Tuesday April 5 marked the culmination of nearly two years of investigation involving multiple federal and state departments, the governments of the United States and Mongolia, several paleontologists, and one 70-million-year-old Alioramus dinosaur skull, which at long last is heading home.
The skull, along with six other dinosaur fossils, was formally returned to Mongolia in a repatriation ceremony held that day at the Brooklyn offices of the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York. This is the third time since 2013 that dinosaur fossils illegally shipped to the U.S. have been returned to their native Mongolia.
The Alioramus skull, one of only three known in the world, arrived at Newark’s Liberty Airport in 2014, shipped by the French company GeoFossiles, with paperwork that seemed to indicate that the skull was a replica, according to U.S. Attorney Robert Capers. The package had been flagged for inspection by the Department of Homeland Security, and, as a result, New York Customs Border Protection inspected the skull and seized it on suspicion that it had been shipped under a false customs declaration.
In petitioning for the return of the skull, GeoFossiles admitted it was an authentic dinosaur skull, and produced Mongolian export documents from 2006. But inconsistencies in the typeface used throughout the document tipped investigators off that the documents might be forged. The documents were then compared with the Mongolian government’s records. The Mongolian documents show approval for an export, but that paperwork did not indicate that it was a dinosaur skull that was being shipped, according to Dr. Bolortsetseg Minjin, Director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, based in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar.
Following further investigation—involving Customs Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigation, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District—Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Orenstein prosecuted the case, known in public record as “United States of America v. One Alioramus Dinosaur Skull.” Because the case was a civil forfeiture, pursued on the grounds that the skull was a cultural property of the country of Mongolia, no party was held criminally responsible in these proceedings. Officials would not give further information about where the skull was being shipped to within the United States or if criminal suits could follow.
“These are not souvenirs to be sold to the highest bidder,” said Robert Perez, Director of Customs and Border Protection’s New York Field Operations. He and other officials at Tuesday’s repatriation ceremony stressed that this investigation and the eventual repatriation are part of an emphasis across government departments to crack down on illegal movement of cultural property and archaeology.
The six other fossils signed over to the Mongolian government as part of Tuesday’s repatriation ceremony included a fossilized egg bed of Troodontid dinosaurs and forty-foot bones of a Hadrosaurus, which could not fit into the room where the other fossils were on display. All pieces besides the Alioramus skull were seized in Utah and obtained through a joint effort of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. These fossils were not part of the civil forfeiture case prosecuted in New York, and officials declined to provide more detail about who had them or how they got to Utah. The focus of the repatriation ceremony, they said, was to celebrate the fossil’s return to their country of origin.
“Thanks to this fruitful cooperation, 23 dinosaur fossils were repatriated to Mongolia during the last three years and now we are witnessing a repatriation of seven fossils, including an Alioramus skull,” said Mongolia’s Ambassador to the United States, Altangerel Bulgaa.
While U.S. officials would not say if they’ve see an increase in illegal exportation of cultural property, the ambassador and Dr. Bolortsetseg of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs noted that her government is working to counter any drain of fossils from the country, where the Gobi Desert is a hotspot for paleontology and a frontier for new fossil discovery.
Dr. Bolortsetseg said that each case of illegal export is unique. She recalled one case of a large fossil being seized by Mongolian Customs just before it was airlifted out of the country, but said that there are other, less scrutinized paths. “The mining industry is evolving quite actively,” she said, “and we do have the borders in the south between Mongolia and China. Every day we do have big trucks of coal going across and back and forth between the countries, so there are cases of some dinosaurs being possibly taken out through those big, large trucks loaded with coal.”
Dr. Bolortsetseg will oversee the shipment of the fossils back to Mongolia. She told NY City Lens that in past cases of repatriation the fossils were shipped by both boat and air, and that she and other officials are comparing shipping prices while considering how best to move this latest batch of returned fossils to Mongolia.
Once the fossils return to Mongolia, they will be put on display at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs in Ulaanbaatar, where the 23 previously repatriated fossils are on display. There the Alioramus will join Protoceratopses, Oviraptors, and Tyrannosaurus bataars, among others.