Costa Rica has been defined in three major archaeological areas: El Gran Nicoya, the Central Region and El Gran Chiriqui. The design and style of artifacts from each region are as different as the geography. However, the one similarity for every gold, stone or jade pre-Columbian artifact is they all belong to the Costa Rican government.
Established in the national archaeological heritage act in 1982, all private owners are required to register the relics. If not then in the state´s possession, any person in possession of an artifact is responsible for its well being. So, if the state´s property is damaged or lost, the penalty is from 5,000 to 40,000 colons. If an owner attempts to take an artifact out of the country, the penalty could be a four-year commutable prison sentence.
All artifact holders are required to submit to a public archaeological registry, according to the law. At the time the law when into effect, holders could retain possession if the piece was submitted for registry within six months. Now there is a risk of losing the artifacts.
Persons who go to the Museo Nacional to register artifacts must be committed to return them, according to Francisco Corralles, who is again director of the museum. ¨We cannot do assessments.¨
The museum staff looks at the form, size and finish to determine authenticity, Corralles said. If it is decided to be a pre-Columbian artifact and is returned to the holder, the nature and dimensions of the object, its origin, the place where it is today, the name and address of the holder and photographs of the object are all taken among other things, according to the law.
If the artifact is confiscated, it is placed in what Corralles referred to as a storage facility. The museum has a large warehouse in Pavas.
¨Once the judicial procedure is complete, they can be used for a museum exhibit,” he said.
The museum has helped conduct raids to obtain artifacts from private collections.
Many Costa Ricans have miniature museums with extensive and uncatalogued collections of ancient ceramics. Many of these collections predate the modern laws against private ownership of such materials.
Yet, many of the same figures and pots can be found at the Sunday flea market in Sabana Este. Are they stolen? Are they copies? Are they fresh from some unrecorded find?
A former director of the Museo Nacional lost her job because her family kept an extensive collection of pre-Columbian ceramics and other artifacts. She failed to report the materials, officials said. Yet the collection may be legal.
Museum officials periodically raid a location and carry off pots, figures and even those unusual stone balls that are a hallmark of early south Pacific culture.
Sometimes they need a flatbed truck.
There are other violations that relate to archaeology. Finding a site and not reporting it also draws a penalty as does moving an archaeological monument within the country without approval. Damaging or stealing an artifact also draws a prison term.