U.S. Response:
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U.S. Protection of Pre-Columbian Archaeological Materials

I. Introduction
II. Description of Artifacts Subject to Restriction
III. U.S Response to Request from Guatemala
IV. Significance of the Maya and the Peten

III. U.S Response to Request from Guatemala

This U.S. action is in response to a request from the Government of Guatemala under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The United States became a state party to the Convention in 1983, following passage of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. Such action assists another country in combatting the destruction of archaeological sites and the illicit movement of cultural objects so that long-term remedies can be found to protect these non-renewable resources for future generations and for educational, cultural and scientific purposes. The U.S.-Guatemala Memorandum of Understanding also furthers the aims of the 1994 Summit of the Americas action plan "to enhance appreciation of indigenous cultures and cultural artifacts through the implementation of cultural property protection agreements."  

In reviewing Guatemala's request, the Cultural Property Advisory Committee found the cultural heritage of Guatemala to be in jeopardy from the pillage of the archaeological record of the Maya and other pre-Columbian cultures that once thrived there. Scholarly research of the Maya, for example, is vastly impeded due to the systematic and often sophisticated looting to meet the demands of the international art market. Consistent with the committee's recommendation, the United States Information Agency determined that the application of import restrictions would ameliorate the problem.  

IV. Significance of the Maya and the Peten  

The Maya that inhabited the Peten for more than a millennium, beginning in approximately 900 B.C., are considered unique among pre-Hispanic native peoples for the development of intricate writing, mathematical, astronomical and calendrical systems. Detailed records of their daily life were inscribed on monuments, ceramic vessels, and other representations of their material culture. When decoded, these inscriptions yield enormous quantities of information. The Maya civilization is considered one of the greatest in the world.  

The Peten, a lowland area of tropical forests, occupies the northern one-third of Guatemala. Guatemala estimates that there are more than 2,200 archaeological sites in the region.  

Maya Temples of Tikal  
PHOTOGRAPH: Site of Tikal (Courtesy, R. Bishop, Smithsonian Institution).  

Some of the best known sites are El Mirador, Rio Azul, Uaxactun, Tikal, Naranjo, Piedras Negras, Yaxha, Tayasal, Yaxchilan, Altar de Sacrificios, Seibal and Dos Pilas.These remnants of the Maya civilization consist of ceremonial centers with magnificent stone structures, such as temple pyramids, astronomical observatories, sweat baths, ball courts and reservoirs.  

The depredation of the Peten began in the late 19th century when explorers removed selected sculptured monuments, such as altars, stelae and lintels, for collectors and museums. The wholesale destruction of the region began, however, in the 20th century when looters organized to supply a growing demand for pre-Columbian art. Guatemala reports that the looting has continued during the last two decades with scores of the inspected sites reported as looted. Unbridled looting throughout Guatemala has left few archaeological sites intact and has resulted in the loss to science and history of an incalculable amount of information.  

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Revised: March 2, 1999

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