An Early Archaeological Multinational: the Story of the Escuela Internacional of Mexico

Society for American ArchaeologyPaper presented by Eleanor M. King (Howard University) at the Gordon R. Willey Symposium in the History of Archaeology, “Archaeology in the Americas During the XXth Century – Several Different Histories,” organized by D. Schávelzon and E. King for the 71st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Juan, Puerto Rico, April 29, 2006.


The International School of American Archeology [sic] and Ethnology in Mexico was a short-lived but important phenomenon whose impact is often under-appreciated. It seems fitting, then, to include a discussion of it here, in an international symposium dedicated to Gordon Willey in his role as historian of archaeology. Indeed, Willey and Sabloff (1974) were among the first in the United States to register the influence of the International School’s work. A curious hybrid born of multiple governmental and private institutional agendas, the School occupies a small but pivotal position in several histories of archaeology. It speaks, of course, most immediately to the story of the professionalization of anthropology in Mexico, where both the School’s existence and its collections played a significant role. It also serves, however, to illustrate broad themes in the development of Boasian anthropology in the United States. By a quirk of fate, it was additionally tied to an important milestone in the trajectory of Boas’s dominance over the field: his 1919 censure by the American Anthropological Association. The School’s story touches, too, on the institutionalization of archaeology in U.S. museums and universities. Finally, it has something to say as well about archaeological scholarship in the wider net of European and other countries that helped sustain it.

It is not my intention here to review all these separate histories and evaluate the impact of the School upon them. Mechthild Rutsch (2000, 2001) has already ably discussed the particular place of the Escuela Internacional in Mexican archaeology and anthropology. Others have written to some extent about its role in Boas’s plans (e.g., Mason 1943; Godoy 1977). What I propose to do is to look at it in a broader, multinational context precisely as the point of conjunction between several different histories. My intent here is not to provide a definitive and exhaustive study of the School, but rather to revive interest in it with the aim of stimulating further dialogue across national boundaries and among national histories. I propose, then, to look at the peculiar structure and notable accomplishments of the International School while linking them to broader themes in anthropology and archaeology.

Organizational Structure

The School was largely the brainchild of Franz Boas, indubitably the most influential anthropologist in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. Boas worked tirelessly to set it up and closely supervised its initial steps, although he himself became the Director of the School only in its second year. It was originally conceived on the model of the schools of classical archaeology that flourish to this day in Italy and Greece. One of the oldest of this genre is the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, founded in 1881. Many of the others, however, such as the American School of Classical Studies (part of the American Academy in Rome) or the British School at Rome, were only established in the 1890’s.1 Thus, the idea for this type of institution was a comparatively fresh one when Boas adopted it in the early 1900’s for use in the New World. These academies served essentially two purposes; they were centers where interested scholars could meet and exchange ideas; they also served as clearing houses that assisted researchers and coordinated a number of different research programs. One salient characteristic of all these schools is that they did not just focus on one scholarly discipline. From their inception, in addition to archaeology or the “study of antiquities,” they covered language, literature, culture, art, and history. This multidisciplinary approach would be reflected in the International School of Mexico’s conception and mandate.

The School differed significantly from its Old World counterparts, however, in its list of sponsors. Most of the classical schools were private enterprises launched by the citizens of one country or the other (France, England, the United States) to accommodate scholars from that country for the most part-as their names imply. From the very beginning in 1911 the International School’s sponsors were multinational, with the government of Prussia and the government of Mexico among the principal backers. In the second year these countries were joined by Russia and Bavaria, and Austria signed on during the third year (F.N. et al. 1913). Prussia and Bavaria were united, of course, in greater Germany, but these provinces seems to have maintained a fair amount of political independence. The School’s patrons were not confined to sovereign states and regions, however. While the U.S. government was not directly involved, the country’s interests were represented right from the first by three private North American universities: Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. Columbia’s participation came, of course, through Boas, who taught there. Harvard had a long-standing interest in Mesoamerican archaeology, dating back to the late 1800’s and its sponsorship of various excavations, including those at Copan, Honduras, in the 1890’s. Significantly, George Byron Gordon, who received his doctorate through Harvard and had overseen the work at Copan, became Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum (then the Free Museum of Science and Art) in 1910. It was he who represented Penn throughout the negotiations with the other International School sponsors. Participation in the School was not merely a matter of scholarly interest, however. These institutions-certainly Penn and Harvard-were intent at the time on building up their in-house collections. While the agreement was for Mexico to retain the lion’s share of any materials found (see below), there were still opportunities to be had for collection acquisition. That same motivation was no doubt at least in part behind the participation of the Hispanic Society of America, the last of the founding partners. This brand-new organization, established in 1904 by a wealthy New York philanthropist,2 was devoted to promoting the art and cultures of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. In 1908, just a few years before the International School’s inception, the Society opened the doors of its Beaux Arts building on Audubon Terrace in New York, where it is still located. This large exhibit space was waiting to be filled with “treasures” from abroad. Similarly, another of the later sponsors, who joined at the same time Austria did, was the city of Leipzig in Saxony, Germany, a leading European cultural center whose ethnological museum became a School patron. Again, an active collection policy seems a likely reason for its endorsement.

The main function of this strange group of bedfellows was to provide financial backing for the School. In addition, the original sponsors (Mexico, Prussia, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Hispanic Society) shared equally in the management of the School through a well-defined structure. A President appointed by Mexico oversaw the School with the help of a Managing Committee comprised of representatives from each of the partners. However, day-to-day operations and the coordination of investigations fell to the Director, who was appointed for a year at a time by each of the different sponsors in turn. Thus, Eduard Seler of Prussia opened the School in January 1911, having worked with Boas on its organization the previous fall. The School ran on an academic year and Boas himself succeeded Seler in the fall of 1911. He was in turn relieved by Jorge Engerrand of Mexico in 1912-1913, who was then replaced by Alfred Tozzer of Harvard in 1913-1914. That was the end of the foreign directors, as Tozzer barely made it out of the country during the American shelling of Veracruz in opposition to Victoriano Huerta’s presidency. Indeed, since 1910 Mexico had been in the throes of the Revolution, with various factions claiming power both over the capital and over different regions of the country. The School operated throughout the civil disturbance until the American military involvement combined with World War I in Europe made it imperative for all foreigners to leave. It is unclear whether or not fieldwork continued in Tozzer’s absence. After a short hiatus, Manuel Gamio of Mexico was named Director in 1915-1916. However, this appointment was only made in January 1916 at a meeting of the Managing Committee of the International School at Columbia University in New York during an International Congress of Americanists conference (Rutsch 2001:100). In any case, Gamio seems to have retained the directorship, if not officially, at least unofficially, until 1917 or so, as the School’s activities dwindled and ceased, probably starved by lack of funding. Arguably, Gamio, as one of the few original participants left in Mexico, was still in the directorial position in the early 1920’s when he corresponded with Boas about reestablishing the School post-Revolution (Rutsch 2001). He was also involved in the final publication of the School, an Album of Archaeological Collections published in 1921-22 (Rutsch 2001:109).

Besides providing funding and taking turns appointing the Director, the sponsors also sent fellows to do the work of the School. These were advanced graduate students and young professionals, the sponsors having decided from the beginning that the role of the School would not be to teach or popularize archaeology and ethnology but rather to conduct scientific research (Boas 1915). The fellows were supported with stipends that covered board, lodging, and transportation (Harrington et al. 1910). I surmise that archaeological excavations were also paid for by the School, rather than being drawn from the fellows’ own funds. The latter seem to have attended classes in the capital as well as doing fieldwork, because one of Mexico’s obligations was to provide classrooms for the School’s use as well as to facilitate the participants’ access to museums and other resources (AA 1910). The list of the fellows shows the breadth of the School’s ambitions and also its far-reaching impact on the history of archaeology and anthropology in several countries. Included in their number were, from Mexico, Isabel Ramírez Castañeda, the lone woman, and Manuel Gamio; from various institutions in the United States, Clarence Hay, J. Alden Mason, William Mechling, and Paul Radin; and from Prussia, Max Wagner. The Directors worked alongside these fellows, both supporting their efforts and providing them with new research opportunities. The links between them were not confined to the School itself, though. Gamio, for instance, had studied with Boas in New York prior to becoming a Fellow. Similarly, Mason, sent by the University of Pennsylvania, had also taken classes from Boas and had worked closely with Edward Sapir, one of Boas’s first students. Radin, too, was an early Boas student and staunch supporter. Hay, on the other hand, was more in the tradition of the Harvard “half-breeds”3-those who stood up to Boas in the early 1920’s and temporarily wrested control of the American Anthropological Association away from him and his students (Stocking 1976:1-2). It would be interesting to explore how the association between these scholars in Mexico affected their later interactions and intellectual positions. For the present, though, I will confine myself to examining the research they carried out in Mexico under the School’s aegis.

The goals and accomplishments of the International School

One of the early concerns voiced by sponsors of the School was for continuity in research, given the revolving nature of the directorship. Consequently, careful plans were made to ensure that the work done each year built on what had been previously accomplished (Boas 1915). Three themes dominated the fieldwork that was carried out, one pertaining to archaeology, the other two to ethnology.

The first investigational objective, arising initially from prior research by Seler and others, was to establish an archaeological chronology for the Valley of Mexico. To date, traces of three different cultures had been observed in the diverse ceramics found both on the surface and through deep excavations within the Valley. The problem was that no one was sure what these ceramics represented. Some were clearly associated with the latest occupation of the Valley, attributed to the Aztec; others were thought to pertain to Teotihuacan, already know to represent an earlier civilization; the position of the third group of ceramics in relation to the other two remained unclear (Willey and Sabloff 1980:85). Surveys of wells and brickyards within Mexico City suggested that the problem could be solved, according to Boas, “by observations on geological sequence of strata” (Boas 1915:385). In a now-famous excavation at a brickyard in San Miguel Amantla near Atzcapotzalco in 1911-12, Gamio, then a fellow under Boas’s direction, outlined the first documented stratigraphic sequence in the New World. He was able to ascertain that Teotihuacan materials did indeed underlie Aztec materials and that the third culture, ultimately identified as the Archaic, was earlier than the other two. His work was continued and elaborated on by Isabel Ramírez Castañeda and others, including Engerrand and Tozzer, both in the Valley of Mexico and farther afield, for comparative purposes (Boas 1915; Rutsch 2001). The excavations carried out in the Valley further suggested to Boas a center for local ceramic production in Culhuacán and Texcoco. Consequently, a substantial collection of ceramics was also made in the former, again by Ramírez Castañeda. These materials were poorly published, except for the 1921-22 Album because Boas felt further investigation was still needed (Boas 1915:386). Nonetheless, the typological sequence that was established formed the basis of the Valley of Mexico chronology for many years to come. Indeed, it could be argued that it is still reflected today in the Formative-Classic-Postclassic sequence for the Valley that we still use.

As noted earlier, the materials produced by the School’s archaeological and ethnological research all became the property of the National Museum of Mexico, as already required by law at that time (Boas 1915). However, any duplicates or unwanted specimens were to be given to the patrons funding the expedition (F. N. et al. 1910). As might be expected, there was a substantial amount of such materials. The archaeological work carried out by the school in its first full year alone (1911-12) yielded a huge collection. In addition to ceramic sherds, excavations and surface collections produced figurines and figurine molds, ceramic whistles, stamps, spindle whorls, chipped and grooved stone, carved stone, faunal and floral material, wooden artifacts, and human skeletons (Coffman, King, and Ward 1984:17). Thus, a portion of these materials were shipped to Boas in the United States, while others, such as the excavated artifacts from Atzcapotzalco, remained in Mexico with Gamio (Gamio 1913; 1917). Some of the ceramic material that traveled to the States was eventually selected for illustration in the Album and returned to the National Museum in Mexico (Chávez 1913; Gamio 1921). However, the remainder of the collection was purchased by Gordon for the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum, to help Boas recover the costs of excavation, while another, much smaller portion, possibly only duplicates, was acquired by Harvard (Coffman, King, and Ward 1984:18-19). It should be emphasized that these museum collections were valued for their scientific rather than their aesthetic qualities. It is amusing in this context (and considering what we collect today) to note Boas’s (1915:388) special plea for extra storage space in Mexico to house the “broken material” he argued was indispensable to the pursuit of “scientific archaeology,” “however unsightly.”

The remaining two problems tackled by the School were much more in Boas’s bailiwick, as they essentially revolved around language and culture. One objective was to study the structure and distribution of languages in Mexico, in particular the various dialects of Nahuatl. In typical Boasian fashion, the thrust of the work was on salvage ethnography-recording first the dialects and independent languages that were no longer spoken by more than a few people. At the time the School was founded, this theme had recently acquired a special urgency in New World anthropology as sensational news surfaced concerning the decimation of Amazonian Indian groups during the Rubber Boom in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. By 1911 well-publicized hearings were taking place in the British Parliament concerning the misdeeds of one of the “Rubber Barons” in particular (Collier 1968). A new urgency took hold among anthropologists not only to record North American Indian cultures, which were increasingly seen as “remembered” rather than “lived,” but to preserve still vital cultures in countries south of the Rio Grande. Accordingly, the School funded several different expeditions by fellows such as Mason and Radin, who studied the Tepecano and Huave respectively, with Radin also laying the groundwork for an investigation of Zapotecan dialects. Mechling, meanwhile, made collections of the Mazatec and Chinantec languages (Boas 1915:387)

During the course of this linguistic research, it was noted that while traces of older indigenous stories existed in more isolated languages such as Tepecano, many of the Nahuatl variants showed strong Spanish influences in their phonetics and in the themes of the texts collected. A third goal was then initiated, which was to collect as much folklore and phonetic information as possible, to compare it to Spanish and Indian sources. The fellows threw themselves enthusiastically into this research, with even those primarily doing archaeology, such as Ramírez Castañeda, making contributions to the folklore, in her case from her native Milpa Alta (Ramírez Castañeda 1913). These investigations comprise perhaps one of the first systematic attempts by anthropologists to deal with the problem of acculturation and its impact on native New World cultures, a theme that was to dominate the field later, in the 1930’s.

The research on these three problems-archaeological sequences, languages, and folklore-was regularly presented by both directors and fellows at meetings of the International Congress of Americanists and published as part of their proceedings. A few studies were additionally published independently in bulletins, journals, and books, some by the School itself. Altogether, the work carried out from 1911-1914 produced some 23 publications as well as more than a dozen unpublished reports and informes-a good record by any standard.

The demise of the International School

Much has been made in the reporting on the School about the impact of the Mexican Revolution, which many feel effectively killed its operation (e.g., Godoy 1977). The situation was far more complex than that, however. The “Patrons and Protectors” (Boas 1915:388) who founded the School comprised more than just an unusual grouping of associates. Their very participation may have caused structural problems that helped doom the institution. Much of this thinking is speculative, but it would appear that there were conflicts in agendas right from the start. Though united by a common interest in the anthropology and archaeology of Mexico and by the opportunity to acquire objects from ongoing investigations, these disparate partners represented different kinds and levels of engagement. The partnership among institutions-the American universities and societies, the ethnological and other museums from other countries, and the National Museum in Mexico-seems straightforward enough, representing a complex accord between groups with similar structures and purposes. The involvement of the sovereign governments, however, puts a different spin on the situation. The government of Mexico was naturally engaged, as it had to grant permission to establish the School and approve of the structure of the institution and of the proposed work. The objectives of the other sovereign governments are not as clear. While they no doubt wished to promote their own researchers and museums, they were also involved in contemporary geopolitics. Prussia, representing a unified Germany, for instance, was interested in having New World allies, a fact that became increasingly important later on when World War I broke out. Indeed, among the participants of the School can be read the very fault lines of that conflict. After all, though the United States’ government was not directly involved in the institution, it is obvious from later developments that it maintained an active interest in the activities and personnel of the School, some of whom apparently served as spies. Indeed, it was Mason and Mechling’s attempts to use archaeology as a cover for their secret mission to Mexico in 1917 that Gamio alerted Boas to. This led to Boas’s very public protest against such practices, thereby incurring the American Anthropological Association’s censure (Rutsch 2001:113). The war in Europe did not just pit governments and scholars against each other, however. It also, and perhaps more importantly, caused the research funds to dry up. Even the private institutions involved were turning their attention and their subsidies to other concerns, closer to hand.

Why was the School never re-established after World War I and the Mexican Revolution were well and truly over? After all, Boas tried repeatedly and actively to do so in the 1920’s. Mechthild Rutsch (2001) has suggested one reason was the bitter professional feud that sprang up then in Mexico between Gamio and the archaeologist Ramón Mena, who was affiliated with the National Museum. Oddly enough, this feud started over Mena’s accusation that Gamio had “falsified” certain of his findings from Atzcapotzalco by inaccurately restoring a brasero or incensario found in the course of excavation. This object had been sent to the Museum by Gamio in 1917, in his role as Director of the School. It was subsequently analyzed there by Mena who went public with his accusations at about the time Boas was trying to reinstate the International School. This situation alone might have had only minor repercussions on the School, but the problem was that Luis Castillo Ledón, who headed the Museum and sided with Mena, was also the person appointed by Mexico as the International School’s President. Since neither he nor Gamio were disposed to adopt a conciliatory tone, let alone cooperate, permission to restart the School was denied (Rutsch 2001). According to Rutsch (2001), the divisions went deeper than just a conflict of personalities, however. They spoke to abiding oppositions within Mexican archaeology between diffusionists (Mena) and evolutionists (Gamio) and between institutions, specifically the Museum and the Dirección de Antropología.

Rutsch’s able analysis of Mexico’s internal professional situation reminds us that other forces on the outside no doubt accentuated the problem as well. In the early 1920’s Boas and his students were fighting to regain control of the American Anthropological Association and promote the agenda of what they called the “American historical school” (Stocking 1976:1). Indeed, this was the decade when, as Robert Lowie later put it, “every mother’s son of us who stood for the Right” was encouraged to attend meetings, publish, and generally further the Boasian cause (Stocking 1976:1). Boas, being a thorough and conscientious scholar, no doubt wanted to see the International School revived, but he probably did not have that much time to devote to the problem in the absence of internal Mexican cooperation. Similarly, other institutional players were facing their own challenges and had moved on to other things. Gordon at Pennsylvania, for instance, was busy funding Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur in Iraq and Clarence Fisher’s work at the Biblical site of Beisan, in addition to various ethnographic collecting expeditions. Already in the early 1920’s, his overspending was putting a financial strain on the Museum that would precipitate a crisis by the end of the decade (King and Little 1986:47-8). Another stumbling block to reopening the School was no doubt the reconfigured world that emerged after the Treaty of Versailles. A limping Germany turned to rebuilding its own power and self-esteem, as did Austria. Russia had by then experienced a shattering revolution and its aftermath, and the list goes on.


The convergence of interests and historical trajectories that we see in the International School offers a window onto another time when international and national politics, professional intrigue, archaeological innovations, and institutional developments cross-cut each other in shifting ways. I have tried here to indicate some of those intersections, without exhaustively probing them. I would invite others to join me in exploring how these many threads are interwoven, not just in this institution but more generally. The School is merely one fulcrum where various histories met and balanced. As such, it reflects the state of archaeology in the world at large, not just in Mexico or the United States. It would seem to me there are other instances worth investigating where a similar convergence can be seen. Many scholars have already worked hard on reconstructing regional and national developments within the archaeological profession as it is practiced in their countries. It is time we left our own back yards, though, and took a global approach, examining in greater depth the currents of influence crossing from Old World to New and back again and from one part of the New World to another.


1. Information on (a) the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, (b) the American School of Classical Studies at Rome, and (c) the British School at Rome taken from their respective websites:


2. Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955); information on the Hispanic Society of America taken from its web page:

3. “Half-breed” was a derisive term used by Boas’s students to refer to the archaeologists, particularly at Harvard, who had shown only a lukewarm commitment to Boasian views (see Stocking 1976).

References cited

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Chávez, D. Ezequiel A.
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Coffman, Robert J., Eleanor M. King, and Charles F. Ward, III
1984 A Computer-Assisted Classification of the Aztec Period Ceramics from Culhuacán, México. Mss. in the possession of the authors.

Collier, Richard
1968 The River That God Forgot. The Story of the Amazon Rubber Boom. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

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Godoy, Ricardo
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N., F., J. R. Swanton, and S. G. M., eds. [no names locatable for the initials]
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Rutsch, Mechthild
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2001 Ramón Mena y Manuel Gamio. Una Mirada Oblicua
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Stocking, George W., Jr.
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Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy A. Sabloff
1974 A History of American Archaeology (1st edition). San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman and Company.

1980 A History of American Archaeology (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman and Company.

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