Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Plundering the Petén Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997
by Richard D. Hansen

[image] Fragments of polychrome codex-style vessels were strewn about the site of La Muerta, Petén. (Richard Hansen, RAINPEG) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Mirador Basin in the far northern Petén region of Guatemala is known for its abundance of sites, many of which are among the largest and earliest in the Maya world. Of 26 known sites, only 14 have been studied; an estimated 30 more await discovery. By the time scholars get there, looters may already have plundered them.

Trafficking in Maya artifacts is big business. George Stuart of the National Geographic Society has suggested that 1,000 pieces of fine pottery leave the Maya region each month, not an unreasonable estimate in light of the site damage I have observed. The most sought-after finds are codex-style ceramics, Late Classic (A.D. 600-900) black-line-on-cream pottery depicting mythological and historical events. Looters are often paid between $200 and $500 per vessel. Collectors may pay more than $100,000 for the same pieces in a gallery or at auction. At even minimal prices this amounts to a $10-million-a-month business in stolen cultural property. Collecting Precolumbian art is often viewed as a justifiable means of preserving the past. It is, in fact, a destructive and sometimes violent business, as attested by the recent assassination in Carmelita of Carlos Catalán, a local chiclero who had become a staunch opponent of looting in the Petén.

Richard D. Hansen is an assistant research scientist at the Institute of Geophysics & Planetary Physics, University of California, Los Angeles.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America