CUZCO, Peru — On a scorching afternoon 96 years ago, Hiram Bingham reluctantly left a cool mountain hut to resume his search for what he called "the lost city of the Incas."
Bingham's hopes had been dashed so often while scouring Peru's outback in the preceding weeks that the Yale University professor, then 36, had few expectations as he followed an 8-year-old boy who claimed to know its location.
As Bingham wrote later, he "suddenly found myself in a maze of beautiful granite houses! ... Surprise followed surprise in bewildering succession." Bingham and Yale were hailed for the discovery of Machu Picchu.
But now Yale has been tainted by a bitter and public two-year-old dispute over about 5,000 artifacts that Bingham removed from Machu Picchu and took to the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn.
University and Peruvian officials hope to settle the spat in the coming weeks, especially now Machu Picchu has been selected as one of the "new seven wonders of the world" in a global popularity contest unveiled on July 7.
Peruvian archaeologists and historians warn, however, that they will complain strongly and protest loudly unless Yale returns all the objects to Peru, not just "museum-quality" artifacts, as the university is proposing.
The issue is especially sensitive here in Cuzco, the one-time seat of the Inca Empire and today a regional capital that serves as the starting point for the 700,000 tourists annually who go by train or on foot to Machu Picchu. A measure of the issue's importance could be seen in the nationalistic reaction here when Machu Picchu was named one of the seven wonders: Cuzco's central square quickly filled with revelers dancing and singing, as if Peru had won an important soccer match.
Yale has taken a public-relations beating for refusing the Peruvian demand that the university return the artifacts. Even the National Geographic Society, which has always proudly noted that it sponsored Bingham's subsequent treks to explore Machu Picchu's mysteries in 1912 and 1914-15, has lost patience with Yale for its stance.
The objects, said Terry Garcia, who oversees expeditions today for the society, "were a loan for scientific purposes. I don't understand why Yale took the position that they wouldn't return the objects, that Peru couldn't safeguard them. I can't imagine how it's been good for them (Yale). They need to get themselves out of a mess of their own creation."
At stake, Peruvian officials say, is the principle that countries still own archaeological objects excavated decades before governments realized their importance as national treasures.
Greece's claim for the return of the Elgin Marbles from England is the most famous case, but many governments are increasingly making claims for antiquities held all over the world, including museums in the United States.
At issue between Yale and Peru are about 250 pieces of jewelry, ceramic jars and cooking implements, as well as several thousand human bones and pottery shards unearthed by Bingham.
The artifacts sat unseen in a Yale museum storehouse for several decades before the university in 2003 began a traveling show in the United States that was seen by more than one million people.
The show reminded Peruvian officials of the objects' existence. They researched their archives and found what they insist is convincing evidence that Bingham had agreed to return all the items he had taken before 1920.
Key documents include a 1912 Peruvian decree stating that Peru reserved the right to request the objects' return, and a 1916 letter that Bingham wrote to the National Geographic Society about the artifacts from the 1914-15 expedition.
"Now they do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in 18 months," Bingham wrote.
Yale officials have said that Peruvian law in force in 1912 does not require the university to return objects from Bingham's expedition that year. They have also said they returned everything from the 1914-15 expedition in the 1920s.
Luis Lumbreras, the director of Peru's National Institute of Culture until a year ago, said a search of the institute's records shows that Yale returned only a few skeletons.
In several e-mail exchanges with The Miami Herald, Helaine Klasky, a Yale spokeswoman, did not answer questions about why the university believes it retains legal right to the objects. Klasky did write that the current negotiations "are delicate matters" and expressed hope of reaching a settlement because "we are back negotiating with a government who wants to resolve this amicably."
At the heart of the debate today is Bingham, a romantic adventurer who braved freezing cold, poisonous snakes, treacherous rivers and nosebleed altitude in his Peruvian quests. Bingham roamed the Andes at a time when successful explorers - such as Robert Peary, who reached the North Pole in 1909 - were becoming public heroes.
Bingham went on to serve nine years as a U.S. senator from Connecticut and wrote several books detailing his adventures and theories about Machu Picchu, which is perched on an isolated mountain peak three hours by train from Cuzco.
Bingham believed the site was an early capital of the Incas - whose century-old reign ended with the Spanish conquest in 1530s - or an important religious complex where "virgins of the sun" were sacrificed to the gods.
Richard Burger, a Yale anthropology professor, and his wife, Lucy Salazar, a curator of the Machu Picchu exhibit, have popularized the theory that Machu Picchu served as a warm-weather retreat for Inca leaders from cold Cuzco. Lumbreras believes it was an important Inca burial ground.
Under Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo - the first democratically elected Indian president in the country's history - the government and Lumbreras took a hard line in negotiations with Yale, insisting that the university return all of the objects. President Alan Garcia, who took office a year ago, seems more willing to compromise.
The issue remains sensitive, however. Housing Minister Hernan Garrido Lecca, entrusted with the negotiations, did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Garcia, of the National Geographic Society, said Yale ought to agree without delay to return all of the objects and said several others have suggested, as a measure of goodwill, that the university should offer to build a museum for them in Cuzco or at Machu Picchu.
He said Peru has expressed willingness to give Yale access to artifacts under its control for further research, a key point for university officials.
"This could have been settled a long time ago," Garcia said, adding the two sides could reach agreement immediately if Yale acknowledges Peru's ownership of the artifacts. "There is a way to meet the objectives of each of the parties."