After Years At A Mid-Michigan College, A Mayan Artifact Returns To Its Homeland

Apr 23, 2021

An artifact belonging to the Mayan Empire will finally make its way back home after spending more than 18 years at a college in Mid-Michigan.  The 500 year-old urn will soon be reunited with its twin in Mexico.


It began eight years ago, in 2013, when Arizona State University archaeologist Joel Palka visited Albion College.

He was there to study one of the college’s photograph collections of the Mayan people who inhabited what is today known as the state of Chiapas in the southwest region of Mexico.

Walking through the halls, he saw an ancient urn featuring sculptural details of what appears to be a man wearing colorful garments.

“I passed by the urn on my way to the photograph archive. And I always thought, ‘Oh, it's an, it's an interesting urn.’ And it was made out of ceramic about three feet high,” he said. 

Little did Palka know that a few months later, while visiting the Museo de Los Altos in Chiapas, he would find the exact same looking urn in one of the museum’s exhibits.

“[I] went into the Maya Hall, and I was greeted by what I thought was the Albion urn, and that was like, in June, and I thought, ‘Well, how can they repatriate it that fast? And why wouldn't they tell me?’ And then I realized that they couldn’t have," he said.

Palka figured out the urn at Albion looked identical to the urn being exhibited at the museum in Chiapas.

“That launched this mission then to study the urns, and if they were indeed twins, or if one was a modern kind of fabrication or copy, or to learn more about what was going on," he added. 

According to Palka, these urns were originally found in caves located in Lake Petha in Chiapas. It’s a region where Mayan people lived during the Spanish conquest. He says the urns depict the places where they were found.

“So Maya would go there and give offerings to these, to these lords, that — the underworld Lords — or these gods, that lived in caves," he said.

The urn, which is estimated to have been made between 900 A.D. and 1600 A.D., was given to the College Archives by alumnus Marvin Vann. Vann spent many years in Mexico on a personal mission to study communities of Indigenous people in remote areas. Palka says it's most likely Vann came across the urn during one of his visits to Chiapas.

“He found the one urn and the base deteriorated the bottom part of the ceramic and was eroded, and I think he took it back to, to repair it, and to do some analysis," he explained. 

When Palka returned to the United States that summer, he says he immediately rushed to Albion to discuss the repatriation of the urn with the school.

Mathew Johnson is the President of Albion College.

“Once we verified the identification of that urn through some scientific analysis of the clay as a true sibling to the other urn, it became clear to us that it was an artifact that needed to be repatriated to Mexico," Johnson said.

What first began as a coincidental discovery has now become what Johnson calls a political act.

“For us to keep it here is to deny the people in the place where it was created the opportunity to see it, to study it, to understand it as a part of their history, and to cultivate their own cultural pride around that artifact," he said.

Johnson said for a long time collecting artifacts and items around the world was simply a pastime of those who had the wealth and power to do so.

“People have begun to realize that many of the items collected are better preserved and better contextualized returned to their rightful place," he stated.

Now eight years after Palka made the initial discovery, the urn is being returned to its original birthplace.

In a repatriation ceremony held on April 13, an agreement was signed between the college and the Consulate of Mexico in Detroit to return the urn back to Chiapas. Speaking at the ceremony, Fernando Gonzales Saiffe from the Consulate of Mexico in Detroit noted the importance of the objects to Mexican culture.

“The Mayan urn has a value that is intrinsically linked to its people, to its history, and whose restitution is of the utmost importance for our cultural capital," he said. 

In a few months, the urn will travel back to Mexico to be exhibited next to its twin.