Looted Pre-Columbian Artifact Found in Oakland

By Matt Baume
|  Thursday, Nov 25, 2010  |  Updated 1:30 PM PDT
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Looted Pre-Columbian Artifact Found in Oakland

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OAKLAND, CA - JULY 18: A US Airways taxis on the runway July 18, 2008 at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, California. US Airways pilots and its dispatchers, who calculate fuel loads, are involved in a dispute that has pilots claiming that they are being pressured to fly with less fuel to cut costs as fuel prices continue to rise and cripple earnings. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

You never know where a little piece of antiquity might turn up.

A passenger whose bags were being inspected at Oakland International Airport was found to be carrying a priceless pre-Columbian figurine, rolled up in a wad of t-shirts. The tiny relic, only about 2 inches long, was found by a tourist hiking the mountains of western Mexico.

Removing items is strictly forbidden for foreigners -- you can't even remove a rock without permission, according to the General Consul of Mexico. It's not unheard of for looters to steal the antiques to sell in markets abroad.

In this case, the removal seems to have been an innocent mistake. The tourist in question was surprised to learn that picking up objects and bringing them home isn't allowed. It's possible that erosion or farmwork may have revealed the long-buried item.

The statue was returned to grateful Mexican officials this week. Experts estimate that the piece dates from somewhere before the 15th century, and may have been a foot for a vase or urn. It looks like a little stone rod with a rudimentary face carved into it.

The passenger willingly surrendered the artifact to customs agents at the airport. No word on whether it was forced to undergo an intrusive pat-down by TSA agents, or to have its genitals x-rayed.

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