Impressions of Pandora’s visit to the Central Valleys of Oaxaca

Society for American ArchaeologyPonencia del Dr. Bernd Fahmel Beyer, del Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas (UNAM), en The Gordon R. Willey Simposium in the History of Archaeology realizado por The Society for American Archaeology en su 71° Encuentro Anual, realizado en San Juan de Puerto Rico el 29 de Abril de 2006. Co-organizadores Daniel Schávelzon y Eleanor King.

A thorough search for the Archaeology or Treatise of Oaxacan Antiquities resembles a tortuous journey that never reaches its destination.  Changing scenarios bring forth innumerable people and encounters which for decades have kept alive the dreams and aspirations of those who want to find meaning within a rather long research history.

– I –

A distinctive feature of Mexican Archaeology is its role in the construction of a unified national history.  Hence it will grant its professionals a series of prerogatives, yet reduce their lust for adventure into the unknown.  Whenever Pandora’s shadow appears on the horizon official historians get into trouble to cast away the storm and defend the corner-stones of what has become a grand illusion. However, when any archaeologist, tour guide or journalist can say or publish whatever he thinks is true it is necessary to ask how official this archaeology really is.

For a wholesale consumer of cultural information this question may not be of interest.  He will probably appreciate such diversity, as long as it seems coherent with what he learned at school or appropriated on his tours through archaeological sites and museums.  Academics, however, will respond in different ways according to the author’s rank and standing: Is he part of the avant-garde?  Does he participate in projects of national relevance?  Or is he margined, even backward?  This attitude is the result of positivist ideals and the rejection of reconstructions by late 19th and early 20th century historians and antiquarians.  As Ignacio Bernal put it in his History of Mexican Archaeology (1979: 132), “altogether one perceives a reaction against grand and ill-founded hypotheses, favoring more serious and limited ones based on verifiable facts”.

Considering these reactions and the indiscriminate use of empirical demonstrations – apart from the anthropological framework given by Willey & Phillips (1958) in Method and Theory in American Archaeology – it now seems overdue to find out if that Archaeology really fulfilled its purpose and whether there is an Archaeology of Oaxaca or a Treatise of Oaxacan Antiquities.  In an attempt to keep the argument short it is possible to say that if all historical, ethnographic and anecdotic information contained in frequently cited works1 was erased, and all the hypotheses derived from early archaeological publications2 were discarded, all we would have is a series of reports and theoretical formulations based on rather few archaeological sites excavated in the Central Valleys, Pacific Coast, Cañada and Mixteca.  Studies undertaken in caves near Mitla and at San José Mogote and surroundings are, on their own right, the basis on which Kent V. Flannery has come to figure among the best known archeologists in Oaxaca.

Valued in terms of an interpretation that stresses the fundamental elements and development principles of Mesoamerican Civilization, most of these material finds can be admired in many Mexican museums and abroad.  Shining through their glass cases they have become the foundation of academic discourses on the nature and character of ancient Mixtec and Zapotec culture, and the relationships between Oaxaca and its neighboring areas.  From a patrimonial perspective Delgado Rubio has shown that this archaeology furthered an essentialist view of Mexico’s ancient cultural resources, serving the interests of hegemonic groups with rather lineal conceptions of history.  In his thesis (2007) he quotes Criado Boado (1996: 39), who thinks that archaeology is “the technology of memory, for in every historical period its practitioners can privilege the study of an object or a personage over others”. As a result, there is a huge potential for contradiction between the official tenets and many materials retrieved in the field.  Adventure waits for the brave wherever a paradigm is worshipped and Pandora’s Box is put to the test (Kuhn 1971)!

In order to understand the Archaeology of Oaxaca, it is mandatory to consider and then to integrate all the information that has been generated in this region for centuries.  Such an enterprise, however, should not restrict itself to already published contributions.  These tend to omit critical questions and commentaries which litter the diaries of every anthropologist.  Furthermore, there are personal histories which can illuminate a person’s way of thinking, let alone trace his experiences with colleagues and workers in the field.  Only the sum of these records may furnish historians with a clue as to why so many men and women dedicate their life to other people and cultures, knowing that time and negligence will eventually erode them away.

– II –

Ancient Oaxaca certainly was one of Mesoamerica’s most developed regions, where different societies achieved a rather high level of cultural complexity.  Anthropological archaeology has pondered this diversity since the 19th century, advancing slowly in the study of its geography, archaeological sites and economic activities.  Still, in spite of all its riches, only a minimum of its surface has been explored and systematically documented.  In the wake of time, technological change and new ways of doing fieldwork have furthered doubts regarding the meaning of data and the effectiveness of its procedures.  If meaning is assigned to materials after they are handled in a laboratory, how then do ontological premises and epistemic categories influence the results and future analyses?

At the beginning of the 21st century archaeologists finally realized that a given set of materials and two differing hypotheses can bring about very contradictory explanations (Zeitlin 2000). Before that, however, conflict was related to ideological issues or personal problems between research staff.  Highly visible during conferences and meetings, these differences were also important in the dynamics of Anthropology Departments for many years. Scientific publications apparently weren’t influenced by these issues, but a keen revision of the literature suggests that various research lines were prematurely interrupted or never finished.

While the size and complexity of Mexico’s history lie beyond the reach of known possibilities, academic discussions tend to limit themselves to specific problems.  Nonetheless social analyses always furnish surprises, which are distant to a layman interested in congruency between the premises and the results of a project.  Therefore many people in Oaxaca have lost their confidence in archaeologists, whether they defend the official discourse or specific scientific pursuits.  On the other hand there are very few publications for those people who want to read about their own history and culture. Many of them look for information at major meetings, courses or lectures, unless an archaeologist or one of his workmen show up in their life and give away some of their experiences.

– III –

Written upon a background so colorful and yet tainted with many hues of gray, the Archaeology of Oaxaca calls for a comprehensive history of its advocates, be they universitarian or patrimonialists.  When scholars regard Archaeology as Anthropology they probably think of their students first, for only those who can break out of their culture and successfully exchange information with “the other” will develop a true feeling for those who preceded them.  Unfortunately there are many who finish their career and henceforward forget how important it is to understand the environs and the reasons colleagues have to use certain data when they write down the results of their activities.  This lack of interest may be part of our modern way of living, but more than that it is a response to a situation where you have to publish or die.  There is no time to lose illuminating an author’s background or reconstructing the history of his/her ideas.  Looked at from this perspective, there are numerous authors who deserve a place in the history of Oaxaca’s archaeology, not just for what they published but for being part of a long tradition that allowed others to rise into the Hall of Fame.  Among these we find:

– Juan Carriedo, Eduard Mühlenpfordt, Desiré Charnay, William Holmes, Ignacio Marquina and Jorge Acosta for their detailed studies of Pre-Hispanic architecture and contribution to its preservation;
– Eduard Seler, Zelia Nuttall, Howard Leigh, Ross Parmenter, Emily Rabin, Nancy Troike and Ronald Spores for their interest in the description and decipherment of ancient glyphs and codices, which are the basis for our understanding of many Colonial documents;
– Guillermo Dupaix, Teobert Maler, Adolph Bandelier, Marshall Saville, Eulalia Guzmán, Eduardo Noguera, Román Piña Chan, Donald Brockington and Richard Blanton for their archaeological surveys and excavations, including seminal ideas for the construction of a theoretical framework to explain the social development of Oaxacan cultures;
– Javier Romero and Arturo Romano for their studies in Physical Anthropology and numerous data that complete the notion we have of Oaxaca’s old inhabitants.

All together these authors combined their field-information with a certain amount of social, economic and political theory, with ideas about identity and concepts borrowed from the History of Art, and also a series of chronologies derived from documents, relative dating methods and style.  There isn’t a single scholar who will not look up their data to contrast them with his/her materials and hypotheses.  They lay the basis for everything the people in Oaxaca know about their past, and they are a must for all new archaeology students.  Only in the open, where the great founders are honored and revered, are they amiss.  The kind of archaeology they represent undoubtedly forms part of the official discourse, for in science knowledge is a cumulative thing.  Yet, it also stands for other ways of thinking.  When there are multiple schemes to organize data and their meaning there will also be multiple explanations, and parallel histories.  This may be the biggest challenge for all those –either scholars or students, laymen or tourists– who would like to see a simple and unified History of Oaxacan Archaeology.


  • Bernal, Ignacio
    1979    Historia de la Arqueología en México. Editorial Porrúa, S.A., México.
  • Criado Boado, Felipe
    1996   “Memoria y Patrimonio”, in Trabajos de Prehistoria vol.57, no.2.
  • Delgado Rubio, Jaime
    2007   Zona Arqueológica de Teotihuacan: Problemas y Conflictos entorno a su Conservación e Investigación. Tesis de Maestría en Arqueología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S.
    1971    La estructura de las revoluciones científicas. Breviario # 213, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México.
  • Willey, Gordon R. y Philip Phillips
    1958   Method and Theory in American Archaeology.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.
  • Zeitlin, Robert N.
    2000   “Two Perspectives on the Rise of Civilization in Mesoamerica’s Oaxaca Valley”, in Latin American Antiquity vol.11, no.1, pp.87-89.


  1. See Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, Bernardo de Albuquerque, Juan de Córdova, Alonso Ponce, Francisco de Burgoa, José Antonio Villaseñor y Sánchez, Antonio Gay, Manuel Martínez Gracida, all the Relaciones Geográficas de Antequera y Tratados de Idolatrías, and some writings by early ethnographers and anthropologists.
  2. E.g. those by Leopoldo Batres, Alfonso Caso, Ignacio Bernal, Roberto Gallegos, Lorenzo Gamio and John Paddock.

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