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Looting of Peru's ancient treasures is worse now than in Spanish colonial era

The looting of Peru's archaeological treasures is worse now than in the Spanish conquistador era, said a renowned archaeologist at National Geographic Museum's magnificent new exhibit "Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed".

"El Tocado", an extraordinary gold headdress, is the largest and most ornate pre-Columbian headdress ever discovered. Excavated by Dr. Izumi Shimada, it's in National Geographic's exhibit "Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed".
"El Tocado" headdress, Middle Sican (900-1100 A.D.). Museo Sican, Peru. Photo by ©Rafael Rioja

"Professional looters take custom orders for specific items and literally destroy everything in archaeological sites, especially tombs, to find a particular item," Dr. Izumi Shimada told me at the exhibit's opening April 10 in Washington, D.C. "They're working at a very professional level, and in many ways, they are the most destructive ever."

Dr. Shimada excavated the exhibit's centerpiece, "El Tocado", the largest and most ornate pre-Columbian headdress ever discovered. This is the first time the extraordinary gold headdress, dated from 900-1100 A.D., has been displayed in the U.S. since it was unearthed in 1991.

It is almost the only non-looted antiquity among almost 100 dazzling objects in the exhibit, he noted. (Click here for video.)

"Peru's treasures were looted not so much by Spanish conquistadors, but by professionals today in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Unfortunately, it's very widespread," added Dr. Shimada, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

"Of course, the looting came with the conquistadors, that's for sure. It was called 'The Royal Fifth' -- Royal Spain had the right to one-fifth of everything the conquistadors found. At that time, it was called 'mining'. Today, we call it illegal."

(Francisco Pizarro in 1532 made the first of three expeditions to Peru to conquer the Incas and colonize South America, and loot great quantities of gold.)

Another destroyer of archaeological sites is climate change, Peru's Minister of Environment Manuel Pulgar-Vidal told guests at the event.

"Some of these ancient cultures disappeared due to El Niño. Still we have a risk of losing our ruins to El Niño," said Pulgar-Vidal. Peru will host the United Nations' Climate Change Summit in December.

Peru has more than 10,000 archaeological sites, the officials noted. Its most famous one is, of course, Machu Picchu, the Inca empire city discovered atop the Andes in 1911 by Hiram Bingham -- financed by the National Geographic's first-ever archaeology grant. His granddaughter, Abigail Bingham Endicott attended the opening event.

"National Geographic has a long history of cooperation and partnership with Peru, for over 100 years," said Peru's Ambassador to the U.S., Harold Forsyth.

Ambassador Forsyth hailed this "tremendous exhibit, probably the greatest Peru exhibit in United States in 25 years." It has gorgeous ceremonial gold, silver, ceramic, and textiles from pre-Inca times, 1250 B.C. to 1450 A.D.

The Ambassador noted that one of its masks is accompanied by a photo of him receiving it from Italy's President in 2005. It had been taken from illegal excavations in Lambayeque Peru, and recovered by Italian authorities.

(One repatriation mentioned briefly and without naming names was the 2011 agreement between Yale University and Peru, to return some 5,000 Machu Picchu artifacts sent by Hiram Bingham to Yale, his alma mater where he taught Latin American history. Peru had granted permission, on condition that the artifacts would be returned whenever Peru asked, according to Christopher Heaney, author of "Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, A Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu".)

One fascinating fact is that Peru's ancient civilizations "never valued gold as a commodity or representation of wealth -- It always showed power and the sun," noted the exhibit's guest curator, Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic's Archaeology Fellow.

The first antiquity in the exhibit is a startling display of gold funerary regalia, "one of the most complete sets of head and body adornments from pre-Inca Peru," says National Geographic. It includes an oversized gold mask, gold feathers, huge gold ear ornaments, epaulettes, and other items. The epaulettes' figures hold dismembered heads, relating to ritual sacrifice ceremonies.

Other exquisite items are an intricately carved gold mask of a deity; a nose ring with two large sections, one gold and one silver, each carved with a cat-like figure among flowers; a chest plate of beads and gold.

The rare antiquities are on loan from three Peruvian institutions: Sican National Museum, Larco Museum, and Museum of the Central Reserve Bank of Peru.

Seeing this glorious exhibit, you may feel somewhat as Hiram Bingham did when he first saw Machu Picchu -- it "fairly took my breath away."

Archaeologist-explorer-curator Hiebert said, "There are more than 10,000 archaeological sites in Peru. But I say there's only one archaeological site -- all of Peru. It's an unbelievable country of mysteries and surprises."

For more info and tickets: Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed”, through Sept. 14, National Geographic Museum,, 1145 17th Street, N.W. (17th and M Streets), Washington, D.C., 202-857-7700. "National Geographic Live", Organized in partnership with the Irving Arts Center, Irving, Texas, where the exhibition will be on display Oct. 4-Dec. 31; the Peruvian Ministry of Culture; and the Embassy of Peru.

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