STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

So imagine that somebody stole the Liberty Bell from Philadelphia. Stole the Liberty Bell from Philadelphia, sold it at auction, and it ended up in Japanese museum. Imagine that. Foreign countries say that's what it's like when their antiquities are plundered and then sold on the international art market.

U.S. federal agents report that the looting in the world archaeological sites is epidemic. And so we have the first of two NPR National Geographic Radio Expeditions to investigate. In this report, NPR's John Burnett reports on one archaeologist's efforts to save a Mayan city in Guatemala from looters.

JOHN BURNETT: At the famed Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, it's possible to sit in the cafe, have a slice of basil pesto quiche, and gaze up at stunning evidence of the looting of the ancient world. The dining room is dominated by an eight-foot-tall carved limestone monument, or stela, of a Mayan king. The Oxford-educated director of the Kimbell, Timothy Potts, stands in admiration.

Mr. TIMOTHY POTTS (Director, Kimbell Art Museum): He's shown in all his regalia with an elaborate headdress, various ornaments hanging from his belt, and jade belt pendants. It's so rich. It's so lively. It's a tapestry of - every square inch is covered with something.

BURNETT: Was this stela looted from Guatemala?

Mr. POTTS: It was, as I understand the likely history, there were people who went through the site, seems that stela were removed and taken out of the country and sold.

BURNETT: To find out how this stela got to Fort Worth from the jungles of Central America, and to see how the tomb raiders are ransacking ancient cities, we traveled to Guatemala to meet Dr. David Freidel, a Mayan archaeologist at Southern Methodist University.

Dr. DAVID FREIDEL (Southern Methodist University): We're sitting in the main plaza of the site that they called the centipede place with water in it - Waka. And it is a classic Maya city that flourished between approximately 100 B.C. and 800 A.D.

BURNETT: We have entered the land of the Centipede Kings, a dynasty that ruled over a city of perhaps 4,000, with plazas and pyramids and orchards, and even, 2,000 years ago, howler monkeys.

(Soundbite of monkeys)

BURNETT: Now all that's left of the limestone structures are great mounds covered with vegetation, and in the trees militias of howlers defending their real estate.

(Soundbite of monkeys)

BURNETT: The archaeological site of El Peru-Waka is located in Peten Province in far northern Guatemala, not far from the Mexican border. It is in Laguna del Tigre National Park. Tigre as in jaguars.

Dr. FREIDEL: Jaguar track.

BURNETT: Wow. That's a huge one.

Dr. FREIDEL: Whoa. Look at the weight on his feet here. He's big.

BURNETT: Freidel could pass for a 19th century explorer with his professorial beard, safari hat, walking staff and snake-proof boots. For five years he's been coming here trying to decipher the hieroglyphics that tell us who the ruler priests were, who their queens and enemies were, how they worshipped, and how they fell. He's also been trying to protect the site.

Dr. FREIDEL: When looters dig into mounds, they destroy history. When you lose that history, often you cannot replace it.

BURNETT: What looters generally look for are tombs, five of which have been found here at El Peru by Freidel and his Guatemalan colleague, archaeologist Hector Escobedo. Three of the burial chambers are royal -filled with beautiful painted ceramics, and objects of jade, obsidian and onyx. Word has gotten out and Freidel has had to hire his own guards.

Dr. FREIDEL: Despair and poverty drive the system. Everybody's on survival mode here. If I left, they would definitely loot it to pieces.

(Soundbite of soldiers)

BURNETT: He is fortunate to share his camp with a garrison of Guatemalan soldiers. The army moved in because of the cocaine traffickers active in the area. They enjoy the Peten's isolation and proximity to Mexico.

Drug smugglers are also moving antiquities. Last June, police raided a house in the area and discovered a large quantity of marijuana along with 135 pieces of Mayan pottery.

Walking through the underbrush, it appears the scavengers have been everywhere. Freidel squats in an opening gouged into the base of a temple that reveals a limestone foundation painstakingly laid by ancient masons.

Dr. FREIDEL: We're in a looters' tunnel inside of the main shrine building in the center of El Peru-Waka. And the looters started this tunnel thinking they were going to perhaps find a tomb. And then they stopped, they gave up fairly soon in the game.

BURNETT: At El Peru, what the looters made off with were stelae, which the Maya erected like huge gravestones on the forest floor. The culprit who stole the stela now on exhibit in Fort Worth is thought to be a Mexican logger who sawed off the carvings and hauled them out on muleback. That was back in the 1960s, when an oil company put the first road in. The Harvard archaeologist who first excavated here in the early 1970s tracked stolen stelae to private collections in museums in the United States and Europe.

In a clearing amid trees festooned with vines and epiphytes, we find what we came for. Freidel stands over an assemblage of smooth-faced stones that appear to have been one massive stela sawed into sections.

Dr. FREIDEL: This is the carcass of the stela that's in Fort Worth: K'inich B'ahlam, the second of his name, Sun-Faced Jaguar. And over there is the carcass of stela 34; that's the stela of his wife, Lady Kah-bel.

BURNETT: Freidel is excited that the Kimbell Art Museum has agreed to pay for a precise replica of the sun-faced jaguar that will be erected here on-site. His queen, stela 34, currently resides in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which, according to a spokesperson, has no such plans. Both stelae are legally owned by the museums because they were taken before 1970, the year of the first international treaty prohibiting the trade in stolen antiquities.

But at the Ministry of Culture in Guatemala City, the director of cultural patrimony, Salvador Lopez Aguilar, is not as thrilled as Freidel.

Mr. SALVADOR LOPEZ AGUILAR (Ministry of Culture, Guatemala): (Through translator) This is the irony, that in place of them keeping the replica and we getting the original, now they are giving a replica to the poor Guatemalans, when it shouldn't be that way.

BURNETT: For Lopez Aguilar, who's an archaeologist and a native petenero, the legacy of the looters has been horrific. Some sites, such as the ancient city of El Naranjo, have been virtually destroyed by rapacious treasure hunters. He estimates nearly every one of the roughly 1,000 important Mayan sites in the Peten has been looted.

Mr. AGUILAR: (Through translator) If we don't increase our level of vigilance, if we don't pass stronger laws, our country will continue to be at the mercy of those looters, and our grandsons will be condemned to go to the United States to know their history.

(Soundbite of schoolchildren)

BURNETT: Today Guatemalan schoolchildren can visit the National Museum of Archaeology in Guatemala City and see room after room filled with the artistry of the ancient Maya.

But many masterpiece carvings, masks and vessels that Guatemalans believe should be in their national museum are not. They reside in collections around the world - evidence of 40 years of unrestrained pillaging.

Today the rules have changed for museums, dealers, collectors and auction houses. Looted relics have become as contentious as they are beautiful. Tomorrow, tune in as we examine the tomb robbers' global marketplace.

For Radio Expeditions, this is John Burnett, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can take a video tour of David Freidel's excavations at the ancient Mayan city by going to npr.org.

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