US officials said Monday that more than 900 artifacts intercepted by the illegal party have been returned to the Mali government. National security agents initially confiscated items, including ceremonial and funerary items, some of which date back to the Neolithic period, at the Port of Houston in 2009.
Officials described the find 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 Monday in a statement that “the cultural values and antiquities of a country define who they are as a people.” He added: “No one has the right to plunder or destroy this heritage and history.” According to the statement, the national security agents will “aggressively attack anyone who steals the nation’s priceless cultural treasures.”
The journey of the artifacts began in March 2009 when the US Customs and Border Protection notified the Homeland Security Investigation Department of a suspicious container at the port. The container was brought from Mali and contained documents confirming that it contained reproductions of cultural property. Upon examination, the items were found to be genuine. Susan McIntosh, an anthropologist at Rice University, researched antiquities and published a report later that year.
In 2011, the United States began the process of returning artifacts to Mali, but efforts were stalled when the West African country was caught in a period of civil unrest and economic tension, national security officials said. In June 2020, the Department of State provided Mali with a grant to fund the return of the artifacts and their eventual exhibition there.
“We place a lot of emphasis on culture,” said Mohamed Traore, Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Mali to the United Nations, in an interview. “We considered these objects to be a part of our history that no longer existed.”
Traore said the US authorities had notified the Mali government of the return of the looted artifacts this year, after which negotiations for repatriation resumed. He explained that the artifacts handed over to the diplomats today will be immediately returned to Mali, where they will be evaluated by the country’s Ministry of Culture. Their final destination will be museums, “including the National Museum of Mali in the capital, Bamako,” he added.
Malian regulations require anyone wishing to export artifacts to submit items for certification to the National Museum. Since 2007, the United States has supported an agreement with Mali to protect cultural property. However, in the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of looting of its cultural heritage by terrorist organizations and local militias in the country. A series of coups d’états have also weakened the government’s ability to enforce the law. Earlier this year, the military ousted the country’s interim civilian leaders just nine months after the previous president was ousted.