More than 3,000 Ecuadorian archaeological finds, including the most impressive works of the Manteño civilization, are kept in the storerooms of a Washington museum. But now the government in Quito said it wants them removed so people can have a better appreciation of Ecuador's history.
The treasure includes monumental stone steles and "seats of power," stone chairs used by hierarchs of the Manteño culture, which had its era of splendor between the 9th and 14th centuries, roughly parallel to the rise of the Incas in Peru.
In Ecuador only three seats of this kind remain, the Heritage Ministry said.
"This is the largest collection of Manteño culture" in existence, the Cerro de Hojas-Jaboncillo project director Jorge Marcos told Efe.
The items in Washington were originally found at Cerro de Hojas-Jaboncillo, an archaeological site discovered by American explorer Marshall Saville in 1906.
"We were familiar with the scholarly papers about the pieces and we knew that the National Museum of the American Indian had an important Ecuadorian archaeological collection, but we didn't know how much or what its value was," Heritage Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa said in a press conference Monday.
Knowledge of these works was limited to published references and the reports of a handful of Ecuadorian archaeologists who were able to see them including Marcos, who examined them in their original boxes in a New York warehouse in 1971 when he was studying at the University of Illinois.
Last week he saw them again together with Espinosa in the conservation rooms of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
"What we found there is of the very finest quality," the minister said, adding that some of the pieces are absolutely unique and of greater value than any in Ecuador.
Cerro de Hojas-Jaboncillo, which covers some 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres), is the country's largest archaeological area. It is located in a humid area along the coast where its pre-Columbian inhabitants excavated subterranean silos and practiced intensive agriculture, according to the experts.
Saville came upon the remains of that culture in the same way that his compatriot Hiram Bingham, a Yale university professor, discovered Machu Picchu in Peru five years later - led by local guides.
Peru was able to get Yale to return the archaeological pieces after a long litigation and a campaign of international pressure.
For now, Ecuador has chosen to cooperate with the U.S. museum, though Espinosa did not rule out that in the future her country might ask for "part of that collection."
Saville took the pieces out of the country legally, Marcos said.