More than 900 artifacts intercepted in an illegal shipment have been returned to the government of Mali, U.S. officials said on Monday. Homeland Security agents originally confiscated the items, which included ceremonial and mortuary objects, some dating back to the Neolithic period, at the Port of Houston in 2009.
Officials described the discovery at the port, which is one of the busiest in the country, as the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.
Mark Dawson, the investigator who oversaw the search, said in a statement Monday that “a nation’s cultural property and antiquities define who they are as a people.” He added: “No one has the right to loot or destroy that heritage and history.” Homeland Security agents would “aggressively target anyone who pilfers the priceless cultural treasures of a nation,” according to the statement.
The artifacts’ journey began in March 2009 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection alerted the investigative branch of Homeland Security of a suspicious container at the port. The container originated in Mali with papers claiming that it held reproductions of cultural items. Upon inspection, the items appeared to be authentic. Susan McIntosh, an anthropologist at Rice University, researched the antiquities and released a report later that year.
In 2011, the United States started the process of returning the artifacts to Mali, but the effort paused when the West African country fell into a period of civil unrest and economic strain, Homeland Security officials said. In June 2020, the State Department provided Mali with a grant to finance the return of the artifacts and their eventual exhibition there.
“We put a great deal of care into culture,” Mohamed Traore, an adviser with Mali’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, said in an interview. “We considered these objects as part of our history that was not present anymore.”
Traore said that the U.S. authorities notified the Malian government about the return of the looted artifacts this year and that repatriation negotiations then resumed. He explained that the artifacts, which were handed over to diplomats on Monday, would be immediately returned to Mali, where the country’s Ministry of Culture would assess them. Their final destination will be museums, “including the National Museum of Mali in the capital, Bamako,” he added.
Malian regulations require that anyone seeking to export artifacts submit the objects for certification by the National Museum. Since 2007, the United States has upheld an agreement with Mali to protect cultural property. In the last decade, however, the country has seen increased looting of its cultural heritage by terrorist organizations and local militias. A series of coups has also weakened the government’s ability to enforce the law. Earlier this year, military officials ousted the country’s interim civilian leaders just nine months after the previous president was forced out.