Speaking English with a French accent, the woman in the voicemail said she had a collection of artifacts she acquired from the African country of Mauritania in the late 1980s.
The message Irene Bald Romano received in May was intriguing but not exceptional.
As an art historian and archaeologist, and an expert on Greek and Roman antiquities, Romano occasionally fields calls from federal investigators about confiscated artifacts. She also gets the odd message from someone curious to know more about an item they’ve acquired.
But this message felt different, said Romano, a professor in the University of Arizona School of Art who also holds an appointment in the School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
A Woman’s Dying Wish
The woman, in her message, explained she had acquired the artifacts – an assortment of stone tools, pieces of pottery, arrowheads, hair beads, and some natural history items that all fit into a textbook-sized plastic case – during her time as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. She seemed committed to ensuring the artifacts find a suitable home, perhaps in a local museum or at a school where students could learn from them.
But ideally, the woman said, they would be returned to Mauritania.
And the matter was urgent.
“She said in that message, ‘I’m dying of cancer, and I really need to figure out what to do with this,'” Romano said. “She sounded so sincere that I thought this was something I should follow up on.”
Her instincts to follow up paid off.
That voicemail kicked off a seven-month process to return the items to Mauritania. The effort culminated with Mamadou Baro, an associate professor of anthropology who is from Mauritania and specializes in the region, traveling to his home country this month to present the items to Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, as well as ambassadors to Mauritania from the U.S., France, Germany and Morocco and representatives from the country’s Ministry of Culture, national museum and University of Nouakchott, in the country’s capital.
The collection also has become a catalyst for a new partnership between UArizona, the national museum and the University of Nouakchott that will give students at both universities opportunities to team up on research and other projects related to anthropology, museum studies and other areas.
“This tiny thing is bringing many people together,” Baro said. “We always talk about collaboration, but this is becoming more real.”
Originally published on the University Communications website on Dec. 15, 2021.
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