Archeological white elephants offered to Museo Nacional

The Brooklyn Museum is facing a storage problem, and officials there want to unload some of its inventory on Costa Rica, the country where it originated.

The desire to return some of the ceramics and stone artifacts to Costa Rica was reported in The New York Times, but  no one mentioned the growing problem of swelling museum collections.

The archeological material the Brooklyn Museum wishes to return came from Minor Keith, the man who built Costa Rica’s Atlantic railway and pioneered banana plantations.

Most of the artifacts that came to the Brooklyn Museum in 1934 do not have what scientists value the most: a precise history and precise record of the point of discovery. These are the key elements that help researchers flesh out an ancient culture.

Of course, some pots, drinking vessels and grinding stones contain small fragments of what they contained or milled. This can be valuable to scientists. A study released over the weekend said that a close study of Neanderthal teeth gave evidence that the culture had a varied diet that was not restricted to just meat.

After discovering starch granules from plant food trapped in the dental calculus on 40,000-year-old teeth, the scientists said they believe that Neanderthals ate a wide variety of plants and included cooked grains as part of a more sophisticated, diverse diet similar to early modern humans. The researchers came from George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution.

Some scientists had speculated that the Neanderthal became extinct because they suffered dietary deficiency, something that was contradicted by the new study.

Fortunately for researchers, they know exactly from where the ancient teeth originated, and future research might relate to the geography.

Not so with many of the stone balls that was the hallmark of prehistoric Costa Rica. After the balls began to be discovered in the 1940s many were transported as trophies to the gardens of upscale Costa Rican homes. There even is one on the lawn of the Corte Suprema de Justicia.

This makes archeologists wince. Says John Hoopes, the University of Kansas expert on Costa Rica’s stone balls: “Whatever ‘mystery’ exists has more to do with loss of information due to the destruction of the balls and their archaeological contexts than lost continents, ancient astronauts, or transoceanic voyages.”

Hoopes reports that when the first major study of the balls took place in the 1950s, at least 50 of the objects were in situ, in the place where the prehistoric makers left them. Today only a handful are untouched, he said.

The Museo Nacional in San José has a collection of such balls, but they are more like art objects instead of artifacts to be studied. If Central Valley residents all surrendered their stone balls the museum would be faced with a major storage problem of artifacts that would have minimal research value. A plan exists to move some of the balls to a proposed national park in Palmar Norte. The object would at least have tourist value.

That might not be the case with the Brooklyn Museum holdings. The New York museum plans to keep the best of the lot. The remainder likely would end up in the Museo Nacional’s storage facilities in Pavas.

What is lacking is money to pack and ship the artifacts back to Costa Rica. There likely will be fund drives.  So far there has been no detailed assessment of what  actually is being surrendered and its value.

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