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Sweden comes to Mesa Verde– again

Portrait of Gustaf Nordenskióld, 23, by Frank Gonner of Durango. In the Nordenskióld family, this is referred to as “The Cowboy Portrait.” (Courtesy the Nordenskióld-Arrhenius Family)

“What about repatriation?”

Mats Carlsson-Lénart asked the question last week in the middle of an interview with me for the Swedish Broadcasting Co., the American equivalent of NPR, National Public Radio.

Carlsson-Lénart was in the United States to interview people for various stories, particularly Mesa Verde. He wanted to see the famous cliff dwellings his countryman, Gustaf Nordenskióld, studied and wrote about in 1891.

In the midst of a travel cure for his tuberculosis, Nordenskióld, in effect, stumbled on Mesa Verde after hearing about it in Denver. The young Swedish scholar interrupted his travels for a six-month expedition to study and photograph what he considered to be an important ancient civilization. In the 1890s, there were no laws against collecting artifacts, and the black-market selling artifacts tempted many local residents to pilfer and sell bowls, sandals, old tools, even skulls.

Nordenskióld observed all that and decided to collect items for a museum. To tell the story of a lost civilization, he also included plants, soil samples and even animal dung, He hired and trained the Wetherill sons in collection methods. Within weeks, Nordenskióld’s project became controversial. In late summer, 1891, when he began shipping artifacts to Europe, protests mounted. In mid-September, Nordenskióld was arrested. His one night in jail and the trial that followed make for dramatic storytelling, and the conflict made international headlines.

Cartoon from October 2019, of the President of Finland formally presenting human remains from the Nordenskióld Collection in Helsinki, Finland, to President Donald Trump. (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)

The whole Colorado adventure capped Nordenskióld’s short scientific career. He published his monograph in 1893, first in Swedish, then in English. Two of the original large-format books are in Durango archives. He married and continued other scientific projects, such as micro-photography, but he died of tuberculosis in 1895, three weeks before his 27th birthday.

My late husband, David, and I spent 10 years researching and writing his biography. Our goal was to publish by Mesa Verde’s centennial in 2006. We were lucky in that we won the trust of the Nordenskióld family. They put at our disposal all of the young scientist’s letters.

Carlsson-Lénart had read the biography and knew Nordenskióld family members. So, we had a lot to talk about. He pressed about repatriation issues, knowing that Nordenskióld in his time broke no laws, nor did the looters making money on the black market.

We discussed the 1906 Antiquities Act, the first law to protect natural sites and cultural objects. And we discussed the biggest specific turnaround in repatriation, which came in October 2019.

The president of Finland traveled to Washington to return the human remains from the Nordenskióld Collection. He did so at a formal ceremony with President Donald Trump. The remains were later presented to tribal elders for a solemn, secret reburial.

For years, the most controversial aspect of the Nordenskióld Collection, housed in Finland’s Museum of Cultures, was not the 610 artifacts but a small number of mummies and skulls.

Carlsson-Lénart hoped to visit Mesa Verde, interview officials of the park, and possibly tribal members. That’s another story that may or may not be told.

The whole saga with all of its historical and inter-cultural facets continues to fascinate. Nordenskióld, Mesa Verde and Durango made international news in 1891. Ambassadors were quoted, even members of President Harrison’s Cabinet got involved.

The story continues now in 2023 as the Swedish Broadcasting Co. airs yet another chapter.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.