Milwaukee Public Museum director Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi spent many years excavating in and around Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala. This area was occupied over a great length of time by the Maya, from 500 BC to the Spanish Conquest (about AD 1500). Many items were brought up from the lake by divers, including several ceramic censers, containers used to burn copal incense, which played an important role in Maya rituals. The Milwaukee Public Museum is one of the primary repositories of artifacts from sites from this area.
The Milwaukee Public Museum's Pre-Columbian Gold collection comes from Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico. Until the mid-1900s such items were worth more as scrap than as artifacts and were melted down, losing a great amount of information. For this reason, museum collections are vital in providing information on Pre-Columbian gold working.