Famous (and infamous) remains were unearthed, looted artifacts were returned (or not), a rich archeological site faces its imminent doom, and plenty of people freaked out about the potential doom promised by the Mayan calendar. The year in archeology was an eventful one; and with researchers increasingly intent on tracking down lost sites, as museums face serious scrutiny for where their ancient artifacts originated, it seems clear that the value of historical preservation and the tenuousness of its ownership and its fragility in our industrialized world will continue to be significant issues in the coming years. Here are five of our favorite stories from the year in archeology:
The Last of the Machu Picchu Artifacts are Returned by Yale
This November, following decades of contention, Yale University repatriated the last of the Machu Picchu artifacts controversially taken by Hiram Bingham III (the “discoverer” of the Pre-Columbian citadel’s site) on expeditions between 1911 and 1915. The returns were sparked by a 2008 lawsuit resolved in 2010, in which Peru sued Yale for the artifacts (originally intended to be loaned to the university for 18 months of study, and including human remains, art, ceramics, silver, and jewelry). The final shipment, which came with no fanfare or ceremony, was a quiet end to a nearly 100-year struggle.
Famous Skeletons Unearthed: The Bones of Richard III & the Mona Lisa
This was a prolific year for the discovery of famous skeletons lost in anonymous sepulchers. Richard III, whose reign and defeat from 1483 to 1485 were made infamous by Shakespeare, was found this September buried under a parking lot in Leicester in the UK (it had once been the site of the Church of Grey Friars). While the DNA has yet to be tested, it looks like archeologists will crown this pile of bones — “rudely stamp’d” by scoliosis in the spine and displaying a defeating battle wound — king. Then there was the skeleton of Lisa Gherardini, believed to be the woman who posed for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” disinterred in Florence from the rubble of the Franciscan convent of Saint Ursula. DNA tests are planned, and while there are debates as to whether the “Mona Lisa” was indeed a portrait of one woman or even a woman at all, the face of the figure whose mysterious visage has entranced art historians and the public for ages may finally be reconstructed.
Turkey Revs Up its Battle for Stolen Art
Fueled by its rising economy and political profile, Turkey is taking on major museums around the world demanding returns of art and artifacts it claims were looted. The “art war” has intensified from last year’s success in getting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to return its 1,800-year-old “Weary Herakles” marble torso, and the Pergamon to return a 3,000-year-old sphinx (Turkey would still also like the Pergamon altar back, but that is much less likely), with Turkey’s cultural leaders threatening to revoke excavation permissions and stop lending art to institutions who do not comply. (The threat of bad PR is also implied.) Confronting institutions like the J. Paul Getty Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, Turkey has already reclaimed numerous objects. The “Orpheus Mosaic” was recently returned by the Dallas Museum of Art, and other current quests include over 1,500 tiles at the Louvre, and 18 pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was hit with a criminal complaint by Turkey this summer. This has led to criticism of Turkey’s own role in art theft, having famously let the Parthenon marbles go to London (after having used the monument for munitions storage, leading to an explosion that caused major damage).
The Looming Destruction of Mes Aynak
An over 2,000-year-old Buddhist city in Afghanistan that has survived its country’s years of wars and turmoil is set to be destroyed this December 25. The reason is a massive copper deposit valued at some $100 billion that China Metallurgical Group Corporation plans to harvest with an open-pit mine, which would totally obliterate the remains of temples, homes, and monolithic statues in the process. Filmmaker Brent Huffman has been documenting Mes Aynak’s final days, and archeologists are continuing to work at the site up to the deadline; recent discoveries include a monk’s skeleton, Bronze Age pots, and jewelry, but full excavation would require decades more of digging. With the 2001 detonation of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban (for religious reasons) still fresh in the mind, the loss of yet another site of such significance to Buddhist history would be a brutal blow. Unless a last-minute miracle saves Mes Aynak, the fragments and film will be all that is left.
Mayan Calendar Apocalypse Madness
Was 2012 to be mankind’s last? Some thought the Mayans predicted it so, and a flurry of archeological examinations have punctuated the months leading up to December 21, the supposed day to end all days. This is thanks to the Long Count calendar, a Mayan measure of time that runs for 13 cycles adding up to 5,125 years, which started on our August 11, 3114 BCE, and ends this winter solstice (the Mayans were adept at keeping time by the stars, and had several distinct types of complex time measurers correlating to astral phenomenon). The Long Count is meant to turn over and start again, much like our 12-month year, but some find the prospect of restarting at “Day Zero” terribly ominous. Pseudo-science aside, this year saw an intense interest in Mayan archeology and the fascinating and complicated numerology of their culture. Extraordinary finds — including a 1,300-year-old carving on a staircase, the longest Mayan text ever found in Guatemala, which references the 2012 end date, as well as a Mayan warrior queen’s tomb and the oldest Mayan calendar yet discovered — received international attention, when in an ordinary year they might have been overlooked.