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Awakening the Stones: The Beginnings of Pre-Columbian Archaeological Studies in Central Mexico

Leonardo López Luján, Museo del Templo Mayor, INAH, Fellow 2005/06

At the end of Mexico's colonial period, a newfound interest in Pre-Columbian civilizations emerged due to the spread of Enlightenment ideas among the native-born population (criollos), feeding the spirit of independence and promoting a reevaluation of the past for academic, as well as political, purposes. This interest was also a result of Charles Ⅲ and Charles Ⅳ's support for archaeology and to the sciences in general. These monarchs, well-known for promoting the first explorations in Herculaneum and Pompeii, were responsible for a number of scientific expeditions and the establishment of institutes, academies, botanical gardens, and museums in the colonies overseas.

It is precisely in this context that the study of Pre-Columbian remains flourished in the last three decades of the eighteenth century. It is then we see the first systematic recording of virtually forgotten archaeological sites from Central Mexico, such as Xochicalco and Teotihuacan, as well as the publication of reports on more distant ruins such as those of El Tajín and Palenque. This is also the era of the formation of the first public and private collections of Pre-Columbian art in Mexico City. Unfortunately, with a few noteworthy exceptions, modern surveys on the history of archaeology in the Americas devote only a few lines at most to an analysis of this period.

Aztec monolith depicting the Earth Goddess Coatlicue.The Aztec monolith depicting the Earth Goddess Coatlicue was accidentally discovered in the Main Plaza of Mexico City in 1790. Engraving from 'Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras…'

The main goal of the present research project is to produce a historiographic study to understand better the origins of Pre-Columbian archaeology in Central Mexico, particularly in Mexico City. My intention is to delve into the biographies of the major figures in this story in order to shed light on what were the relationships between these individuals, and to assess the value of their scientific contributions to the body of knowledge, as well as their influence on current interpretations.

At Dumbarton Oaks, I have had the opportunity to analyze and compare numerous unpublished manuscripts and drawings recently discovered at the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, the Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The study of these important documents has revealed, among other unsuspected conclusions, that the most illustrious intellectuals and artists of the Mexican Enlightenment as well as the growing number of aficionados and dilettanti who lived in Mexico City, recorded dozens of Aztec sculptural monuments that were emerging in those years through urban renewal projects. The Aztec monuments—most of them still at the Museo Nacional de Antropología—generated curiosity, debates, publications, and the desire to preserve them for posterity. This research has also shown that these scholars, once thought to be working independently, were engaged in a lively intellectual circle around the university and the Academia de San Carlos.

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