Rice University professor assists feds, helps return stolen artifacts to Mali

The cultural antiques were first discovered in the United States at the Port of Houston

A high-necked polychrome pot (circa 1100-1400 A.D. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

HOUSTON – Stolen artifacts that date back to 800 A.D. were returned to the Republic of Mali on Nov. 22 with the help of a Rice University professor, federal authorities said.

The artifacts were transferred from Homeland Security Investigations to a representative of Mali.

The antiques were brought to Homeland Security Investigation’s attention back in March of 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection contacted HSI Houston to notify them of a suspicious container located at the Port of Houston.

The courier claimed to only be carrying replica cultural items. Upon further inspection, the items appeared to be authentic and were covered in blood and fecal matter, which sent red flags to HSI and CBP officials for possible artifact smuggling, according to a news release about the items’ return.

Houston Homeland Security Investigation’s contacted Rice University professor Susan McIntosh, who is one of the world’s foremost experts on West African cultural antiquities. After conducting an in-depth examination of the antiques McIntosh issued her official report where she concluded that the artifacts were in face stolen from the Republic of Mali.

Newly discovered antiques consisted of six large funerary urns (circa 900-1700 A.D.); a comb-impressed red slip double cup vessel (circa 800-1500 A.D.); a high-necked polychrome pot (circa 1100-1400 A.D.); 913 ground and flax stones and axe heads from the Neolithic Period.

Take a look at some of the artifacts below.

A high-necked polychrome pot (circa 1100-1400 A.D. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Civil unrest and economic strain in Mali prevented the artifacts from being returned to their rightful country. In June of 2020, the U.S. Department of State provided a grant to Mali’s National Directorate of Cultural Patrimony to fund the repatriation and future exhibition of the cultural artifacts, which has now made their return possible.

The exhibition will become part of a nationwide outreach campaign dedicated to protecting and preserving Mali’s archaeological sites.

Illicit sales of similar items across international borders continues to be a challenge for global law enforcement efforts to reduce the trafficking of such property, according to the news release about the artifacts’ return. Trafficking antiquities is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar transnational criminal enterprise.


View all the images of the recovered artifacts released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement below.

Ground and flax stones and axe heads from the Neolithic Period (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
A comb-impressed red slip double cup vessel (circa 800-1500 A.D.) (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Funerary urn (circa 900-1700 A.D.) (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Funerary urn (circa 900-1700 A.D.) (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Funerary urn (circa 900-1700 A.D.) (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Funerary urn (circa 900-1700 A.D.) (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Funerary urn (circa 900-1700 A.D.) (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)