Six years ago, Juan Esteves found something he never expected during a security screening at Orlando International Airport.
Wrapped and tucked inside a pair of shoes were three pieces of stone art. One of the carved clay rocks was a bowl. The two others appeared to be animals.
Esteves, a supervisor with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, thought they could be historical artifacts. The traveler told him he discovered them in the backyard of his father’s home in Costa Rica.
“I was surprised and excited because I love history,” Esteves said. “In my culture, we protect our historical artifacts, especially from the Taino in Puerto Rico.”
Experts later determined that those artifacts Esteves flagged belonged to the Kingdom of Nicoya, an ancient indigenous nation in modern-day Costa Rica. Now, the artifacts will be returning home, placed under the care of the country’s national museum in San Jose.
On Thursday morning, U.S. and Costa Rican officials celebrated the repatriation of the seized artifacts in a ceremony at the Customs and Border Protection Miami Field Office. While the exact uses of the artifacts are unknown, specialists from the National Museum of Costa Rica determined they were likely used inside the home or for funerals between 300 B.C. and 800 A.D.
For Costa Rica’s Consulate General Ludmilla Ugalde, returning the artifacts is a way for the country to learn more about their ancestors — and reclaim part of its history. While a timeline isn’t set for the artifacts’ return, she hopes that it’s soon.
“With each piece, it’s a way of understanding a lot more about our culture,” Ugalde said. “We want the future generations to have the chance to know where they came from and to know what a great culture we had in pre-Columbian times.”
The return of the artifacts marks an important moment for Costa Rica’s cultural heritage, said John Rico, assistant director of field operations at CBP’s Miami-Tampa Field Office.
“The global black market in antiquities is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar illicit industry,” Rico said. “While monetary value may be placed on these items, the repatriation of cultural property is truly priceless.”
Authorities did not release what the items are worth.
Esteves said he’s glad the artifacts he uncovered will be back where they belong.
“For us, they might have an appraised value, but they’re invaluable for the people of Costa Rica,” he said. “I’d rather have them in a museum that can study them ... than [for them] to be in somebody’s living room.”