Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs.
For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
“Technology” is the practical expression of accumulated knowledge and expertise focused on how to mediate and manipulate the world. Scholars and contemporary observers of Mexico have long characterized production methods there as unchanging and lagging well behind the standard in the Atlantic world, but there are few systematic studies of technology in Mexican history, and especially for the critical 19th-century era of early modernization.
Mexico’s first half century of independence (c. 1820–1870) saw relatively little technological change. In spite of a number of sustained efforts to introduce the technologies—such as railroads, steam power, and iron manufacturing—that were transforming economic life and production in Great Britain and the United States, production methods in Mexico remained small scale and artisanal. Textile manufactures were a partial exception, as there were several dozen large-scale factories, powered by water turbines and occasionally by steam, that spun and wove thread. But the substantial obstacles to innovation discouraged or undermined most attempts.
The next forty or so years, however, could not have been more different (c. 1870s–1920). As political stability slowly settled over most of the country, investment in economic activities picked up, slowly at first, then more rapidly into the 1880s and beyond. Initially focused on railroad transport and mining, new investments from both Mexican and foreign entrepreneurs diversified into a wide range of manufacturing enterprises, commercial agriculture, and urban infrastructure and commerce. Tightly linked to the concurrent dramatic expansion of the Atlantic economy—the so-called second industrial revolution—this expansion pushed demand for new technologies of production and swept across the country, transforming production, productivity, and the working and consuming lives of Mexicans at nearly all levels of society. The result was substantial modernization, manifest as economic growth as well as social dislocation.
Individuals and firms proved able to adopt and commercialize a wide range of new production technologies during this period. This success was not matched, however, by substantial local assimilation of new technological knowledge and expertise, that is, by a process of technological learning. Until the 1870s, Mexican engineers, mechanics, and workers had scant opportunities to work with and learn from production technologies appearing in the Atlantic world. When new machines, tools, and processes swept across Mexico thereafter, adopting firms typically hired technical experts and skilled workers from abroad, given the scarcity of expertise at home. This became a self-reinforcing cycle, perpetuating dependence on imported machines and imported know-how well into the 20th century.