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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Mexican Archaeology: Challenges at the End of the Century

Jaime Litvak King

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Associate Editor's Note: The following reflections on the development and present state of Mexican archaeology by Jaime Litvak King set the stage for a series of contributions on different issues related to the future direction of archaeology in Mexico and Central America. We welcome your opinions and seek to establish an open dialogue. Please send your comments to Emily McClung de Tapia,

Since the influential decades of the 1930s to the 1950s, Mexican archaeology has undergone many significant changes. The story of Mexican archaeology today--its position and perspectives for the future--deserves another look.

Political Origins

Official Mexican archaeology at the beginning of this century took as its staging ground important events in the country's ancient history. The military defeat of the conservatives associated with French and Austrian foreign invaders generated a strong interest in non-European and non-Christian subjects. Indians and their past were a way of reaffirming the existence of a valid Mexican nationality.

Mexican archaeology began as a romantic reconstruction of the past. Leopoldo Batres, President Porfirio Diaz's researcher, was very much a product of Violet LeDuc's school. He was the first to attempt to excavate the Aztec main temple buried beneath downtown Mexico City. Additionally, he dug at Teotihuacán, Xochicalco, and Monte Albán. The presence of a group of scholars in Mexico associated with Franz Boas, other researchers like Eduard Seler, and the founding of the Escuela Internacional de Arqueología y Etnología in the Museo Nacional established a link between archaeology and anthropology that was to remain one of the discipline's important characteristics.

This archaeological development halted with the onset of the Mexican Revolution late in 1910. Battles and troop movements, together with the forced enrollment of soldiers in all armies, hindered research throughout the country. Mexican archaeology resumed at the end of the military conflict, again influenced by dominant political views. Manuel Gamio, one of Boas's students, directed an enormous project in Teotihuacán, combining ethnology, linguistics, and applied anthropology while incorporating an indigenist view.

By the end of the1920s, Mexico had adopted the same archaeological perspective that Mussolini had successfully developed in Italy. Italy was perceived as the heir of the great Roman Empire; its grandeur and glory became a historic justification for Mussolini's person and his regime. A strong program of restoration and archaeology was implemented to further enhance this image of grandeur. Seeing this success in Italy, successive Mexican governments shared this nationalistic position and sponsored a very active archaeological program, mostly having to do with excavation and restoration of monumental zones to enhance pride in the Mexican cultural patrimony.

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Major Institutions Founded

By the 1930s Mexican archaeology had developed a public importance that was present in the educational system, in civic and political thought, and in an incipient tourism whose future was seen as economically important. The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) was founded by law in 1939, and it begat the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ENAH) at the Instituto Politécnico, which marked it ideologically. The 1939 law defined the institute's concept and functions and gave it a great deal of power over sites and archaeological properties, as well as established federal authority, prohibiting private ownership of archaeological objects.

The leader of Mexican archaeology in the 1930s was undoubtedly Alfonso Caso, whose work with Mixtec codices, excavations and exceptional finds at Monte Albán and political clout made archaeology a high priority for the country. Caso assembled an extraordinary team, with assistants like Ignacio Bernal and Jorge Acosta, and developed a Boasian approach to archaeology, known as the Mexican School of Archaeology. Its premise was that the contemporary Indians were the descendants of yesterday's great builders, and they deserved attention and care. A few years later the Instituto Nacional Indigenista emerged, later becoming a model for other Latin American countries.

During these years Mexican archaeology was primarily concerned with the interpretation of monumental architecture, with questions focused on religious identification and practice, symbolism, historical sources, and so forth. The link between politics and archaeology remained very tight; scholars, artists, politicians, and the general public closely followed the development of archaeological projects. The Museo Nacional, directed by Caso and redesigned by Daniel Rubín de la Borbolla, became a busy intellectual center.

Numerous other archaeologists were also active at this time. José García Payón worked in the valley of Toluca and in Veracruz, expanding the areal coverage of archaeological research to these zones. Eduardo Noguera and his team dominated the field of artifact analysis--primarily the analysis of pottery--and collaborated with the American researchers studying the Maya area, especially Uaxactún. Noguera's work resulted in the definition of chronological sequences and changes, the most important being the separation of the Classic from the Postclassic periods and the establishment of the Preclassic. Collaboration with George Vaillant's work in the valley of Mexico and in Morelos resulted in the definition of the Formative period.

By the beginning of World War II, Mexico had developed a first-rate archaeology. The country saw its Prehispanic past as a way of reaffirming the existence of a valid Mexican nationality--a view that has prevailed throughout the development of archaeology in Mexico.

After World War II

European political refugees became important in connecting Mexican archaeology with European discoveries and ideas. The definition of Mesoamerica as a culture area was the work of Paul Kirchhoff, a German anti-nazi historian. Spanish anti-Franco refugees were especially influential: physical anthropologist Juan Comas and prehistorian Pedro Bosch Gimpera taught and shaped generations of archaeologists working in Mexico, both Mexican and American; Pedro Armillas, who trained in Mexico, was a strong proponent of Childe's and Zeuner's ideas. The work of the Swedish archaeologist Sigwald Linne in Teotihuacán was also very significant.

At the end of the war and through the 1950s, the G. I. Bill was instrumental in getting many American archaeologists to study in Mexico. Many took anthropology courses at ENAH and at Mexico City College (later known as Universidad de las Américas), where they were trained by Caso's team and by Armillas and Noguera.

The 1950s and 1960s brought several changes that challenged the status of Mexican archaeology and introduced a new set of problems to the archaeologist. These were not met successfully. In some cases the impact of the problem was too large and required a technological preparation that was not readily available. In other cases, the problem was linked to politics, and the Mexican system was not ready for a constructive solution to it.

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Influence of Tourism

One significant change was the introduction of the jet plane, which made mass tourism a reality. Tourism was no longer a few adventurous individuals exploring the ruins; tourists now came from all walks of life and were avid travelers who came by the hundreds of thousands--and later by the millions--to see the sites on a seasonal basis. Servicing tourists became an important function. The government felt that tourists were most interested in the spectacular character of monuments, not in the details of prehistoric economy and daily life, and therefore the focus of archaeology, as developed for tourists, did not adhere to quality research standards.

Another change was the ongoing economic and industrial development of the country itself and the problems created by rapid growth. Roads, dams, and factories needed to be constructed to keep up with the pace of the growing cities and economy. This growth brought a substantial change to the Mexican landscape. As new areas underwent development and intensive land use intensified, archaeological salvage became necessary, and Mexico began developing techniques and systems to accomplish it. Unfortunately, political pressures from all sides--from private initiative as well as from the government--did not help to create a balanced system of resource management. Salvage operations were seen as impeding progress and wasting time, resulting in routine work that did not result in publication or even examination of materials recovered.

At the same time, the discipline of archaeology generally was changing and developing new ways of analyzing material culture and the past. Objective processes were used to shape new ideas, conclusions, and interpretations: the concepts of regional archaeology and settlement system analysis were developed from the use of aerial photography and magnetometry in archaeology; the use of chemical analysis resulted in the definition of type; the application of physics produced absolute chronology; geology and biology led to the exploration of the relationship between environment and culture; numbers, statistics, and computers led to studies of distributions and changes through time. Pedro Armillas's efforts to adopt and integrate these techniques in Mexican archaeology were unsuccessful. Lamentably, a later attempt by José Luis Lorenzo was equally unsuccessful. The new techniques, while known to Mexican archaeologists, were never employed with sophistication and intensity. Without its own technical infrastructure, Mexican archaeology became dependent on American technical expertise and cooperation, or, in many instances, the technical processes were simply not done.

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Student Movements of the 1960s

By the end of the 1960s Mexico was convulsed by student political movements. ENAH's political involvement intensified, and the subject of archaeology acquired a new political discourse. Archaeology became a tool for class warfare; technical systems of study were perceived as imperialistic, some claiming that they implied U.S. intervention in Mexican affairs. The constraints placed on the student of archaeology during this time seriously hampered a student's development in archaeological methods: only a systemic, ideologically clear, and orthodox interpretation was made available to the student; use of the English language was discouraged, and only those who chose to learn it independently did. Fortunately, this political mindset is no longer the case, but in the 1960s it did hinder the development of a modern archaeology in Mexico.

Some researchers--particularly José Luis Lorenzo in Mexico and Luis Alberto Lumbreras in Peru--felt that much of Latin American archaeology had lost its way. Its subordination to the tourist industry and government monumentalism had deprived it of its will to conduct research. State political pressures required that the social aspects of archaeology be ignored. A new proposition, clearly related to development in Europe rather than to the United States, was being developed with archaeology as history--not anthropology--and aspects such as the creation and development of the state were becoming important for discussion. This "social archaeology" made a clear impact in theory and in education, although it was not considered important in the way archaeological research was conducted.

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Problems of the Present and the Future

Today, INAH faces new and very difficult problems in the academic, administrative, and social arenas. The federal government's monopoly is being challenged by state and private initiatives, seeking the opportunity to develop their own prospects for cultural tourism. There is mounting pressure to give states, local governments, and private enterprise self-governance in archaeological matters.

Any change in law must consider the consequences of fragmenting the existent INAH system into smaller units. Archaeological funding is currently available only at the end of each six-year political term and is a topic of primary concern. How will smaller units manage to train new archaeologists and keep others up-to-date in method and theory? The new organization could result in isolated units that do not interact, and could change archaeology from scientific research to studies conducted by groups of local amateurs. The new system will need to provide for contact and interaction between professionals in different state systems and also for maintaining the quality, cost, use, and updating of the technical infrastructure.

Other problems also can be foreseen. For example, current industrialization of northern Mexico is rapidly transforming that landscape. Reconnaissance and salvage are urgent, and it is questionable whether there is the capability of meeting those needs at that scale, while maintaining high standards of excavation.

Other problems are related to politics. Indian groups have not yet claimed domain and authority over archaeological zones or materials as they have in other countries, but the possibility certainly exists. Contract archaeology is a matter of discussion, but standards for work, conservation, and reporting have yet to be established. The development of archaeological zones for tourism--especially in the light of criticism of previous projects--is a question that will certainly be discussed throughout the country. Politicians and investors will be important interlocutors in these discussions.

INAH is not the only option for training archaeologists in Mexico. The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) is probably the best-known alternative. It runs it own research units, including some competent labs, and it also offers anthropology graduate programs. Some states and state universities have set up their own curricula. The University of Veracruz in Jalapa is the oldest, with a research unit, a museum, and a school. The University of Yucatán in Mérida is active in both teaching and research. A private university, Universidad de las Americas (formerly in Mexico City but since the 1970s in Cholula, Puebla), has a study program and has been running a reputable research program since the 1970s. There are new projects for the study of archaeology in Chihuahua and Zacatecas, where students benefit from a close relationship and exchanges between schools. They work together, edit a widely distributed journal, and have recently started Internet pages.

What is the future? The trends and their consequences will reveal themselves over time and will undoubtedly depend on archaeological research and results, the cooperation of researchers in other places and countries, the training of quality professional archaeologists, the protection of sites and their materials, and the use of archaeology in a world where cost has to be a primary consideration in research and conservation. Other Latin American countries certainly face similar problems. How Mexican archaeology confronts its future and what it does to achieve its goals may result in a capable, innovative, and independent program to conduct archaeology. Even if it does not, the archaeology of Mexico is important for world archaeology, and its healthy growth is an important matter for archaeologists throughout the world.

Jaime Litvak King is at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

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