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After nearly a century, a collection of antiquities from the Inca site Machu Picchu is going home. Diane Orson of member station WNPR reports that the artifacts have been at the center of a long and bitter custody battle. On one side, the government of Peru; on the other, Yale University.
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DIANE ORSON: A Peruvian harpist performs in the market square of Ollantaytambo.
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ORSON: Back in 1911, Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III used this town, high in the Andes, as his base camp to explore the ancient stone ruins of Machu Picchu. Bingham introduced the site to the world through his articles for National Geographic magazine. He returned twice and excavated thousands of artifacts -ceramics, tools, jewelry and human bones - with the consent of the Peruvian government.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER HEANEY (Author, "Cradle of Gold"): Nearly a century ago, Peru set out to establish a new way of studying its artifacts and a new way of letting its artifacts move through the world.
ORSON: Christopher Heaney is author of the book "Cradle of Gold," about the life of Hiram Bingham. He says as early as 1911, Peruvians were anxious to protect their cultural patrimony from looting. They passed a law forbidding artifacts from leaving the country.
Mr. HEANEY: So in 1912 when Bingham came back, Peru offered Bingham a resolution under which the artifacts could leave to be studied by Yale. It was a recognition of Yales scientific commitment. But the artifacts will leave on just one condition, that they could be sent back whenever Peru asked.
ORSON: And some did return, but most remained at Yales Peabody Museum. The university said the artifacts had been sent to New Haven to be studied permanently. Yale claimed title to the collection and insisted that under the laws of the day, finders of antiquities were allowed to keep them, that despite written correspondence in which Bingham acknowledges an obligation to return the objects.
Peruvian demands escalated about eight years ago, and in 2008, Peru sued in U.S. federal court. Yale countered with a motion to dismiss the case, saying the country had lost its right to the materials by waiting too long to ask for them.
Things really heated up about a month ago, when Peru launched an aggressive media campaign. Peruvian president Alan Garcia led thousands of protestors through the streets of Lima, demanding that Yale send back the collection.
President ALAN GARCIA (Peru): (Speaking foreign language).
ORSON: Garcia asked President Obama to help resolve the standoff. Peruvians even traveled to the Vatican and asked the Pope to intercede.
Finally, Yales president, Richard Levin, stepped in and sent a delegation to Lima to reopen talks with the Garcia administration.
Yale anthropology professor Richard Burger oversees the Machu Picchu collection and was on the negotiating team. He says reaching an agreement served everyones interest.
Mr. RICHARD BURGER (Anthropology Professor, Yale University): The presidency of Alan Garcia is coming to an end, and I think hed like to resolve this before he leaves office. And I also think the two sides realize that even though there are legal proceedings, that those proceedings probably wont satisfy either side no matter what ruling the judge gives.
ORSON: Within days, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU. Peruvian foreign minister Jose Garcia Belaunde says the leadership and direct intervention by Yales president was crucial.
Mr. JOSE GARCIA BELAUNDE (Foreign Minister, Peru): Its the first time that we have contact with the president of the university. Before that, we had been negotiating with lawyers and officers of the university.
ORSON: The MOU is governed by Peruvian law, not by the laws of Connecticut. And it removes a provision that Yale had initially insisted on, giving the school the right to hold onto the artifacts for another 99 years.
Now, all of the objects will go to a university in the city of Cusco, the former capital of the Incas. Ultimately, Peru will build a museum and research center, where scholars from around the world can study the collection.
Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd helped mediate the conflict.
Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): By going back to the University in Cusco, establishing a joint relationship, acknowledging Yales treatment of these artifacts over the last 100 years, I think sets a precedent that will allow for other such collections to be able to be moved and to be preserved and to be celebrated in ways that people havent thought of in the past.
ORSON: But Yales Richard Burger cautions that this should not be used as a model for future antiquities disputes. He says the case is unique because Machu Picchu is so closely tied to Perus sense of national identity. It's also a major tourist destination.
Mr. BURGER: So we dont want to see this as a general precedent, but if hundreds of thousands, almost a million people, are visiting Machu Picchu a year, if our goal is to share the knowledge that we have and share the objects, this is much more effectively done in Cusco than it is in New Haven.
ORSON: The collection will be allowed to leave Peru for exhibitions and research but only for two years at a time. Writer Chris Heaney believes that idea harkens back to Perus original vision for the cooperative study of its cultural patrimony.
Mr. HEANEY: Its commonplace today to see rotating collections, but when Peru did this in 1912, I think it was fairly unprecedented. And what were seeing today is just the completion of a very innovative way of treating artifacts as objects that can circulate on these scientific odysseys, educating people before coming back home.
ORSON: The artifacts will return in several shipments over the next two years. Museum-quality pieces will be back in Peru in time for next years celebrations commemorating Hiram Binghams first trip to Machu Picchu.
For NPR News, Im Diane Orson in New Haven.