A vandalized remnant of our pre-Columbian past

photos by Allen Hawkins, article by Eric Jackson


These granite pillars at the El Caño Archaeological Park near Nata used to have carved heads on them, but in the 1920s an American professor chopped them off and exported them to the United States. These days that's highly illegal, but the United Nations treaty on the subject didn't get adopted until 1977 and the general rule is that antiquities taken from their countries of origin before then need not be returned.


Thus, for example, the British have many of Egypt's archaeological treasures despite the Egyptian government's long-standing pleas for their return. In spite of Iraqi objections, the Code of Hammurabi is found on a basalt pillar in Paris's Louvre. The late Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk was eloquent but ineffective in his efforts to get back the things that were chipped out of Angkor Wat.


It's not a simple moral question, either. Here in the museum at El Caño there was a robbery that by all appearances was an inside job during the Pérez Balladares administration and not only were the objects uninsured, the government conveniently lost all photos so that they couldn't be put on the INTERPOL watch list. Toro's relative Frank Iglesias, meanwhile, is still wanted by the FBI for trafficking in stolen antiquities while he was Panama's consul general in New York in the 1990s. Then there was the inside job theft from the Anthopology Museum's gold room during the Moscoso administration --- not all the pieces were recovered, and the higher-ups in INAC were carefully shielded from pro-corruption former Attorney General Sossa's "investigation."


So even if the heads of these columns are in storage at a museum in the United States, it doesn't necessarily follow that the Panamanian people would retrieve some of their heritage were they returned. We have too thuggish a political class to be sure of that.


But still, a museum in the United States has disembodied heads and Panama has decapitated pillars, and wouldn't it make sense to put the sculptures back together and make reproductions, with both originals and copies to be divided so that both Panama and an American museum would have spectacular displays? Of course, it wouldn't make sense to a government interested in our historical legacy only to the extent of the profits that can be raked off from its illicit sale.


But there are Panamanians as well as foreigners who long to see the sculptures at El Caño made whole again.





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