A central theme in the text is the significance of the social components…the groups, institutions, communities, organizations, and other actors…which form the contemporary context of archaeological conservation in Mexico. To understand these components the study addresses the specific cases of the archaeological zones of Mitla and Monte Alban in the cultural setting of the Oaxaca Valley in southeastern Mexico. These sites present critical research and conservation management challenges for the central institution in Mexican archaeology, the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
The social components mentioned above form part of the context of archaeological conservation and cultural heritage permeating our daily work but largely latent, and we pay little attention to them until a crisis demands it, or until their unexamined dynamics bring a halt to our professional practice as archaeologists and protectors of cultural heritage. Proof of this is that their study is a recent theme in the context of cultural heritage conservation in Mexico ( Bonfil 1990; Garcia Canclini 1992: 180-190, 1995; Florescano 1993), and is practically nonexistent in discussions of conservation of archaeological heritage, where it is mentioned only very sporadically in recent studies (Schavelzon 1981, 1990; Robles and Moreira 1990; Vasquez Olvera 1995; Rozat D. And Contreras 1995).
International statements or accords which function as recommendations for architectural or urban heritage conservation emerge from both international bodies (UNESCO; OAS; ICOMOS) and meetings or congresses of architects or other professionals. Starting with the Charter of Venice (1964), signed by Mexico, these statements have addressed the need to link society at large with policies and programs intended to preserve this heritage (INAH Oaxaca Regional Center 1982).The definition of "social component" or social actors and the nature of their intervention in preservation becomes the task of research and public policy on a nation-by-nation basis. Here the important point is that international documents recommend society in general be accorded an active role in the dynamics of cultural heritage conservation. In the Mexican case such participation has been addressed since the start of modern legislation on this subject. Article 2 of the Federal Law on Archaeological, Artistic, and Historical Monuments (published May 6, 1972) specifically recognizes INAH's obligation to organize or authorize civic associations, local organizations, or groups of rural residents to act as auxiliary bodies in the preservation of national cultural heritage and to control looting or vandalism (INAH 1995: 7-8). In the same sense, Article 4 anticipates the participation of state and municipal authorities in the application of this law.
In cases such as national or regional museums the role of civic associations, principally as "Friends of Museums," has had a positive effect on their operations. For community museums the local organizations or committees have been the key agents in their creation and continued survival (Morales and Camarena 1995). In some circumstances, such as the salvage and restoration of religious architecture, communities request assistance, provide resources, and support restoration. In the case of archaeological monuments the history is quite different, as there are few cases where INAH has received ongoing support from community organizations. This is attributable to the fact that, as the large archaeological zones are under the direct administration of the federal government and the rest—the great majority—are unexplored, so local residents cannot appreciate their significance. In turn under the same legislation INAH archaeologists find themselves obliged to stop or prohibit activities which may damage subsurface archaeological heritage. Such action is rarely greeted enthusiastically by the property owners affected or by community officials.
Across time the complexity of the relationship between federal archaeology and communities has developed in a way which give rise to situations such as the confrontation in Mitla described earlier. It is for this reason the research presented here focuses on the social and political elements which intervene in the relations between conservation archaeology and society in its most general sense. Here I start from the fact that this subject has not been recognized as an accepted field of study by professionals involved in the task of archaeological heritage conservation, and therefore has not been included as part of the academic preparation available in this area. Nevertheless, I will argue in this text that only by analyzing these social actors can we begin to understand the different levels of conflict which appear on a daily basis as part of the work we do. On the basis of such analysis we will be able to engage, in an effective, long-term fashion, social actors who today confront us as adversaries and whose actions, even when not intentional, contribute to the destruction of archaeological remains.
Through this research it is possible to identify a variety of circumstances which play important roles in the relationship between government archaeology and communities. For example, we come to understand the implications of the institutional practice of boundary-setting as it affects those areas considered to have archaeological remains and the economic resources involved. In turn this means understanding the complex systems of land tenure present in Oaxaca and how these relate both to individual properties and to collectively-held resources. Another consideration has to do with patterns of land use in areas where there are archaeological remains, whether these patterns are consistent with what is legally permitted in relation to heritage conservation, and how they relate to public policy. At present official practice is to support a single type of use—tourism—for archaeological areas, a use remote from the experience of neighboring communities and from traditional production of foodstuffs or other contributions to community survival, but which is an increasingly important element in the economic relationship between Mexico and the rest of the world. Finally, a critical contribution of this research is to address the significance of social groups organized to demand their rights, reaffirm ancestral political practices, solicit services, and act in collective defense of their interests in the face of government decisions which affect them.