On Nov. 12 of last year, Bonhams auction house in New York sold an ancient Maya vase excavated in 1912 at the ruins of Quiriguá, Guatemala, by Earl H. Morris, who was part of the Archaeological Institute of America’s and Santa Fe’s School of American Archaeology’s third field season at the site. The vase was consigned to Bonhams by the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), and it was purchased for $21,250 by the Dallas Museum of Art. The sale by the St. Louis Society led to an outcry in the archaeological community and official censure and sanctions by the society’s parent, the AIA. On Jan. 10 of this year, the Executive Council of the AIA met and voted to revoke the charter of its St. Louis Society unless all of that body’s board members were replaced by Feb. 1. 

These actions were prompted not only by the sale of the Quiriguá vase, but also by the St. Louis Society’s decision earlier in the fall to auction a group of Egyptian antiquities it had received in exchange for supporting a dig. The issue with these transactions is that while they did not violate any law, they contravene generally accepted ethical standards in contemporary archaeology. Archaeologists who are associated with museums and academic institutions do not sell the objects they excavate, and they tend to abhor any dealings with the art market and its mechanisms of creating value. At the same meeting, the AIA council amended its rules on member societies to forbid them from engaging in transactions involving archaeological objects that would have the “effect of removing such archaeological objects from general availability for scholarly investigation or public display.” 

The affiliated societies of the AIA have existed for more than a century. They function to raise public awareness of archaeology and of the work of the AIA and to raise funds for various sponsored projects. The Edgar Lee Hewett papers at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at the Palace of the Governors contain much correspondence between Hewett and the officers of many AIA societies. The papers show that Hewett maintained a busy schedule of lectures at AIA affiliate societies about the activities of the School of American Archaeology. And those same papers contain the original documents in which a St. Louis businessman agreed to fund Hewett’s excavations south of the U.S. border and to be partially compensated in return with a portion of the finds. These kinds of arrangements  were very common a century ago. The sponsoring institu- tion would often return with choice archaeological specimens and (we hope) leave a portion in the country of origin. For example, this is why the celebrated Egyptian statue of Menkaura and his wife is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and not in Cairo. The museum was one of the sponsors of the expedition that excavated the famous sculpture in 1909. Any number of similar examples can be identified at museums both in the U.S. and in Europe, not to mention the masses of objects at such museums that lack any kind of secure archaeological provenience.

The present dust-up began last fall, when Bonhams published the catalog for its auction of antiquities, planned for Oct. 2 in London. Lot 160, called the “Treasure of Harageh,” consisted of ancient Egyptian objects, dating to the 12th Dynasty, or about 1897-1878 BC. Among the 31 works were silver necklaces, travertine vessels, assorted jewelry of silver, lapis lazuli, and other semiprecious stones, and a unique silver pendant shaped like a bee. According to the catalog, archaeologists of the British School of Archaeology, led by William Matthew Flinders Petrie, excavated the objects in 1913-1914, from a tomb at Harageh, in the Fayum district of Middle Egypt. They were given to the St. Louis Society of the AIA in 1914, in exchange for its financial support of the expedition. The catalog listed the high estimate for the lot at $180,000, a figure justified not only by the rarity and quality of the hoard, but also by its provenance. Flinders Petrie is considered a foundationary figure in the development of modern archaeology. 

From a legal standpoint, objects like those of the Harageh Treasure are catnip for museums in the U.S., because most major institutions follow the recommendations of the American Association of Museums (AAM), which strongly frowns upon the acquisition of archaeological and other objects of foreign cultural patrimony that lack secure archaeological provenance and/or legal export papers from their country of origin. The laws on this matter are tied to a UNESCO convention of 1970, which the U.S. ratified in 1983. The convention was enacted to combat the traffic in looted objects from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Mali. In practice, many museums today will not purchase, and prefer not to accept as gifts, objects that cannot be proven to have been in the U.S. before 1970. The Association of Art Museum Directors created a registry in which AAM-accredited institutions are supposed to publish objects that do not meet its baseline criteria for the acquisition of archaeological material and ancient art. No matter what one thinks about whether museums should collect these kind of objects, the laws and the way they are interpreted have created a vast pool of orphan objects that cannot be donated to a public collection. In this context, it is no wonder the estimates for the Harageh Treasure surpassed $150,000. When an AIA member reported the auction to the institute, it immediately issued a notice expressing grave concern about the sale but noted that the St. Louis Society was a separate not-for-profit organization. At the last minute, the sale was withdrawn, and beginning on the day after the auction, news outlets reported that most, but not all, of the objects were purchased in a private pre-auction sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an undisclosed sum. The AIA then released another statement censuring the St. Louis Society for selling objects that were donated to them with the intention that they remain in a public collection for the benefit of the people of St. Louis. The statement noted further that the sale had damaged the reputation of both the St. Louis Society and the AIA as a whole and that it undermined the activities of the AIA to safeguard global archeological heritage.

The Quiriguá vase, which has been likened to an old English Toby jar because it is a head effigy, measures 18 centimeters high and depicts a grotesque face with a long nose. It was discovered shattered, in the inner room of a building, Structure 1B-2, located on the so-called acropolis of Quiriguá. Recent archaeological and art-historical research shows that the structure dates to the early years of the reign of a Quiriguá ruler named K’ak’ Tiliw, who ruled from A.D. 724 to 785, about the same time as Charlemagne’s rule of western Europe and as the middle stretch of China’s Tang Dynasty. Sylvanus G. Morley, the sometime Santa Fean  and the assistant director of the 1912 excavations at the site, noted in his Guide Book to the Ruins of Quirigua (1935) that the vase was “unquestionably one of the finest examples of the Maya ceramic art that has ever been discovered.” While Morley never hazarded a guess as to the identity of the figure depicted on the vase, later writers have identified it as an image of Ek Chuah, the Maya deity of both chocolate and long-distance merchants. Archaeologist Wendy Ashmore, who excavated at the site in the 1970s, argued that this kind of effigy vessel, which originally had a lid, was used for drinking chocolate and that it might relate to Quiriguá’s role as a significant producer in the ancient Maya cacao economy. Other writers suggest it might depict a dwarf or a foreigner, especially given Quiriguá’s location on the eastern Maya frontier.

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he St. Louis Society of the AIA supported the School of American Archaeology’s excavations in Quiriguá in 1910-1912. Records in the Hewett Papers show that the original plan, developed as early as 1908, was to excavate the Maya ruins at Palenque, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and not to dig in Quiriguá. Hewett negotiated a concession from the Mexican government for the School of American Archaeology excavations. The dig was to be funded by Charles P. Bowditch, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and William H. Bixby, of St. Louis. Each was to contribute $1,500 per year for five years with half of the exportable finds to be divided among the Peabody Museum at Harvard and the St. Louis Society. Bowditch was a wealthy Boston businessman and amateur Mayanist who underwrote much of the Peabody Museum’s investigations in Mexico and Central America for more than 20 years, beginning in the 1890s. Most infamously, he supported Edward H. Thompson’s dredging of the sacred cenote, or well, at the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá, with the finds, including many gold objects, shipped back to Harvard. Thompson’s cenote excavations and the legality of the export of his finds to the U.S. became a significant issue in the Mexican press, but not until after the Mexican Revolution had ended, in the 1920s, and after Bowditch’s death. The Bowditch-Bixby Palenque archaeology plan never came to fruition, mainly because it was eclipsed by the struggle over where the School of American Archaeology should be located. Whereas Hewett and his supporters argued for Santa Fe, Bowditch and his supporters, including the Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas, preferred Mexico City, while the prominent writer Charles Lummis hoped to locate the school in Los Angeles. 

In late 1908, the AIA governing committee for American archaeology voted for Hewett’s plan, which allowed him to successfully lobby the 1909 New Mexico Legislature to establish the Museum of New Mexico and to stipulate that both the museum and the School of American Archaeology would be housed in the Palace of the Governors. As Don Fowler notes in an article entitled “Harvard versus Hewett,”  Bowditch and the Cambridge crowd were defeated, but they never ceased opposing Hewett’s projects or his belief that institutions based west of the Mississippi River should control Southwestern archaeology. While Thompson was dredging the Chichén Itzá cenote, Hewett and his crew, including Morley, traveled to Mexico and Guatemala in search of a suitable archaeological site to excavate. Letters to Hewett from F.W. Shipley, a professor of classics at Washington University and officer of the St. Louis Society relate that the society took over Bixby’s role as an underwriter. They also allocated funds for Hewett to purchase pre-Columbian antiquities for a planned display at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Louis (now the St. Louis Museum of Art). In 1910, Hewett bought crates of Maya and Aztec objects for the St. Louis Society in Mexico and Guatemala. The same year, Hewett, Morley, and Jesse L. Nusbaum did an archaeological reconnaissance at the ruins of Quiriguá. The United Fruit Co. had purchased the property where the ruins are located to develop as a banana plantation, and it offered Hewett not only financial support but also valuable in-kind contributions, such as free passage for personnel and freight on company steamers and railways. As many of Nusbaum’s photos in the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives show, much of the first season of 1911 was spent cutting and burning the forest and vegetation from the ruins so that they might be mapped and excavations begin. While this was (and is) common practice in archaeological projects in the tropics, the problem, as the correspondence makes clear, is that Hewett’s St. Louis funders expected excavations to have begun and for important and exportable specimens to have been uncovered. While one might suggest that Hewett ought to have planned a longer season in 1911, records show that they had barely enough funds to clear the jungle and map the ruins. The correspondence between Hewett and the members of the St. Louis Society from this period reveals a frequently strained relationship. The crates of antiquities Hewett purchased were held up and even temporarily lost in Mexico and Guatemala. Two letters written to Hewett in March 1910 from the St. Louis Society officer John Wulfing even requested that he purchase a necklace of pre-Columbian jade beads for his wife. Under Morley’s direction, the 1912 expedition did excavate several structures at Quiriguá and uncovered not only the ceramic vessel that is the subject of this column but also an important Maya hieroglyphic text and other fine examples of architectural sculpture. 

But the findings failed to meet the expectations of the St. Louis Society, and in 1912, the governing body voted to cease funding the project. The reasons for this decision, as far as can be traced in the correspondence in the Hewett papers, had primarily to do with what the society rightly perceived as a lack of results. Only a handful of papers about the excavations were published in scholarly journals, and no final report was ever compiled. The St. Louis society members were also bitterly disappointed that Hewett’s excavations failed to produce the quantity and quality of archaeological specimens they felt entitled to by their financial contribution. Although Hewett continued to negotiate with the St. Louis society into 1913, there was no renewal of sponsorship. It did not help Hewett’s cause when, in March of that year, Morley unintentionally upset the St. Louis people because he failed to mention their support in an article he wrote for The National Geographic on the Quiriguá excavations. At the time, Morley was in Yucatán with Nusbaum, working on a doomed film project for the Panama California Exposition, held in San Diego in 1915. The pair also visited the ruins of Tulum and were reported to have been eaten by cannibals on the east coast of Yucatán. Hewett was able to send an expedition to Quiriguá in 1914, with the continued support of United Fruit, but also because the work was now primarily funded and directed toward developing exhibits for the Panama California Exhibition.

Back to the present. Although the AIA issued two further notices warning of increasingly harsh penalties should the St. Louis Society sell further collections, the Bonhams auction of the Quiriguá vase did take place. The St. Louis Society web page tells its side of the story (http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/aia/). The statement on the Quiriguá vase notes that it was displayed at the St. Louis Museum of Art until 1980, when it was removed to make way for the pre-Columbian collection of the department-store magnate Morton D. May. It notes further that the sale proceeds will be used to reestablish the society’s community-archaeology program. Right before the AIA Executive Committee voted to revoke the charter of the St. Louis Society, on Jan. 10, its acting president, Michael Fuller, who is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the St. Louis Community College, was allowed to read a statement. He makes the excellent points that the academic and professional archaeological community in the U.S. has done nothing to deal with the problem of orphan objects created by the field’s current laws, ethics, and best practices. He also notes that most of the regulations deal with undocumented objects. And no one would say that either the Harageh Treasure or the Quiriguá vase were undocumented. But given the fact that the St. Louis Museum of Art just reinstalled its pre-Columbian collection, it seems unlikely that the museum would have refused to accept the Quiriguá vase, as is advanced in these statements. Three years ago, when, as a scholar in residence at the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, I contacted the St. Louis Museum of Art about the Quiriguá objects, the curator at the time had no knowledge of any overtures from the St. Louis Society. The latest in this ongoing tale is that, on Jan. 25, the St. Louis Society voted to comply with the demands of the AIA, and all previous officers and board members have been replaced. But was it a pyrrhic victory for the AIA? The objects are still gone. Perhaps a Santa Fe museum should have tried to purchase the Quiriguá vase, which was excavated by a project directed from our own Palace of the Governors.   ◀