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MailTribune.com
  • Set in stone

    Medford native works for return of Colombian statues
  • For 2013, Medford native David Dellenback has a New Year's resolution ... to right what he believes is a wrong that began a century ago in Colombia.
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  • For 2013, Medford native David Dellenback has a New Year's resolution ... to right what he believes is a wrong that began a century ago in Colombia.
    Dellenback, 60, a longtime resident of Colombia who lives in San Agustin with his wife, Martha, is working with Colombian residents to return 35 ancient stone statues from a German museum back to San Agustin, where they were taken in 1913.
    "The stars are aligned to bring them back," he said in a telephone interview with the Mail Tribune. "The German government understands they are stolen. No museum would want them. The time has come for them to be returned.
    "The Germans are waiting for the Colombian government to wake up and come for these statues."
    The stone statues, now at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, were taken by ethnologist Konrad Preuss, who led excavations in the San Agustin area in 1913. However, he was unable to move the statues to Germany until after World War I ended in 1918. He died in 1938.
    Dellenback organized a campaign in December in which more than 1,800 residents of the San Agustin area signed a petition asking the Colombian government to formally request the return of the artifacts from Germany. The town of about 30,000 high in the Andes is about 250 miles as the condor flies southwest of Bogota.
    In a Dec. 27 article on Dellenback's effort, the Los Angeles Times reported that the cultural attache at the German Embassy in Bogota did not return a call asking for comment. Legal experts differ on whether there were laws at the time that prohibited such artifact export from Colombia, the paper reported.
    The Oregon expatriate is the son of the late John Dellenback, a longtime Medford resident who served as a member of Congress from 1966 to 1974 and was later appointed head of the Peace Corps by President Gerald Ford.
    The congressman's widow, Mary Jane Dellenback, still lives in Medford, as does his daughter, Barbara Dellenback, whose voice can be heard on Jefferson Public Radio's news program weekday mornings.
    A coffee farmer who has lived in Colombia for more than 35 years, David Dellenback lived in Medford for 15 years before moving with his family to Washington, D.C., while his father was serving in Congress. When he isn't tending his coffee trees, David Dellenback is an archaeological investigator in the region known for its pre-Colombian archaeological sites.
    When he arrived in Colombia, Dellenback, whose wife is from Bogota, said he became interested in the culture and its history, including archaeology. He has written two books on ancient stone statues from the region, many of which are more than 1,000 years old.
    He is particularly concerned about the looting of Colombian cultural sites, including the removal of the 35 stone statues.
    "Archaeologists don't find these artifacts — grave robbers and tomb raiders find them," he said. "They are discovered by people who do not bear them any goodwill at all."
    He described Preuss as an ethnologist not well versed in the study of archaeology who violated ethics in taking the artifacts.
    "He was not an archaeologist — he wanted plunder," Dellenback said. "I consider him and others like him the spiritual followers of the conquistadors. He wanted to get his hands on artifacts."
    While Dellenback said Preuss earned a solid reputation as an ethnologist working in Colombia, he stressed the German had little expertise in archaeology.
    "He came here in 1913 and expected to grab a bunch of stuff and ship it back to Germany," he said. "But World War I broke out and that made it impossible for him to go back for six years."
    Preuss only spent a portion of that first year in San Agustin, Dellenback said.
    "In addition to the statues, he took a large load of other things, including ceramics," he said. "When I went to Berlin in 1992, the ceramics had been reduced to pieces in a couple of shoe boxes." Dellenback surmised the ceramics had been destroyed by the bombing of Berlin during World War II.
    He said only three of the statues are on display, noting the rest are in storage.
    The statues are about 3 feet tall with "supernatural" characteristics and headgear that Swiss writer Erich van Daniken, in his 1984 book, "Chariots of the Gods," cited as possible evidence of visitation in the distance past of extraterrestrials. Very little is known about the statue makers, who were gone when the conquistadors arrived in the late 15th century.
    Like Peru, which was able to persuade Yale University to return Machu Picchu artifacts taken by explorer Hiram Bingham after discovering the site in 1911, San Agustin residents want to persuade both the Colombian and German governments that returning the artifacts is the right thing to do.
    "The most important part of our effort is to get them back where they came from," he said. "Unfortunately, in part because of the socioeconomics of the world, tomb robbing remains a reality. There is no doubt more ancient statues will continue to be stolen."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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