The stones at Machu Picchu seem almost alive. They may be alive, if you credit the religious beliefs of the ruler Pachacuti Yupanqui, whose subjects in the early 15th century constructed the granite Inca complex, high above a curling river and nestled among jagged green peaks. To honor the spirits that take form as mountains, the Inca stoneworkers carved rock outcrops to replicate their shapes. Doorways and windows of sublimely precise masonry frame exquisite views.
. . . .
Imposingly tall and strong-minded, [Hiram] Bingham was the grandson of a famous missionary who took Christianity to the Hawaiian islanders. In his efforts to locate lost places of legend, the younger Bingham proved to be as resourceful. Bolstered by the fortune of his wife, who was a Tiffany heiress, and a faculty position at Yale University, where he taught South American history, Bingham traveled to Peru in 1911 in hopes of finding Vilcabamba, the redoubt in the Andean highlands where the last Inca resistance forces retreated from the Spanish conquerors. Instead he stumbled upon Machu Picchu. With the joint support of Yale and the National Geographic Society, Bingham returned twice to conduct archeological digs in Peru. In 1912, he and his team excavated Machu Picchu and shipped nearly 5,000 artifacts back to Yale. Two years later, he staged a final expedition to explore sites near Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley.
If you have visited Machu Picchu, you will probably find Bingham's excavated artifacts at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven to be a bit of a letdown. Mostly, the pieces are bones, in varying stages of decomposition, or pots, many of them in fragments. Unsurpassed as stonemasons, engineers and architects, the Incas thought more prosaically when it came to ceramics. Leaving aside unfair comparisons to the jaw-dropping Machu Picchu site itself, the pottery of the Inca, even when intact, lacks the drama and artistry of the ceramics of earlier civilizations of Peru like the Moche and Nazca. Everyone agrees that the Machu Picchu artifacts at Yale are modest in appearance. That has not prevented, however, a bare-knuckled disagreement from developing over their rightful ownership. Peru says the Bingham objects were sent to Yale on loan and their return is long overdue. Yale demurs.
Call it scientific inquiry or manifest destiny, it's all just political words* to mask the cultural theft that was once accepted practice. Strong nation marches into weaker nation, plunders its cultural heritage (and usually its natural resources and its people, too), marches off with everything it deems valuable (funny how those savages managed to create all that loot!), then uses it to attract tourists and the profits that follow. Later, when stronger nation no longer controls half the world, and weaker nation has a leg to stand on, formerly stronger nation says, sorry, we can't give it back, we're still studying it, and those people would only wreck it anyway, and we have to store it here for safekeeping, where the world can enjoy it.
I have not made it to Greece or Egypt yet - both very high on our must-visit list - but I have seen the treasures of the Parthenon and the Rosetta Stone. And as much as I love the British Museum (and I do!), there was something sickening and wrong about seeing the cultural heritage of those ancient civilizations divorced from their context, sitting in a room half a world away, in the capital of a country that once ruled the world, but does no longer. (Do you know the Parthenon Marbles were always known as the Elgin Marbles, after Thomas Bruce, "Lord Elgin", who
There's no excuse anymore. There should be no argument. Would Americans allow the treasures of the Smithsonian to be shipped to, say, China? Would the British relinquish the Shakespeare quartos, Magna Carta, Caxton's Chaucer, and the rest of their awe-inspiring literary heritage, housed in The British Library?
The treasures of Machu Picchu clearly belong in Peru. Perhaps we'll live to see it in our lifetime.
* "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." - George Orwell