As Peru counts down to the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, thousands of artefacts taken from the breathtaking lost city of the Incas could soon be returned to the country.
The relics, some 40,000 of them, according to the Peruvian government, include pottery, jewellery and human bones. They have been in the collection at Bingham's alma mater, Yale University, since he first hacked his way through the Andean jungle to the site in 1911, and have become the subject of a bitter international dispute and a ferocious academic debate about how and where to display archaeological treasures. Alan Garcia, Peru's President, announced that the artefacts would begin to be returned to the country next year, following an agreement with Yale during talks last week.
The university said that important details were still being worked out that could derail a final deal, but welcomed "positive developments". It said: "It has always been Yale's desire to reach an agreement that honours Peru's rich history and cultural heritage and recognises the world's interest in ongoing public and scholarly access to that heritage."
The university has "a duty to academic and cultural institutions everywhere to recognise their important contributions to the study and understanding of all the world's cultures", it has said throughout the dispute.
Peru says the artefacts were only ever loaned to Yale, and that an earlier deal to repatriate the objects fell apart two years ago. That plan had included funds for a travelling exhibition of the objects, and a study centre in the Peruvian city of Cuzco.
Yale says it returned scores ofboxes of artefacts in 1921, and that Peru knew that the university would keep other pieces.
A lawsuit is working its way through the American courts, and earlier this month Mr Garcia appealed for the intervention of US President Barack Obama so that a resolution could be found ahead of the 100th anniversary of Bingham's excavations.
Barely a month ago, Peru was threatening to launch criminal proceedings against Yale and its president. After last week's meeting, Mr Garcia opted for magnanimity, recognising the university's role in preserving the artefacts for the best part of a century.
In a statement announcing the outline agreement, he said: "The Peruvian government is grateful for this decision, and recognises that Yale University conserved these parts and pieces that otherwise would have been dispersed in private collections throughout the world, and perhaps would have disappeared."
Machu Picchu had been abandoned for centuries before Bingham's discovery. The ferocious Incas had spread across South America from what is now Peru, using warfare and diplomacy to build an empire that stretched from Colombia to Argentina, but they were no match for the firepower – and the imported diseases – of Spanish invaders who arrived in 1532.
The US Senator Chris Dodd, who as a member of the chamber's foreign relations committee has been working to encourage an agreement between Yale and Peru, welcomed the weekend's progress. "I applaud Yale's decision to return the Machu Picchu artefacts to their rightful owners," he said. "These artifacts do not belong to any government, to any institution, or to any university – they belong to the people of Peru. Now future generations of Peruvians and visitors to that country will have access to this rich history."