San Bernardino Museum Returns Nearly 1,300 Artifacts to Mexico

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San Bernardino Museum Returns Nearly 1,300 Artifacts to Mexico

One of the 1,294 pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts returned by the San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California to Mexico. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum)

Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

10/11/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California has returned nearly 1,300 historic artifacts to Mexico that date back to before the 16th century.
The collection of various pre-Columbian items of common and ceremonial use includes jewelry, incense holders, lamps, sculptures, carved stoneware, ceramic masks, tools, and musical instruments obtained by the museum over the years.
In 2021, museum officials began the process of handing over the artifacts to the Instituto Nacional de Arqueologia e Historia (INAH), which is Mexico’s federal agency that oversees the country’s museum and archaeological sites.
San Bernardino County’s board of supervisors approved the transfer Feb. 14, 2017, as part of the museum’s goal of building trust and fellowship with community partners, museum spokeswoman Jenni McCormick told The Epoch Times.
A ceremony was held for the official exchange on Sept. 15, which coincided with Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States and Mexico’s commemoration of the historic 1810 Grito de Independencia, which marked the beginning of the country’s fight for independence.
“While matters of return can be difficult and weighty, in this case working with the Consulate of Mexico and INAH has been one of collaboration, support and trust; one that we look forward to nurturing,” said the museum’s Chief Deputy and Curator of Anthropology Tamara Serrao-Leiva in a statement.
One of the 1,294 pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts returned by the San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California to Mexico. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum)

One of the 1,294 pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts returned by the San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California to Mexico. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum)

According to the office of the secretary of the interior of Mexico, the artifacts were received by Mexican Consul Itzel de León Villard, who commended San Bernardino County and museum authorities for following Mexico’s guidelines for the recovery of its cultural heritage.
“Actions such as these are part of Mexico’s efforts to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property and to repatriate artifacts that are part of our national heritage and are abroad illegally,” the secretary’s office said in a press release Sept. 19.
Many of the artifacts were removed from Mexico before cultural heritage laws were in place, according to the museum. After the objects crossed over into California, many of the items were collected in private homes and then donated to the San Bernardino Museum, which has cared for them over the years.
“While many objects have been repatriated, the Government of Mexico allowed [the museum] to continue housing some Mesoamerican objects to tell a representative story that connects to a large portion of our community,” spokeswoman Ms. McCormick said.
Some of the 1,294 pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts returned by the San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California to Mexico. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum)

Some of the 1,294 pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts returned by the San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California to Mexico. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum)

Mesoamerica is a region in Central America that was once populated by native inhabitants, including Mayan and Aztec people, but is now comprised of northern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and central to southern Mexico.
The historic objects include traditional household incense holders, called incensarios, and ceremonial tomb sculptures, said Ms. Serrao-Leiva.
“These sculptures, sometimes made of ceramic and sometimes of stoneware, were carved in the image of various deities that represented that individual during their earth-side lifetime,” she told The Epoch Times.
Other items in the collection were for personal use, such as jade and shell pendants, abalone bracelets, and ceramic masks that were used in temple rituals, Ms. Serrao-Leiva added.
One of the 1,294 pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts returned by the San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California to Mexico. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum)

One of the 1,294 pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts returned by the San Bernardino County Museum in Southern California to Mexico. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum)

“One of the most exciting group of objects sent back were the ocarinas and flutes,” she said. Ocarinas are flute-like wind instruments.
“These musical instruments often bridged the gap between this life and the next, natural and supernatural, and were used both in ceremony and wartime communications,” she said.
The museum also returned stone tools, such as manos, which are stones used for grinding food by hand. They also sent back projectile points, which were used as weapons thrown by hand. Some of the projectiles were made of obsidian, according to Ms. Serrao-Leiva.
Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

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Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.

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