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Week of 30 January 1998

Vol. I, No. 18

Feature Article

CAS prof awarded American archaeology's highest accolade

by Marion Sawey

CAS Professor of Archaeology Clemency Coggins has been rewarded with the highest honor her peers can bestow in recognition of a lifetime working to prevent the looting of archaeological artifacts.

At the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) in Chicago in December, she was presented with the Institute's gold medal for distinguished archaeological achievement. The accolade comes at a time when Coggins has been in the news in Boston because of her criticism of the Museum of Fine Arts' new permanent collection of Maya jade, pottery, and burial urns. She, along with other archaeologists and Guatemalan officials, are concerned that many of the pre-Colombian objects, a gift to the MFA from Trustee Landon T. Clay, were looted from graves and exported.

Clemency Coggins Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In its citation, the AIA points out that for almost three decades Coggins, an expert on Maya antiquities, has through numerous publications and public lectures "eloquently and effectively sustained interest in the subject of safeguarding cultural property." Her efforts in opposition to illicit trade in the antiquities market, it continues, "have fundamentally changed the face of modern American archaeology."

"I think that is vastly overstated," Coggins says modestly during a recent interview. "I think it is just a matter of having been persistent and of having highlighted a problem which back then was new and dramatic, catching everyone's attention." That was in 1969, when according to the AIA, her seminal article, "Illicit Traffic of Pre-Columbian Antiques," (Art Journal, 1969) was "a courageous statement, coming at a time when most archaeologists turned a blind eye to illicit traffic, having never given thought to how it might affect their own work."

Coggins, who worked tirelessly to ensure the 1988 implementation in the United States of the UNESCO convention on cultural property, says she does not deserve particular praise. "I was simply over and over again being called upon to do something and was more or less willing to do it."

She entered the fray, she says, partly because her research interest was Maya burial sites in Mexico and Guatemala, where artifacts began suddenly to disappear at an alarming rate. "It was a new problem and the scale of it was extraordinary," she remembers. "It was a moment of great disillusionment for me. I realized that all the museums that I had admired and hoped to work with were acquiring the material. I knew where it had come from and saw how little the museums seemed to care. That is why I have tried to emphasize in my work the importance of museums' having documentation and open access records."

The tragedy of illicit looting is that the object's cultural context is lost, and with it potential information about a lost civilization, says Coggins. "That is why it is pathetic to argue that looted artifacts are better off in a museum, where they are well cared for. Objects that have been underground for 500 years are perfectly safe there, whereas in order to get them to a museum, looters destroy the remains of a constellation of a community, parts of history."

Coggins also notes that as artifacts are looted, they are frequently broken and have to be restored, sometimes fraudulently. "So you think you are looking at this little piece of perfection, but it may simply be someone's fantasy of what the artifact ought to look like. Once it gets into the museum, of course, they take wonderful care of it, but compared to what has been lost, that is nothing."

Maya artifacts are particularly vulnerable to looting, she points out, because Guatemala is a poor country, recovering from a 35-year civil war, and has taken few steps, until recently, to safeguard its cultural heritage.

"The great sadness is that looters are getting away with it in Guatemala," she says. "And the objects they seize are in such demand because they are really beautiful, the very finest being burial artifacts found in tombs. However, you must remember that any looted objects represent a tiny fraction of the number of sterile excavations that a looter might make. In other words, in order to arrive at this one salable object, he might have destroyed unknown numbers of other contents."

Presenting the past

Asked whether the MFA should return its Maya artifacts, as the Guatemalan government has demanded, Coggins says a more practical solution might be to return some items and to make arrangements for loans or for having the exhibit on display at the museum for an indefinite period of time. "Why something has to be owned is simply unclear to me," she continues. "The only way forward is to work out compromises, to interchange and exchange. It isn't easy, and I don't blame the museum people because I understand their bind so well. They have trustees who give them large sums of money to sponsor important programs, they have to balance their budget, and they don't want to antagonize people. But at some point you have to stop; there will have to be a moratorium while the situation is reevaluated."

Coggins admits to being a little pessimistic about the future, pointing out that while consciousness of the problem is increasing, the pace of change is incredibly slow. "When I started," she says, "I thought that with the next generation of students and curators it would all be different, but it's not. It has to do with basic training . . . some people understand the big picture long-term and others don't."

She believes that Boston University's department of archaeology is making a contribution toward changing attitudes by offering archaeology courses rarely found elsewhere, ones that have a wider cultural context, such as those for the master's degree in world heritage management. However, she admits that the task ahead is formidable.

"There is no question that the market forces, which are of course what art dealers glorify, are incredibly powerful and have extraordinary momentum," Coggins says. "I am afraid that the black market was terrible before we made our efforts against looting, and it still is. I don't know that it is going to get any better whatever we do, but we have to try anyway."