The Underworld Portal (the real one, not the Minecraft one) returns to Mexico 60 years after its looting

It is possibly the jewel in the (plundered) crown of Mexican archaeology.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
25 May 2023 Thursday 10:21
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The Underworld Portal (the real one, not the Minecraft one) returns to Mexico 60 years after its looting

It is possibly the jewel in the (plundered) crown of Mexican archaeology. It measures 1.80 high and 1.5 wide and weighs about a ton and this Thursday it returns home, after a journey of about sixty years that it is not known exactly when and how it began.

The Regional Museum of the Peoples of Morelos has received this Thursday the Portal of the Underworld, a fundamental piece of the Olmec culture that has been in the United States since at least 1968.

The Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made the rescue of archaeological pieces one of its political signs, and today it applauds. The president himself chaired this Thursday the reception ceremony for the extremely valuable piece, which will be exhibited at the institution in the coming weeks.

The Portal of the Underworld -the famous video game Minecraft has a phase that has the same name, and which is the same: a hole that leads to darkness- is one of the best pieces of the Olmec culture, considered the first Mesoamerican civilization; its first manifestations occur around 1500 BC, although its splendor was between 1000 and 400 BC.

Archaeologists estimate that the Underworld Portal was created between approximately 800 and 400 BC. It is also known as the "Monster of the Earth" or as "monument 9", in archaeological jargon.

It represents the Chalcatzingo hill, in Morelos, and shows a complex representation of the face of a jaguar with ovoid eyes, flaming eyebrows, and open jaws in the shape of a cross. The reliefs are of plants typical of the place and an unidentified character also appears, within a circle that is on a jaguar snake nose. Therefore, it reflects the beliefs and spirituality of one of the oldest cultures in Central America.

At the ceremony this Thursday, the director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), Diego Prieto, described the "Portal to the underworld" as "a fantastic creature" and of similar importance to the colossal and famous giant heads of the Olmec culture. Prieto warned that "heritage is not for sale."

In statements to the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, archaeologist Mario Córdova, an expert on this historical period, said that “the piece has great significance for the idea that Mexicans have of themselves. The lack of this piece felt like a wound, and its return represents the healing and celebration of the culture and history of Mexico.”

The country's Secretary of Foreign Relations, Marcelo Ebrard, stated at the delivery ceremony in Denver that the return of the piece "restores something to us that explains where we come from and that it is part of the heritage of the people of Mexico," according to the same header.

The piece is thus a testament to Mexico's past. It is estimated that it was moved to the United States in the late 1950s. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until an article by archaeologist David Grove in American Antiquity magazine reported its location in Denver. The Metropolitan Museum in New York exhibited it briefly in the 1970s.

This journey makes it, together with its cultural and archaeological significance, a political milestone for Mexico, which has open claims over around 11,500 pieces scattered throughout museums and collections around the world.

The piece arrived at the Cuernavaca Airport, capital of the state of Morelos, on May 19. It was transferred to the Regional Museum of the Peoples of Morelos, where the plastics that protected it during the transfer were removed. The archaeologists, as explained by the INAH, have waited a few days to analyze the adaptation of the rock to the local climate, after several decades in the cold of Denver. A note from the INAH informs that the Portal of the underworld "is in stable conditions of conservation" and was not affected during the transfer to Mexico.

Now, the Portal will be the centerpiece of the Morelos museum. This is located in the fabulous Palacio de Cortés, the first civil building built by the Spanish conquistadors commanded by Hernán Cortés, as a family residence and headquarters of the Marquesado del Valle de Oaxaca. In 2017 the museum had to close, affected by the earthquakes, and it has not reopened until March of this year, waiting for the wonderful Olmec relief.