Arts & Entertainment

Costa Rica recovers archaeological pieces removed by US tycoon

San Jose, Jul 5 (EFE).- Costa Rica has recovered 1,305 very historically valuable archaeological pieces of ceramic and stone that were removed from the country by US railroad tycoon Minor Keith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Costa Rican National Museum has completed the second repatriation – the first being in 2011 with the recovery of 981 pieces – from the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the newly reacquired artifacts will allow it to complete the national collection.

“It’s a way of recovering part of history … The first legislation that protects archaeological patrimony dates back to 1938. Then, when Minor Keith took the pieces between 1870 and 1910 while building the Atlantic railroad, he did it in a very natural way by ship because he sent them with machinery and other things and it wasn’t something over which (Costa Rica) had any control,” Patrimony Protection Department archaeologist Daniela Meneses told EFE.

The newly recovered pieces consist of ceramic and stone artifacts from various parts of the country but mainly from the central zone, and they include a tombstone of approximately 120 kilograms (260 pounds), a zoomorphic grinding stone (a “metate”), a prisoner of war, as well as a great variety of vases, axes, chisels, lances, urns, domestic utensils and other items.

Each of the pieces must be verified and they will be subjected to a process of cleaning and – for some of them – restoration as well as appraisal, review and including them on a registry list so that they can be catalogued. Later, they will be placed at the disposal of the museum for future exhibits and shows, as well as being made available for researchers and studies.

Authorities estimate that the Minor Keith collection could number as many as 16,000 pre-Colombian pieces. However, an inventory of the collection does not yet exist and so the possibility still exists that other items – such as gold or jade artifacts – may be found within the group.

A report by the Patrimony Protection Department says that the collection was kept together up until 1914 when a part of it was loaned to New York’s American Museum of Natural History, another portion was sold or donated to the National Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, and to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and after Keith’s death his wife donated objects to the Brooklyn Museum, while others were purchased in 1934.

Among the most characteristic items is an unfinished grave marker. On the left side it has an animal figure and on the right can be seen the wear the piece has suffered over time.

There is also the figure of a prisoner in stone with his hands tied in front of him, but the unusual thing about this piece is that the face of the man is turned halfway to the side and he bears an expression of sadness or pain that, to date, has not been seen on works of this kind and is therefore “very interesting and special,” Meneses said.

In the case of the ceramics, there is a vase that is the largest ever found shaped in the figure of a person. These objects are typical of the epoch and possibly were used to store water or grain.

“The collection that’s coming in is very diverse … (There are pieces) from the Central Caribbean but others come from the south and northwest that give us valuable scientific aspects to investigate. There are simple and small containers that were made approximately between 300 and 500 A.D.,” archaeologist Javier Fallas told EFE.

This second delivery, which was made with the financial support of the National Museum, cost 23 million colones ($38,000) and the Brooklyn Museum cooperated in packing the objects. The delivery was made in late 2020 after three years of talks to work out the technical details.

The repatriation of the items was carried out thanks to the willingness of the Brooklyn Museum and not through a legal process, given that the items were taken out of the country when no law was on the books to protect Costa Rica’s national patrimony.


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