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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Archaeological Training in Uruguay

José María López Mazz


The articles by Jaime Litvak and Michael E. Smith in SAA Bulletin [1997, 15(4):10-11, 12-14] described current trends in Mexican archaeology and the new challenges it faces. In this same issue of the Bulletin [1997, 15(4):20-21], John W. Hoopes narrated the bitter experiences of the El Cayo project, where Peter Mathews and his crew were beaten, threatened, and chased through the jungle for attempting to relocate an endangered archaeological monument to a safer location. Although this action was perceived by the archaeologists as the logical and necessary solution for preservation of an endangered resource, the local inhabitants saw it as just one more attempt by outsiders to control the destiny of their cultural patrimony.

In this article, I will try to place similar events that frequently occur in archaeological projects in Mexico into an historic and academic context with the intention of broadening our understanding of those events and how they can develop into difficult or dangerous situations. I believe that these moments of tension and conflict are in great part explained by the general political climate that manages the Mexican archaeological resources--a climate that has resisted changing a framework that functioned effectively for decades but that, by any reckoning, has actually deteriorated beyond functional limits.


Since the beginning of archaeology in Mexico, participants of archaeological field projects have on occasion found themselves in difficult situations. These are best characterized by moments when those involved find themselves extending beyond the boundaries of the traditional work environment and clashing with the ethnographic present. For example, such stories include Roberto Gallegos' 1960s excavation of Zaachila under military protection because of the town's opposition to the exploration of tombs 1 and 2, and the 1984 opposition by the Comité del Templo de Mitla to the restoration of the prehispanic structure serving as the foundation for the community's Catholic church, a conflict that almost cost the archaeologists their lives. The 1997 experience of Peter Mathews and his crew at El Cayo, who suffered such harassment that their survival must have seemed like a miracle, is the most recently reported incident of this kind. Until recently, these unfortunate experiences have had only a narrative value, but the convergence of macro-level changes in the social setting of Mexican archaeology make them more likely in the future. Failing to consider the possibility puts both the archaeologist and the cultural patrimony at greater risk.

One significant macro-level change is the increasing importance attached to tourism as a generator of employment and hard currency to contribute to national development needs. Federal, state, and municipal planning for tourism attach considerable importance to monumental archaeological zones, frequently without reference to the concerns of archaeologists responsible for them. Instead, archaeologists are expected to provide the infrastructure and informational support system for tourists. The perception of monumental archaeology as a source of inspiration and education for all the people, a perception that drove the formation and activities of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) in the l930s, appears to have been replaced by a new set of priorities centering on tourism. Although archaeologists receive criticism for "working for the tourist," the subject of tourism has become a subject of concern among academics and researchers only during the past decade. Mexican field archaeologists rarely approach the academic literature on tourism because it appears to explore topics having little to do with archaeology as a science. But at least for monumental archaeology, we must recognize it is no longer an option to challenge the value of tourism because it is here to stay. This does not imply that archaeologists must promote tourism, but we must accept that it exists and that we contribute to the system.

A second macro-level change has to do with new institutional arrangements for governance and social control. The political party that long dominated central political institutions no longer commands the awe and respect it once did, making the acts of those institutions, including INAH, appear more problematic. The 1992 changes in Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution alters the basis for owning and managing lands once held as public trusts under post-Revolution agrarian laws. The possibility of converting such lands to private ownership has provoked rampant speculation in urban areas and leaves decisions taken by local agrarian authorities with respect to archaeological protection open to disavowal by new private owners. In subdividing property into private parcels one is realistically only multiplying the number of players entering the struggle. INAH does not have the institutional capacity to deal with these changes and local officials are, at best, reluctant to interfere with neighbors and, at worst, among the primary beneficiaries of such changes. The emerging need to deal with thousands of individual property owners overwhelms INAH's financial and administrative capabilities, jeopardizing its ability to protect archaeological resources.

These two macro-level changes have the potential to reinforce social conflicts threatening any archaeological project. The immediate cause of conflict may reflect other concerns: a struggle for possession of land; a struggle within a community for control of certain resources; power struggles between community factions; a belief that there is treasure hidden in the archaeological monuments or black magic associated with them; the opportunity to discredit official institutions; or the desire to protect or extend certain cultural expressions. Unfortunately, archaeologists rarely understand the nature or magnitude of internal conflict within a given community. To make matters worse, field archaeologists often contribute, albeit unconsciously and innocently, to community tensions. Apparently logical acts such as importing experienced excavation teams from other sites may be seen as undermining a community's right to benefit from its own resources. Although officials and archaeologists commonly tout the "benefits" from tourism, these may be difficult to measure, are not distributed evenly, and may accrue largely to people outside the community where the site is located. In the long run the archaeologists may find themselves labeled as promoters of tourism, looters, gringo lovers, representatives of a discredited government, and creators of problems for local communities.

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Monte Albán and Mitla, Oaxaca: Two Case Studies

Considering the foregoing, and with the objective of understanding the placement of archaeological activities in a modern social context, since 1985, a few authors have conducted research on those components and factors to define the setting in which the protection and archaeological programs at the two best-known monumental sites in Oaxaca have been undertaken (N. M. Robles García, 1996, El Manejo de los Recursos Arqueológicos en México: El Caso de Oaxaca. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia, Athens). At Monte Albán the immediate goal of these studies has been to understand the origins of conflicts with surrounding communities, as these constantly threaten the site with invasion, deprive the archaeologist of the opportunity to work outside the monumental areas, and make it more difficult to apply procedures necessary for the site's conservation. On the other hand, Mitla offers an exceptional example for observing the consequences that the archaeological patrimony can suffer by adhering to traditional official controls, disregarding history, and by ignoring the significance of tourism for both the site itself and for the community that surrounds it.

From a restoration perspective, Robles and Moreira rated Mitla as the "largest laboratory of deterioration in Mexican archaeology" (N. Robles García, and A. Moreira Quirós, 1985, "Evaluación sobre el Estado de Conservación de los Monumentos Arqueológicos de Mitla." Unpublished manuscript on file, Maestría en Restauración Arquitecténica, Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía, México). Today, after emphasizing investigations of contemporary social systems, I can also characterize this site as one of great complexity, with rich anthropological data that should be utilized to extract the answers to the problems of degradation and abandonment of monumental architecture and to transmit the challenge of these problems to future generations. In both cases we have tried to understand the complexity of those social systems by applying anthropological methods to identify critical components: (1) implications of the site delimitation process; (2) competing forms of land tenure; (3) conflicts over land use; and (4) competing social groups.

Site Delimitation Process

Formal proclamation of a site as an official archaeological zone meriting federal protection is a lengthy process ending in a formal presidential decree. This does not make the site federal property but merely extends federal authority over it. The technical and scientific criteria used to define site boundaries are the presence of archaeological remains associated with theories of complexity and social evolution. Once these criteria are fixed the process should be straightforward, even if slow. But criteria change over time. The nominally obvious space marked by monumental architecture--the definition of Monte Albán's spatial extent in the l930s-- was expanded more than 20-fold by the presidential proclamation of l993, the fourth site delimitation. Although this expansion probably represents the most acceptable scientific definition in the eyes of modern archaeologists, to the surrounding communities this has simply been an exercise in federal appropriation of lands to which it has no legitimate claim. They see the expansion of the archaeological zone not as the logical consequence of changes in archaeological theory and method but as an illegitimate usurpation of an irreplaceable and increasingly valuable resource base. As Phil Dennis notes, boundary conflicts help to sustain a sense of community identification and solidarity against external threats (P. A. Dennis, 1973, An Inter-Village Land Feud in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Mich.). For some communities, the continuing quarrel with INAH over the Monte Albán boundary may serve a positive social function they are loathe to lose.

Land Tenure

Managment of the complexities of land tenure represents the most common problem facing any archaeological project. Much land in Oaxaca, and elsewhere in Mexico, is subject to competing land tenure systems, each with its own set of laws and processes. The complexity of tenure reflects the accumulated baggage of different legal arrangements; overlapping, inaccurate, or fraudulent surveys or decrees; and the lack of any universally accepted mechanism for resolving land tenure conflicts. Much of the settlement surrounding the archaeological zone at Mitla is on communal land. In theory communal land is exactly that, meaning INAH cannot resolve threats to the zone by buying out private owners, as these presumably cannot exist on communal property. In practice urbanized communal lands in Mitla are bought and sold using informal, but widely accepted, substitutes for official title. Furthermore, some observers would argue it is not in INAH's institutional interest to recognize individual titles as valid because then it would be forced to work with many smallholders, each vying for its best interests, rather than working with communal lands or ejidal committees.

Land Use

The complexities of land tenure are reinforced by complexities in land use. Historically the lands surrounding the sites at Mitla and Monte Albán served for agriculture, grazing, and other forms of extended, low-impact use. The emergence of a tourism-based economy and increased urbanization alters that, threatening irreversible damage to the sites. Because of its proximity to the city of Oaxaca, the archaeological zone at Monte Albán is directly affected by urban sprawl. Over 30 new residential districts have appeared within zone boundaries since the l960s, and INAH lacks the authority and institutional clout necessary to hold these settlements at bay (Figure 1). Their existence is dictated by the socioeconomic needs of the impoverished people who occupy them and are tolerated, even nurtured, by government officials for whom such uses resolve near-term difficulties. Although such housing is some distance below the Plaza Principal at Monte Albán, in reality Mitla's archaeological zone has been totally invaded by the community. Most open space in and around the monuments is occupied by some vendor selling either locally produced crafts, crafts imported from neighboring states, or crafts imported from Guatemala (Figure 2). Tourism in Mitla is now the dominant factor in the local economy as residents dedicate themselves to providing the goods and services demanded by 300,000 visitors annually. Failure to recognize that reality invariably generates conflict between local residents and archaeologists.

Figure 1
Figure 1: View of the 1996 urban sprawl at Monte Alban.

Figure 2
Figure 2: The perceived economic advantages of Mitla, which have led to a struggle for control of the land around the monument zone.

Social Groups

Within the archaeological zone boundaries (and in many other cases where there has been no official legal protection established), the archaeologist is surrounded by a multitude of organized groups with some degree of power and influence, each seeking to protect their particular interests or to gain some advantage (Figure 3). In a general sense these include (1) economic interests, with the archaeological zone considered to be a source of exploitable income (e.g., vendors, guides, or hotel owners); (2) political interests that use the archaeological zones as convenient targets for political protest or as resources to be distributed to clients; (3) popular belief in the sacred character of the site (e.g., those for whom the sites have some religious significance, including groups of New Age visitors;) (4) advocates of property rights on an individual or collective basis (i.e., people who have purchased plots of land or members of communal lands committees); and (5) institutional interests (such as state agencies and INAH itself), which may treat its interest as an institution as different from the protection of a single archaeological zone.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Representatives of the various social groups concerned with land tenure issues around Monte Alban. A dynamic of social conflict, in which the site itself plays a role, is maintained.

Thus the reality is not that the archaeologist is a professional largely responsible to the norms, practices, and expectations of our craft but rather someone whose success in doing archaeology will depend to a substantial degree on prior mastery of negotiating skills and contextual knowledge. In Mitla the archaeologist may need to deal with the boards of directors of the markets, representatives of different craft industries, different groups of vendors, and representatives of the commercial tourist trade. The church committee and representatives of other committees are especially influential in matters that have to do with the archaeological zones. The municipal government in Mitla also has a strong influence and has had a severe conflict of interest with INAH on matters of conservation of the ruins. Monte Albán, with its land base divided up among several municipalities, in addition to ejidos, communal lands committees, and neighborhood organizations, faces a significant task in tracing the frequent turnover of representatives, the emergence of new groups, and the priorities of other federal or state agencies. No matter how accomplished and technically competent one may be as an archaeologist, the multiple contexts require us to develop new perspectives and talents.

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The Concept of Cultural Resource Management

It is obvious that there are different value systems operative in the management of these two archaeological zones in Oaxaca. These systems are not aligned with a set of philosophical values that promote academic action for the conservation and restoration of the sites and the transmission of cultural heritage to future generations. The social contexts described here demonstrate that the value of Monte Albán and Mitla is perceived more as an economic resource to be exploited by the locals for tourism, agriculture, and residential and commercial uses.

As we have seen, the responsibility for conservation, planning, administration, and management of cultural patrimony for the purposes of tourism and educational, social, and political concerns within such different social contexts has fallen on the shoulders of archaeologists. We know that in an international academic context these responsibilities have been differentiated into different spheres--philosophical, theoretical, and scientific--and that since the 1970s countries like Great Britain, the United States, Denmark, and Canada have instituted programs of cultural resource management or conservation archaeology.

These programs define the parameters for preservation and conservation, taking into acount particular social environments. It seems evident that the institutions dedicated to the practice of archaeology in Mexico should take the responsibility for cultural resource management in a conscientious and modern way, training its personnel to deal with the existent infrastructure.

There is an urgent need in Mexico for the training of specialists in the field of conservation and management of sites. Without abandoning their fundamental purpose of conducting archaeological research, research institutions like INAH, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and other universities, should provide the necessary facilities for the development of this new discipline, which at the moment is practiced only in an improvised manner and is considered supplemental or secondary to "real" archaeology. This urgency is justified not only because of the academic importance of keeping up with the process of modernization occurring worldwide but also because of the fundamental loss of cultural information. Not having the professional programs of management to rely on, the sites suffer the loss of authenticity, and the integrity of the cultural heritage that they represent is compromised.

This new field should be named Management of Archaeological Resources in Mexico, and it should fill a new professional niche in our discipline. It should be charged with the responsibilities of projecting, planning, investigating, and regulating the uses of the archaeological patrimony in the context of the contemporary social environment. Although rooted in the long history of solid legislation in Mexico for its cultural patrimony, and the extensive experience in conservation and restoration (D. Schávelzon, 1990, La Conservación del Patrimonio Cultural en América Latina: Restauración de Edificios Prehispánicos en Mesoamérica, 1750-1980. Universidad de Buenos Aires. Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo, Buenos Aires, Argentina), this discipline should develop its own image, reflecting its intent to seek solutions to the problems of coexistence between archaeologists and community special-interest groups that compete for access to the resources perceived to accompany an archaeological site. That is to say, it should develop outreach programs and find formulas for the successful interaction of archaeological sites and the communities surrounding them.

Until now, archaeologists have proved to be very adept at the identification of sites, but we also must recognize the need to approach the surrounding communities with equal professionalism, assessing and understanding the interface created between the need to preserve an archaeological resource and the reality of the contemporary society (N. Robles García and J. Corbett, 1995, Land Tenure Systems, Economic Development, and Protected Areas in Mexico. In Sustainable Society and Protected Areas, edited by R. M. Linn, pp. 55-61. Contributed Papers, 8th Conference on Research and Resource Management in Parks and on Public Lands. The George Wright Society, Hanckock, Mich.).

In this sense, it is imperative to request that our international colleagues also consider the social context of the sites they choose to study in Mexico before unconsciously creating a problem that--as we have seen--could endanger their lives.

In conclusion, we can say that the context in which archaeology in Mexico is conducted changes in accord with the social movements and collective needs. Archaeologists can no longer ignore the components of the contemporary social context that is articulated with the archaeological resource. In this sense, we can no longer deny the need to be sensitive and receptive to the communities around us.

Nelly M. Robles García is the director of the Zona Arqueológica de Monte Albán, Centro INAH, Oaxaca.

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