Login Join | Donate | Annual Meeting | Career Center | SAA News | Marketplace | Contact   Search
 Index Minimize

 Institutional Background Minimize

The Golden Age of Mexican Archaeology

All the studies addressing the history of archaeology in Mexico (Bernal 1979; Gandara 1992; Litvak 1985; Matos 1983; Olive 1995; Schavelson 1990) concur in recognizing a period of brilliance, great accomplishments, and substantial impact on Mexican society in general and the academic world in particular. This period began with Manuel Gamio and Jose Reygadas Vertiz between 1917 and 1928, reaching its peak between 1937 and the early 1950s. We now refer to it as the Mexican School of Archaeology for the distinctive theoretical mix applied to the Mexican case: an emphasis on the relationship between anthropology anrd archaeology; the incorporation of stratigraphy for chronological division of excavated materials; the design of policies for heritage conservation with an emphasis on reconstruction techniques for monumental pre-Columbian architecture; interdisciplinary studies; and above all, it places archaeology within the environment of the respected sciences and makes "…the practice of archaeology a profession of political faith" (Litvak 1986: 147).

The natural leader of the early period was Manuel Gamio, succeeded in the 1930s by Alfonso Caso, who in turned formed an extensive group of contemporary followers, including Ignacio Bernal, Jorge R. Acosta, Ignacio Marquina, Eduardo Noguera, Florencia Muller, Ponciano Salazar, Cesar Sanez, Eulalia Guzman, and Juan Valenzuela, to mention a few. Others, such as Albert Ruz and Jose Garcia Payon, although within the same school, followed their own line of development.

The origins of the Mexican School of Archaeology may be traced directly to the dynamics of the courses on physical anthropology, ethnology and indigenous languages which were offered in the National Museum between 1906 and 1929 (Avila 1995: 312), and in the International School of Archaeology and American Ethnography founded in 1911. Support came from the governments of Mexico, Prussia, France and the United States, and from universities such as Columbia, Harvard, and Pennsylvania. Among individual founders are such leading figures as Franz Boas, Alfred Tozzer, and Eduardo Seler.

Franz Boas exercised a dominating influence on the theoretical focus of Gamio with his conception of anthropology "as the study of all human manifestations, ancient and contemporary, biological, material, and spiritual, focused on the object of scientific study, in the sense of being seen as an academically justifiable methodology which presents verifiable conclusions upon examination of the data presented as relevant to the examined phenomenon" (Litvak 1985: 5). For Gamio the practice of archaeology could be justified only in the context of a integrated, interdisciplinary anthropology, as he demonstrated in his famous book The Population of the Valley of Teotihuacan. His object of study emphasized the "…continuity between the magnificent past of the pre-Columbian culture and the problem of Indian peasants, marginalized and impoverished, in the present" (Litvak 1985: 5).

The other influential aspect of Gamio's work, in addition to academic excellence, was his political and administrative contribution to archaeology. His theoretical arguments led to concrete action while occupying a variety of institutional positions. In 1916 he was the director of the International School, in 1917 Director of Anthropology in the Secretary of Agriculture and Development, and in 1924 Under-secretary of Public Education. As a high level decision-maker his ideas influenced public policy. The mission of the Bureau of Anthropology under Gamio was "…to discover the true roots of Mexico and to proudly exhibit them to the world. The restoration of historic and archaeological buildings became, in a sense, a part of this program, almost a public education exercise: research teams had the responsibility for discovering the past and had to restore it in order to present it to the public. They were a group of thinkers whose theories would have great weight in the following years" (Schavelson 1990: 76). This practice, followed until the 1950s, was in essence a way "…to see and feel the history which, transmitted by the educational system from elementary school on, provided Mexico one of the bases for creating its sense of nationality, its indigenous past" (Litvak 1986: 148). The Mexican School institutionalized archaeology, founding training and reseach centers, and convincing the government to direct funds to the reconstruction of the massive archaeological monuments we can see today.

Alfonso Caso provided continuity to the work of Gamio, and through his accomplishments established an approach to archaeology which made it one of the most prestigious sciences in the country. His 18 field seasons at Monte Alban were carried out in an enviable context of institutional funding, private support, and citizen participation which characterized Caso's career as an archaeologist and later in indigenous affairs.

For Caso, who before becoming an archaeologist had graduated with a law degree from the University of Mexico, a central concern was to provide a legal basis for archaeological work. In this spirit he transformed the Department of PreHispanic Monuments, which had replaced the original Bureau of Anthropology into the National Institute of Anthropology and History through a law signed February 3, 1939, and where he occupied every possible position, including that of its first director. The Institute took responsibility for, and still does today, "…not only all exploration and research in Mexico, under a single roof, but also museums, not only at the national level but also many of the regional museums which were created (Bernal 1979: 184). The law establishing the Institute characterizes archaeological monuments as public property and for that reason protects them as collective goods (INAH 1980).

The National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH for its acronym in Spanish) was founded at the same time as a branch of the Institute to generate its own human resources, an approach which assured a certain degree of feedback and some continuity between theory and practice. Since its founding the ENAH has been characterized for an unusual educational framework which teaches anthropology in an integral fashion, that is, with all specialties—archaeology, social anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, and physical anthropology—in the same school with students sharing classes (Avila 1995). At the same time Caso founded the Mexican Society of Anthropology, an academic association which since its founding continues to offer a common meeting ground for specialists in different areas. While it has passed through some difficult periods its biennial meetings still serve as important connections for academic discourse and for evaluation of the professional practice of archaeology in Mexico.

It is important to remember these new institutions were created in the generation after the Mexican Revolution when the country was going through a wide array of important internal transformations. To leaders of the period one of the most significant challenges was to create the institutional mechanisms and resources which would help overcome deep divisions in society and serve as a basis for national progress. Furthermore, at this time Mexico experienced a number of serious confrontations with some of the great powers of the period (especially the United States) over the nationalization of the petroleum industry and expropriations (Avila 1995: 313). The high visibility of archaeology and the ideology of nation-building to which it contributed created, when coupled with dynamic and respected leadership, a rare opportunity for organizational development and fieldwork to proceed in tandem.

Bernal, commenting on the era, observes "…archaeology had to behave as an adult even though it was in fact very young. In this period a major accomplishment was to accumulate the material, even if not complete, for the construction of something more substantial afterwards…In the valleys of the central mesa, in Oaxaca and in the Peten it was possible to establish a correct chronology, at least from the perspective of succession. In Yucatan, highland Guatemala, Veracruz, the Huastecas, Tabasco, and to a lesser extent in western Mexico, research revealed important cultures…" (Bernal 1979: 187).

In the area of restoration the Mexican School developed reconstruction techniques to a high degree, validating reconstruction by analogy "on the grounds that it was very probable that this is the way it had been" (Schavelson 1990: 132). The academic specialization of restoration of archaeological structures began, although probably not in a conscious manner. This specialty shares the history of institutional archaeology in Mexico, in large part due to the early leaderhip and guidance of Jorge R. Acosta.

The greatest project of Caso was the research, reconstruction, and dissemination of his work on Monte Alban. His presence grants the site not only the status of a model for the management of archaeological resources in that era, but makes one long for the professional and popular respect accorded to the work of the archaeologist of the time. Even today, almost forty years after the last field season of Caso at Monte Arlban, some of his workers and their descendents remember and idealize his stature with recollections such as: with Alfonso Caso one sure did great explorations!

The era of extensive reconstruction of archaeological monuments receives continuing criticism today, when contemporary concepts of architectural restoration based on new theories and practices make the criteria and perspectives of the past unacceptable. Nevertheless, taking into account the nationalist objective of the time, i.e., to show to Mexico the origins of its own people, we find more ethical and justifiable the underlying principle of reconstruction than its utilization today in the pursuit of the economic benefits generated by tourism. One can equally argue the period has been idealized, and that the archaeologists of the day also collided with the interests of communities protective of their sites. This is certainly true, as the unpublished records of archaeologists such as Ignacio Bernal, Lorenzo Gamio, y Roberto Gallegos remind us of their conflicts in communities in Oaxaca. Nevertheless, the fundamental point is that taken on balance and in the context of the times, the outcome of the archaeological work of this period was more positive than negative.

A final but important note about the academic careers of both Gamio and Caso, as both finished out their professional lives working in support of indigenous populations. This is not mere coincidence, as they, having spent a lifetime evaluating and valuing the riches of the pre-Columbian world agreed as to the urgency of protecting the still-surviving elements of these cultures. In the end both turned to that fusion of archaeology and anthropology to link their absorption with the past with their commitment to the present.