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D.C. woman finds 2,000-year-old Mayan vase at thrift store and returns it to Mexico

For five years, Anna Lee Dozier had no idea she had an ancient Mayan artifact on display at her home.

'It should go back to where it belongs,' says Anna Lee Dozier

A squat, beige pottery vase with human figures and other shapes painted on it, displayed on a piece of paper on a red table cloth next to other ancient ceramics.

As It Happens5:58D.C. woman finds 2,000-year-old Mayan vase at thrift store and returns it to Mexico

For five years, Anna Lee Dozier had no idea she had an ancient Mayan artifact on display at her home.

The Washington, D.C., woman found the ceramic vase in a local thrift store near a U.S. Air Force base, and bought it for $3.99 US ($ 5.48 Cdn).

"In my work, I travel a lot to Mexico, and this item caught my eye because it looked different than the things on the shelf, but it also was recognizably from Mexico," Dozier told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"It looked old … but, like, I was thinking a 20- or 30-year-old tourist thing — something someone brought home, you know, from a trip somewhere."

It turns out, it's a 2,000-year-old vase from the heart of ancient Mayan civilization. And thanks to Dozier, it is being repatriated to Mexico.

'Congratulations, it is real'

Dozier says she kept the vase in a small room in her house that she calls her library — a place she can keep books and other valued items where her children don't play.

"I now have three little boys and have learned very quickly that putting things within their reach is likely to get them broken," she said.

She works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organization that promotes freedom of religion, and often travels to Mexico as part of her job.

On a trip to Mexico City in January, she was browsing the National Museum of Anthropology, when something clicked.

"As I was walking through, it just occurred to me that some of the things that I was looking at looked very similar to what I had at home," she said.

A smiling blonde woman with red lipstick and a baby blue blouse

So she asked a museum staff member what she should do if she believed she had a cultural artifact.

The employee, she says, looked skeptical, but advised her to contact the Mexican embassy back home in the U.S., and they would take it from there. So that's what she did.

"In April they contacted me to say that, yes, it was in fact something real and very, very old," she said. "[The email] just said: Congratulations, it is real. And we would like it back, — in a very nice way. Which is what I had intended."

A nervous drive with an ancient vase

Sergio Aguirre Gamboa, a spokesperson for the Mexican embassy in the U.S., says when Dozier contacted them, it kicked off a procedure set in place by the Mexican government in 2021 to "combat the sale of Mexican archaeological materials and facilitate dialogue with museums and private institutions for the restitution of our heritage."

He says the embassy collected photos and information about the vase, and sent them to the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico for authentication.

Experts there identified the vessel as a painted vase of Mayan origin, from what is now called southeastern Mexico, dating back to the Mayan Classic period, between 200-800 AD.

A squat, beige ceramic vase with human figures and other shapes painted on it, on a wooden table against a bright blue wall.

The embassy arranged to have Dozier return the vessel in a ceremony with the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. at the Mexican Cultural Institute in D.C. on Tuesday.

She says she packed it up in a food delivery box, and surrounded it with newspapers for padding.

"That little 30-minute drive, the whole way, I was just praying that [there would be] no fender benders, no accidents. Just get it there in one piece," she said.

Once there, Ambassador Moctezuma Barragan thanked her returning the artifact.

"When you have strong roots, you know them and you honour them," Ambassador Moctezuma Barragan said, according to NBC affiliate WUSA9.

"She recognized that a whole country, a whole culture cares about it, and we are deeply in gratitude with her."

13,500 items repatriated so far

The Mayans were a Mesoamerican, pre-Columbian people whose civilization spanned what is now known as Guatemala, Belize, southeastern Mexico, and parts of western Honduras and El Salvador.

It is renowned for its art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, astronomy, and of course, hand-crafted pottery.

"Ceramic vessels nourished in both life and death: they held food and drink for daily life, but also offerings in dedicatory caches and burials, which range from the simplest graves to the richest royal tombs," according to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A woman flanked by two men standing behind a table full of pottery between two Mexican flags.

Once the vase is back in Mexico, Gamboa says archaeologists will examine it closely to learn more about it, including whether it was a ceremonial vase, or something intended for everyday use.

He says it will be shipped to the National Institute of Anthropology and History along with 19 other archaeological pieces anonymously donated to the Mexican Cultural Institute, and could ultimately end up in a museum.

Under Mexico's 2021 legislation, he says "all our archaeological, artistic, and historical monuments are inalienable and imprescriptible properties of the nation … irrespective of how these items left the country or were acquired."'

"Through co-ordinated efforts and international collaboration, we have successfully recovered approximately 13,500 objects of Mexican archaeological and historical heritage from abroad in recent years," he said.

But Dozier says, even if it were an option, she never would have considered selling or auctioning off the vase.

"It has value beyond what you could put money on. And so for me, it just was never a question. If it was something special, it should go back to where it belongs," she said.

"I feel very lucky that I got to find it and have it in my housefor a few years, but now it's going back where it should be."

Interview with Anna Lee Dozier produced by Nishat Chowdhury

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