Stupid Countries, Stupider Museums
Belize is filled with magnificent Mayan ruins and a vast abundance of artwork and artifacts. Many objects had been retrieved, but much was still in the ground. Belize has strict laws that prohibit any antiquities from leaving the country. Belize was also desperately poor, with no money to build a museum and no place to store the art and artifacts that were being uncovered.
The most valuable finds were kept in a locked room in the main government building in the capital city of Belmopan, which was built 50 miles inland following the devastation of Belize City by a hurricane in 1961.
Herman Smith led us into the building, got the key to the vault room and showed us an extraordinary collection of Mayan masterpieces.
Did I say, “showed us?” Rather, he handed out gloriously-decorated pots for us to fondle and he festooned the squealing, giggling ladies with 1,000-year-old jewelry that would bring six and seven figures at a Sotheby’s or Christie’s auction.
Later we took a putt-putt along the Belize River to the camp of a working archaeologist. The first sights we saw were grass-roofed huts that were padlocked. Peeking in the windows, we saw 1,000-year-old pots stacked floor to ceiling. With no museums, no proper storage facilities and strict export laws, these magnificent objects had no place to go.
They may still be there 30 years later for all I know, unless they have (1) been moved to a proper facility; (2) been stolen; (3) disintegrated. That a poor country permits the digging up of historical treasures only to let them rot is preposterous.
These pots could be added to the collections of museums around the world along with promotional brochures offering hotel and restaurant discounts all over Belize—a tropical country with splendid beaches, scuba diving unmatched in the Western Hemisphere and archaeological wonders.