 1,100 pieces looted of the royal palace of Benin by the British forces, during the 19th century, which were destined for various museums in the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States.

In October 2021, France set a precedent by returning 26 works from the Abomey royal treasury to Benin, an action that inspired the recent German agreement.

In the international situation, “Mexico does not focus on requesting pieces from museums, beyond the case of the Headdress of Moctezuma”, which has been in Austria since the end of the 17th century and is currently located in the Vienna Museum of Ethnologypoints out Daniel Salinas Córdova, an archaeologist and historian who investigates looting, the illicit trafficking of antiquities and cultural restitution.

The relationship between the country and international museums that have Mexican archaeological objects is collaborative and, as an example, Salinas Córdova recalls that at the British Museum, Mexican pieces were seen as “ambassadors” of national culture. Another example was La grandeza de México, an exhibition in the framework of the bicentennial of independence, which was made up of 350 pieces borrowed from 60 collections from the interior of the Republic and from four countries: France, Italy, Sweden and the United States. On June 3, 24 ritual pieces, sacred objects of the Yaqui people, which were in the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, were returned to Mexico.

Beyond the counted cases, with the campaign #MyHeritageNotForSalethe government focuses on international auctions, says Salinas Córdova. “Auctions have been stopped, others have not, and there have been voluntary returns.” If it is considered that two decades ago one or two cases of this type of sale were counted per year, auctions in cities such as Paris or New York have grown remarkably: Salinas Córdova listed, in 2021, 10 cases that unleashed the media storm; and eight, until last March.

In addition to the auctions, another of the issues on which the government has insisted is the return of the aforementioned Moctezuma Headdress, a request that dates back to the administration of the former president Ernest Zedillo. “There is no reliable evidence that it belonged to Moctezuma, and yet it is the piece that has received the most attention. The Vienna Museum of Ethnology supports the argument that the plume is very fragile, which cannot be disputed because it is based on a technical study carried out by an engineering company in 2012 and in which it was determined that the vibrations, when transporting it in a car or plane, they would destroy the bristles.”

In 2021 there were 10 international auctions, and eight until last March

To a certain extent, the archaeologist points out, the Plume is useful in political terms. “With the claims it is shown that something useful is being done for the culture of the country, it is a way of bragging. What is the point of returning the Plume with irreparable damage?”

The return of parts in auctions is complex due to the jurisdictions between countries. “In Mexican law and in French law, things are established that do not tie. For Mexico it is illegal for the pieces to be private property, which encourages the return of private collectors. In Mexico the fact that they are treated as private property is illegal, while in the eyes of France it is not. The sale is allowed, as long as it is verified that the object does not come from looting or theft. Faced with such an incompatibility, it is up to international law to intervene. The 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) treaty is not retroactive. Everything that was looted or stolen before 1970 cannot be covered by this law and the biggest problem with the black market is that there is no evidence and the responsibility to prove that something was looted falls on the demanding country”, he states.

However —he details—, the recovery of pieces is secondary to the resolution of the working conditions of researchers, curators and museographers of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). “First, those who care for the heritage should be served.”

In Mexico, at the local level, there is trafficking or buying and selling of archaeological pieces through private Facebook groups. “An illicit offense is not exclusive to Mexico —it happens in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East—, but it is a counterpart to the political boasts of the government,” says Daniel Salinas.

“Archaeological pieces are offered on social networks and the government does not do what is necessary to stop this impressive traffic,” says another archaeologist, an expert on the subject, who prefers to remain anonymous.


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The contradiction, he says, is that while the Executive requires that heritage not be marketed abroad, it does not stop local traffic. When there is an auction abroad, he complains, while there are people who sell archaeological pieces and show videos of how they take them out of excavations; destroy information and alter contexts”.

In the INAH, he mentions, there are 850 researchers, of whom only around 300 are archaeologists. “The imbalance causes the total neglect of sites open to the public and deposits that those who know about the remains take advantage of and take them out to market them. Everything has been done very stealthily; They post the photograph and the price is given by inbox. They even send the pieces by courier.”

The archaeologist emphasizes that López Obrador announced the formation of a “kind of specialized police, copied from the Italian model of the Carabinieri, a project that cannot be carried out overnight, much less without the collaboration of specialists: archaeologists. . Collaborative work between the investigative police and archaeologists should be considered to determine if they are pre-Hispanic objects or false pieces. This requires very expensive analyzes and, as far as I know, the idea of ​​formalizing this police does not include the knowledge, capacity or resources to carry out the tasks mentioned by Pres.


One of the suspicions about virtual trafficking is the presence of organized crime or colluded archaeologists, “but little is known about it,” says Salinas Córdova. The Salvamento archaeologist, Omar Espinosa, adds that “although there are no official data, illegal activities are lucrative and organized crime groups are present in areas where there are archaeological zones or remains. Much has been said about the friction between these archeology groups and teams lately.

For Espinosa, the relationship between illegal trade networks and other illegal activities should be thoroughly investigated. There is a probability, for example, that there are colluding archeology professionals, since black market networks are complex and require validations, she points out. “There are documented cases of people who enter the Archeology degree in search of systematizing the looting of archaeological assets, bragging about their activities. That is an ethical lack of archaeological professionalization in Mexico and attention must be paid and eradicated.”

In the year 2021, he recalls, a case arose at the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, where students denounced a student from the archeology course who had looting activities in the surrounding areas. “Although it would seem like an isolated case, it is likely that we are unaware of other similar eventualities due to the discretion of the participants and their condition of complicity in larger looting networks,” he concludes.


Last March, Austria returned to Mexico an archaeological piece extracted from Campeche. On the right, Stela 3 of the Mayan site La Mar, whose return by the US was agreed in 2021. Photo: CULTURA.

Daniel Salinas
“In Mexican law and in French law, things are established that do not tie. For Mexico it is illegal for the pieces to be private property”

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