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The Mexican contraband artifact market in the late 20th century

The Mexican contraband artifact market in the late 20th century


Up until the 1980s,  the economic conditions of rural farmers in most of Mexico were quite similar to those of rural Southerners until Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932.  They had no cash.  They grew most of what they ate and bartered for manufactured goods.  The only ticket out for young indigenous women was to either be a maid, a prostitute or if pretty enough, a mistress.  Virtually all middle class and upper class households in Mexico had at least one servant, generally two or more.  However, maids in middle class households received pathetically little income for their work, but did get one to three free meals a day.   Less the reader becomes too condescending, most middle class white households in the Deep South had African-American maids until the mid-1960s, when economic conditions radically changed due to the War on Poverty.

About the only sources of income in extremely remote areas, where I, but few tourists, explored, were either selling one’s teenage daughters for the night to more affluent Mexican men, passing through the area, or selling artifacts.  The camposinos typically obtained these artifacts when heavy rains exposed ancient graves or village sites.  Such artifacts were usually not of museum quality . . . say equivalent to what one would find in a Proto-Creek burials outside of mounds.

Professional grave robbers, who paid off government officials, held a monopoly on the excavations of royal burials, which produced museum quality ceramics, plus gold artifacts.   These museum-quality artifacts were sold directly to wealthy collectors in the United States and Europe . . . government officials getting bribes all along the way.  Any Indian or camposino, who piddled around a professional grave robber’s private artifact mine would probably be killed.

In central and southern Mexico, there are many areas, outside government-owned archaeological zones, where the ground is literally covered with Pre-Hispanic potsherds, obsidian blades and crude figurines.  That is where I obtained most of the artifacts that I shipped back to Atlanta.  At the crest of Cerro Gordo, over-looking Teotihuacan, I found an ancient battlefield at the site, where an ancient aqueduct tapped water from the extinct volcano’s crater to serve  the massive population of the city.  Here, I picked up about 20 pounds of obsidian atlatl points and Mesoamerican sword blades.  I could have easily picked up a hundred pounds, but I would have had to carry them back down the steep slopes of the 10,000 feet high mountain.  There were only animal trails, when I climbed the mountain.  Now there is a gravel road and several motorbike trails.

When I have the time to digitize some more color slides, you will be astounded at the scenes of potsherds littering the landscape.

I bought some statuary and bowls from the camposinos, such as the “Ancient Fire God,” that I knew would be crude enough to pass Dr. Piña-Chan’s inspection.  They ran about the equivalent of about $10 to $25 in Gringo money.    I also purchased some beautiful reproductions, made by archaeology students at the museum as class projects.  I WAS offered some beautiful REAL Pre-Hispanic bowls in Michoacan, but I knew they wouldn’t pass his inspection and I didn’t want to get into smuggling them out of the country by paying off someone.  Well, I didn’t have the money to pay off anyone, anyway.  LOL 

During the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations, exports of Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine into the United States exploded.  Key North American officials were paid to look the other way or in the case of the US Air Force,  an Air Force general would order the entire southern radar defense line shut off, when cargo jets from certain cartels in Colombia and Mexico were shipping illegal drugs into the United States.  Mexican farmers could make far more money from a few marijuana plants in a year than from years of selling contraband artifacts. 

My Mexican friends tell me that nowadays,  almost all their museum quality contraband is being smuggled to Europe via private jets, cargo ships and oil tankers.  It is very easy for merchant marine sailors to get them on board by hiding them within tourist souvenirs.  There is little police surveillance of the comings and goings of sailors while their ships are docked at Vera Cruz,  Coatzacoalcos, Campeche and Progreso.  It is equally easy to carry them into major European port cities. Once inside the European Union nations, there are seldom any border checks. The artifacts are then easily exported as works of art from European nations to all parts of the world.   European nations have stolen so many artifacts from other continents, it is almost impossible for their national police to discern recently smuggled Mesoamerican artifacts from those expatriated during the 480 year period,  when it was common for artifacts from the Americas to be legally exported to Europe and the United States.

Now you know!



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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    When we were with our Mayan Baha’i friends last year on the Yucatan, we were sad to see the Chinese dominated the foreigner souvenir market-most vendors were selling “crap” made in China BUT not marked as such; however, much of it, from the surface, looked “folksy” enough to pass as being produced in country. Sad.

    • I did not know that Jim. At least in the old days, the imitation artifacts were made by indigenous Mexicans, so they got the bulk of the money from the sales. Can’t believe that the Mexican government is allowing Chinese imitations.


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