The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an article in its April 3rd issue on the continuing saga over Hiram Bingham and the fate of the Machu Picchu collection. The saga continues. I would link to it, but this is one of those articles that the Chronicle is keeping behind walls. It does, however, include a nice timeline of events relative to the expedition and the subsequent controversies. It is nice, in part, because the timeline highlights the nature of Yale’s perspective, even if not explicitly stating this. Why? Entry years on the timeline: 1450, 1550, 1893, a cluster from 1911-1922, 1981, and finally another cluster from 2001-2008. I find this interesting because, the choice of dates (and entries) seems to emphasize the far-away past of Machu Picchu (stone fortress constructed in 1450, abandoned in 1550), then leaping all the way Bingham’s involvement with the site beginning in July 1911, as if the intervening period is a mysterious and empty age of languishing abandonment. (The 1893 entry is “Peru forbids the excavation or export of archaeological objects without explicit permission of the government.” – a general entry that, while bearing on the case, is not explicitly about Machu Picchu itself.)Yale has responded to a December 2008 complaint filed by the Government of Peru in federal court that marked the collapse of an earlier agreement between the parties, claiming that Peru filed in a court without jurisdiction, and that Peru’s “claims would be ‘stale and meritless’ in any venue.” (p. A8) The collapse of the earlier agreement, according to the article, is the fault of Peruvian activists who have asserted that anything short of full Peruvian sovereignty over the objects is unacceptable.
According to the article, Yale is also arguing that Peru’s claims to sovereignty over the objects is negated by Peru’s 1852 Civil Code, which established private property rights over found objects. Yale’s lawyers claim that the Civil Code outweighs decrees in 1912 and 1920 that established the official agreement between Bingham and the government on returning “los objetos únicos y los duplicados” (a phrase the two parties are also disputing– particularly the translation of únicos). I find the claim that government decrees, agreed upon by Bingham and Yale at the time, are somehow trumped by the Civil Code is very cynical. In part they are arguing that the hierarchy of law in Peruvian jurisprudence should negate the decrees as the Civil Code provides the foundational understanding of property law, with the sort sacrosanct inviolability of Constitutional Law. The Civil Code of 1852, and its many successors, were not Constitutional Charters. Of course, while the civil code of 1852 did establish for the first time a unified legal code for property law and property dispute, the legal heritage of Peru and other Spanish American countries does not practically operate on strict “rule of law” hierarchies assumed in the North Atlantic. The decree has a long history in Spanish and Spanish American law, and was routinely used to qualify or restrict other elements, including those of Civil and Criminal Codes, for both specific and general circumstances. The argument just doesn’t hold water. It will be interesting, though, to see how the US court system interprets the very different legal context of Peru.
Regardless of the technical merits of Yale’s legal claim, the Chronicle is correct in quoting Colin Renfrew of Cambridge who stated, “But morally, I can’t see how Yale has a leg to stand on, if it did indeed make promises about the return of these objects. Yale is allowing itself to appear quite arrogant.” I know that last observation will come as a surprise to anyone who has spent any time studying cultural, as well as political and economic, relationships between institutions of the United States and those of Latin America [snark]. I would have preferred, though, that the Chronicle not graphically reproduce the Yale/Bingham-Peru dynamic in the presentation of the article. To maintain that the only dates on a chronology of Machu Picchu are those associated with its centuries-ago disappearance, and then Bingham’s excavations is its own form of imperialist framing. Final qualification– as I’ve argued in other posts before, whatever ends up happening to these objects, I truly hope that they are available for study. Openness must be an overriding scholarly concern for the patrimony not only of individual countries, but for the historical knowledge and material cultures of humankind.