Losing Maya Heritage to Looters

This article was published in National Geographic about looting in Guatemala, but since it affects Belize as well, I thought I’d share with you all.

The tunnels are the work of “huecheros”—the local slang term for antiquity looters, derived from the Maya word for armadillo. On a building overlooking an ancient plaza, the looters scrawl a message, brazen and taunting: “We, the huecheros, stuck it to this place.”

Almost every pyramid in the sprawling site has a looter’s tunnel on at least one side. Most of the hieroglyphic panels, the pottery, and the jade from tombs here have been raided and sold on the black market to wealthy foreigners. One of the tallest pyramids—a majestic building that slices high in the air like the Temple of the Great Jaguar—was actually cut in half by looters, making it look like a giant stone napkin holder.

Xultún is part of an international trade in Maya antiquities that spread across much of the region in the 1980s and ’90s and has scraped away what little opportunity was left to modern scientists to understand the people who once lived here. This amputation of cultural history—in many ways stretching back to the conquest of the New World—has left us with far more questions than answers about the Maya.

Looting continues to this day, though at a lower rate. Meanwhile, archaeologists, philanthropists, nongovernment organizations, and other leaders are grappling with the fallout from the country’s cultural heritage being plundered for decades.

Xultún is not alone, nor is it terribly unusual. The Mesoamerican antiquity trade goes back almost to the Spanish conquest. In the beginning, Maya sites were spared from looting because they were mostly unknown, but by the 20th century archaeologists were working in the region and uncovering beautiful cities in southern Mexico and Central America.

This continued until the 1970s and ’80s, when civil strife forced the scientists to abandon the sites. The workers they left behind, now expert in locating ancient tombs, turned to the only work they had left to them—raiding untouched sites for things to sell on the black market.

It takes about four hours to get to Xultún from civilization. From Flores, a small tourist city on Lake Petén Itzá, the road starts out on pavement but quickly turns to gravel, then dirt roads, and then muddy 4×4 tracks.

Becoming a Huechero

Business for the huecheros accelerated as more people became fascinated with all things Maya while villagers were dislocated by the 1960-1996 civil war, which was most intense in the 1980s. One former looter worked in the jungles of the Petén from a young age, collecting chicle, a sap harvested from tropical trees and turned into chewing gum. In the 1970s the man, who didn’t want his name used, became a huechero.

The most valuable items were panels with writing on them, statues, and sacrificial ceramic pots. The former looter said that although fellow huecheros often brought good money into the community, they were a tough, lawless group. He tells one story of a friend who made an incredibly lucky find one day.

“He found 14 vessels,” the man says. “That day he got sick with malaria, so the day after he told his friend that he wasn’t coming to work. His friend left and then came back and shot him with his own rifle while sleeping, leaving him to die.”

Later, the reformed looter claims, a few friends tracked the murderer down and repaid the favor. For their part, the end buyers either were unaware or uninterested in how their pots came to their local art dealer.

“At the very beginning, when my collection was started, there was no consciousness of this issue of looting or not looting,” says Fernando Paiz, a Guatemalan businessman who has collected Maya antiquities since he was a teenager in the mid-1960s. “It was just a collector trying to surround himself with pieces that were meaningful and important artistically or archaeologically.”

Subsistence Diggers

Maya looting was fed by the desperation of Guatemala’s long civil war and its aftermath. A polychrome pot might net a looter, or digger, $20 (U.S.) ($100 if it was very nice), while the final buyer might pay $10,000 to $20,000. David Matsuda, an anthropologist who lived among them for ten years at that time, estimated that there are several million such “subsistence diggers,” with only a tiny fraction doing it full-time.

By then, the demand for pots, jade, and panels with writing on them was skyrocketing, along with people’s fascination with the enigmatic Maya civilization. Museums across the United States and Europe clamored for anything Maya and didn’t ask many questions about where they came from. The effects of all this digging have been devastating to archaeology, beyond just the damage to buildings.

“Any whole piece, or even reasonably whole piece, has almost certainly come from a burial or an offering,” says Karen Olsen Bruhns, an archaeologist at San Francisco State University who works in El Salvador. “There are whole areas where people have had their history ripped out and sold in the United States and Europe.”

Where It Goes

What has happened to all the looted material? Most of it has gone to unscrupulous museums or private collections.

Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist at Boston University who has spent his share of time cleaning up after tomb raiders, knows many collectors in Guatemala. Some are very careful with their treasures, but not all are.

“I was visiting my cousin and saw he had a polychrome bowl in his house—a pretty nice one. It was where he put his keys after work,” Estrada-Belli says.

Paiz—whose family operated the largest supermarket chain in Central America, eventually bought by Walmart—has renounced buying looted Maya art and today helps fund legitimate archaeological digs. He’s also trying to build a massive four-story museum that would subsume the current national archaeology museum and display both legitimate pieces and looted material.

85 Percent Fake

Bruhns says this is beside the point, since up to 85 percent of the pots on the market today are fakes. For stone carvings—which are nearly impossible to date accurately—that percentage may be higher. Undoubtedly many U.S. museums today display forgeries. Paiz acknowledges this problem and says one of the donors he visited had a collection that was 95 percent fraudulent.

Still, he says that in order for Guatemala to come to terms with its history, it needs to collect and preserve what it can. Plus, with such a facility, Guatemala can argue for repatriation of museum pieces—even if it means marginally feeding the illicit trade.

“I understand [the opposition’s] point, and it’s very difficult to argue against it. Because if there’s no market, then there would be no looting,” he concedes. “But when you have a choice of seeing a piece go and disappear from the country or be acquired by a foundation that exposes it to researchers and keeps it in the country, [you must choose the latter].”

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