An archeologist and his team of nine students have been arrested in Peru for continuing to excavate at a pre-Colombian cemetery despite the country’s nationwide lockdown.

The team, led by archeologist Pieter van Dalen, were caught digging at the Macatón cemetery in the town of Huaral during the state of emergency on Sunday, April 4. The group from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos were taken into custody for breaching Peru’s strict lockdown measures, despite their claim that they were simply securing the national heritage that was left exposed at the site as agreed with the ministry of culture.

The Peruvian minister of culture, Sonia Guillén, who is herself an archeologist, told local news outlet Canal N that she “deplores” the group’s actions in a time of national emergency. “It is regrettable and shameful,” Guillén said.

The archeological team had been given a permit to excavate at the archeological site about 50 miles north of the capital city of Lima, but the ministry of culture says in a statement that the permit had been “suspended” as a result of the current confinement period to protect public health, calling the subsequent breach an “irresponsible and unjustified action.”

“We call on the general population to respect all government provisions and especially to show commitment and solidarity with others,” the ministry says. Since the lockdown was imposed on March 16, more than 51,000 people have been arrested for flouting the rules, the Peruvian president Martin Vizcarra said on Monday. The country has so far recorded nearly 3,000 cases of the virus and more than 100 deaths since it first broke out there in March.

Image courtesy the Ministerio de Cultura del Perú on Facebook. @mincu.pe

Image courtesy the Ministerio de Cultura del Perú on Facebook. @mincu.pe

Artnet News reached out to Pieter van Dalen but did not immediately hear back. Van Dalen defended himself to the archeology magazine Lima Gris, explaining that when the state of emergency was declared, many tombs remained open, leaving valuable funerary items exposed to the elements or thefts.

In the interview, Van Dalen also claimed that the ministry of culture was aware that the team was continuing to work on the site in order to protect national heritage. The archeologist says that he was left “between a rock and a hard place” because he signed a letter taking responsibility for any damage to the site between February and October, 2020.

“If any of the people who travel through the archeological zone every day take any of these materials or destroy them, the ministry of culture will denounce me for destruction of cultural heritage,” he said, adding that “the ministry of culture has not developed any protocol to safeguard these materials.” 

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