Meso-American Archaeological Collection

Authors: Christina M. Elson, Kathryn Venzor
This short article will trace the outlines of AMNH-sponsored research in Mexico prior to 1945. It discuss some theoretical and practical implications of anthropological research as well as how its results were presented to the public in exhibitions and publications. The discussion will focus primarily on the activities of individuals listed in the end of this article (with a time line of activities for the first four Curators of Mexico and Central American Archaeology.)

Research and Exploration in the Second Half of the 19th century

The American Museum of Natural History was established in 1869 and its first location was in the armory building. The Anthropology Department was founded in 1873. The museum's collections grew rapidly and in 1881, it broke ground on a new building on 77th Street.

A black and white photograph of an imposing brick building located in what is now Central Park.
The armory building
The Museum's 77th Street building in an early photo with no surrounding buildings, opposite an area with water and a mound of broken boulders.
The 77th Street building
Albert Smith Bickmore
Archives, AMNH Anthropology Division
James Terry
Archives, AMNH Anthropology Division.

A 1911 report on the history and growth of the AMNH provides valuable information on the early years of the Anthropology Department. Under the first three Department heads, Albert Smith Bickmore, Frederick Starr, and James Terry and until about 1893, the department's main concern was acquiring collections from donors who traveled or lived overseas such as Adolphe Bandelier or E.G. Squier. One of the first large collections was accessioned in 1869 and came from E.G. Squier's travels in Mexico and Central America.

Bandelier collected artifacts from Mexico during travels he undertook primarily between 1880 and 1889 (before his official association with the AMNH) and his collections were accessioned by the AMNH in 1894. A polyglot who immigrated to the US from Switzerland at a young age, Bandelier spent many years studying documents on pre-Hispanic Mexico before ever visiting the country. His first works were published in 1877 with the help of Frederic Putnam (then at the Peabody Museum Harvard) and his friend and patron Lewis Henry Morgan. Before corresponding with Morgan, Bandelier's ethnohistoric studies led him to envision Aztec Mexico as a state level society. Morgan convinced him this was not the case and that the Aztecs never achieved a level of culture above that of the tribe. At the time, Morgan's position was the prevailing American and European attitude towards pre-Hispanic Mexican culture. However, after Bandelier visited Mexico in the 1880s, he became less convinced of Morgan's position discounting information contained in ethnohistoric documents as completely worthless. As noted by anthropologist Leslie White, Bandelier came to believe that many colonial descriptions of pre-Hispanic of native culture were substantially accurate.

Frederic Putnam
Archives, AMNH Anthropology Division
A man, Marshal H. Saville, in a suit, hat, and walking stick, standing in front of a building.
Marshall Howard Saville
Archives, AMNH Anthropology Division

In 1895, Frederic Putnam took charge of the Anthropology Department and a program to conduct scientific expeditions was laid out. The 1911 report states that Putnam oversaw the reorganization of the Anthropology Hall to show "the history of man the same way we are showing the history of animal life." Putnam also contracted a number of researchers to engage in scientific explorations. One of these researchers was Marshall Saville who studied with and worked under Putnam at Harvard between 1889-1894. Saville's 1898-1902 work in Oaxaca was funded by the Duke of Loubat.

The Mexico and Central America Hall in 1910 and 1911

A Museum hall with enormous carved stone artifacts.
A Museum hall with enormous carved stone artifacts.
A museum hall containing rows of carved stone sculptures and tablets.

The first Mexico Hall was set up in 1899 with the patronage of the Duke of Loubat. Some of the earliest archival pictures of the Mexico Hall are photographs taken in 1910 and 1911. These pictures clearly show that in its early years the philosophy of exhibition gave little to no emphasis on quotidian objects or excavated pieces. The images convey a noticeable focus on monumental sculpture. In addition, most of the objects seen in these pictures are not original pieces, but rather are plaster casts of Maya stele, lintels, and other large stone sculptures from sites like Tikal and Chichen Itza. These casts (51 in all) were acquired in 1896 and their purchase from the explorer Desiré Charney was funded by the Duke of Loubat. Initially, they were exhibited in the vestibule of the Museum. Saville made additional casts during his own travels in Mexico.

Archival image of four Zapotec urns at excavation site.
Zapotec urns photographed in situ

Yet, by the end of the century the implementation of scientific excavation was beginning to create a body of knowledge which provided researchers with a better understanding of the antiquity of pre-Hispanic culture and allowed them to define the relationship between cultures in different regions of Mexico. Saville was one of the first researchers to employ standardized field techniques. In his 1897 excavations at Xoxocotlán (Oaxaca), he used regular excavation units, documented the in situ location of many objects, and catalogued and kept all the material he uncovered-not only the best or finest examples of objects. Saville also established the precedent of working closely with Mexican colleagues. He co-ordinated work in Oaxaca with Leopoldo Batres, who served as the first Director of Monuments in Mexico and is credited with securing permanent funds from the Mexican government for excavating and restoring monuments. In 1897 the Mexican government enacted a law making all monuments and artifacts national property.

Other AMNH researchers were beginning to document areas of Mexico that had received little formal attention. For example, between the years of 1892 and 1900, Carl Lumholtz carried out research in the Sierra Madre mountains of Western Mexico examining the lifeways of the Cora, Huichol, Tarasco, Tarahumara, and Tepehuana cultures. William Niven's expedition acquired objects primarily from the state of Guerrero.

Eduard Seler
Société des Américanistes de Paris, Tome XV, Paris, 1923.

It was the accumulation of new data from Central and Western Mexico and a re-examination and data from Southern Mexico and that allowed AMNH affiliate Eduard Seler, who conducted his own research in West Mexico and Oaxaca, and Clark Wissler (chair 1906-1941) to suggest that 1) there was a region of Mexico and Central America that had a shared cultural unity; 2) the origins of those cultures could be found in Mexico deep in antiquity; and 3) Middle American cultures were distinct from those of North America or South America. These ideas were later formalized into the concept of "Meso-america" by Paul Kirchhoff.

We can summarize some important points regarding AMNH research and exploration in Mexico at the end of the 19th century. Under Putnam's leadership and the work of researchers like Saville, scientific methods in excavating and recording data were taking hold (i.e. using regular units, recording contextual information, documenting artifacts and contexts with photography and drawings, collecting all artifacts not just whole or exceptional objects). In contrast with earlier scholars (e.g. Bandelier) who relied primarily on documentary sources to describe pre-Hispanic cultures, these researchers believed in the necessity of first-hand research. They believed that the excavation and examination of material remains and the anthropological study of native culture would allow them to better understand pre-Hispanic society.

The Turn of the Century and the Advent of Middle American Archaeology

We have seen that by the early 1900s researchers were acquiring the kinds of data that allowed them to compare archaeological and ethnohistorical data in a more critical manner.

Herbert Joseph Spinden
Archives AMNH Anthropology Division.

Saville resigned from the AMNH in 1907 and was replaced by Herbert Spinden, in 1910. Nineteen ten marks the year that Franz Boas, Seler, and a Mexican student of Boas' named Manual Gamio (who studied with Boas at Columbia University) founded a school for the study Anthropology in Mexico. In 1939, this school became the Escuela Nacional de Antropología.

Franz Boas
Archives AMNH Anthropology Division.

Boas and Gamio then began a project to investigate the Basin of Mexico cultures using, for the first time, controlled stratigraphic excavations. Their work in Central Mexico established three major time periods which could be directly linked with specific cultural groups: Archaic-Teotihuacán-Aztec.

Until this time, many archaeologists conducted stylistic analyses, but often lacked enough contextual information to compare objects other than as isolated pieces. As scientific archaeology became more common, archaeologists could analyze objects in terms of their stratigraphic context, make cross-comparisons between sites, and use the information to create local and regional chronologies. Clearly this meant that archaeologists devoted much more time and text to discussing quotidian objects that are common in excavations and that are comparable between sites-potsherds, figurines, stone and obsidian implements and the like.

As more research focused on how cultures like the Maya, Zapotec and Teotihuacán were related to one another, different opinions emerged about the antiquity of Middle American cultures. For example, researchers who worked in the Maya area usually viewed that culture as the "mother" culture and most highly developed while researchers who had worked at Teotihuacán (like Gamio and Spinden) usually saw the opposite. While an AMNH Curator, Spinden worked in Central Mexico and headed expeditions to the Yucatan and American Southwest.

General Plan of the Museum Buildings in 1921.Note: The South Pavilion is the 77th Street Entrance between Central Park West and Columbus Avenues.
Plan of the Second Floor in 1921 showing the location of the Hall of Mexico and Central America.Note: South denotes 77th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenues.
General Guide of MCAH
Cover of the 1921. General Guide

The 1921 guide to the Mexico Hall (published the last year the Herbert Spinden was curator) demonstrates the presentation of ideas that had been generated from scientific research and ideas based on perception or bias.
"The archaeology of México covers many centuries, and relics are found deposited in three distinct layers, one above the other. These three stages in ancient history are represented on the north side of the hall…the lowest…is the Archaic period…next came the Maya-Toltec horizon of culture…lastly came the Aztec period…The Aztec were not nearly so highly civilized as the Mayas had been before them. They were much given to human sacrifice...The Mayas were perhaps the most highly civilized people in the New World, they built many cities of stone and erected many fine pillar-like stelae to which attention was called on entering the hall." (p.45)

The notion of using science to examine the pre-Hispanic past was gaining hold with the public; however, the AMNH general guide book still focused to a great extent on describing plaster casts of Maya (and Aztec) stone sculpture. These, in turn, were used as a basis for pronouncements that reinforced the prevailing public perception about Middle American culture.

George Vaillant
George C. Vaillant
Archives, AMNH Anthropology Division.

In the 1920s archaeology in Mexico and Central America gained critical mass and large scale excavations took place in many areas. Partnerships between AMNH and Mexican researchers like Herbert Spinden and Manuel Gamio were continued the 1920s and 1930s by archaeologists like George Vaillant and Alfonso Caso. George Vaillant was educated at Harvard University and worked in the American Southwest under Alfred Kroeber. After becoming Assistant Curator in 1928, he spent much of the next eight years living and working in Mexico. During this time, he consulted closely with Caso, Gamio, and Eduardo Noguera. Vaillant's research goal was to implement a systematic program of excavation at Archaic through Aztec Period sites. In the process, he discovered several new cultural types-such as a ceramic type dating to the time-period in between the Teotihuacán and Aztec cultures-and he established a chronology of artifacts still largely employed today.

A Museum hall with glass-encased specimen displays.
The Mexico and Central America Hall in 1941

The research conducted between 1910 and 1940, the end of Vaillant's tenure as curator, is more explicitly reflected in the tone of the Mexico Hall of the 1930s and 1940s and in temporary exhibits. Note the tone of the revised 1931 AMNH general guide in its summary of the Mexico Hall.

"The visitor, in passing through this hall will notice that the civilizations presented here are more or less similar to one another and have perhaps a New World common origin. they are quite different, however, from the civilizations of Egypt, Greece or China." (p. 71)

The passage goes on the point out the "little figurines in clay" made by the Archaic people and objects of the "highly civilized" Toltec culture. By the 1930s, many cases in the hall were dedicated to presenting objects relating to daily life. The end of the passage clearly shows a change in attitude towards pre-Hispanic culture:

"While one is accustomed to think of the Aztecs, and by association, all ancient Middle Americans as warlike savages, the collections here exhibited show their main concerns of life to have been pacific, and devoted to the advancement of their industries, arts, and sciences." (p.75)

In 1937, Vaillant advised in setting up an exhibit detailing various stages of ancient pottery including shattered fragments and complete pieces from the site of Atzcapotzalco, Mexico. The hall inaugurated in 1944 is the first to employed stratigraphy in exhibits demonstrating how Middle American culture evolved over time.

To conclude, by 1945 the Mexico and Central America hall had fully incorporated current scientific research by AMNH associates in its approach to documenting the Pre-Hispanic cultures of Middle America. Stratigraphy was employed to show how culture changed over time. Objects showcased were chosen not only on the grounds of their artistic merit, but also because they exemplified aspects of pre-Hispanic lifeways, such as music, warfare, ritual, and food preparation. The tone of presentation re-iterated the independent evolution of Middle American culture and native achievement in government, science, and the arts.

The Mexico and Central America Hall after its 1945 renovation

A woman standing before a wall exhibit including a map of Mexico.
A wall exhibit featuring a map of Mexico and a carved stone artifact.
Artifacts presented in a display case titled, "Cultural Sequence of the Valley of Mexico."
A display case with shelves of various-shaped pottery vessels.
Artifacts and a map of Mexico presented in a display case titled "Cultural Sequence of the Valley of Mexico."

AMNH researchers and their dates of affiliation with the Institution

Chairs/Chief Curators of the Anthropology Division (to 1941)
Albert Smith Bickmore 1873-1890
Frederick Starr 1890-1891
James Terry 1891-1893
Frederic W. Putnam 1895-1903
Franz Boas 1904-1905 (officially resigned in 1906)
Clark Wissler 1906-1941
Curators of Mexico and Central American Archaeology (to 1940)
Marshall H. Saville 1894-1907
Herbert J. Spinden 1910-1921
J. Alden Mason 1925
George C. Vaillant 1928-1940
Associates of the AMNH mentioned in the text
Adolph Bandelier 1894-1906
William Niven 1894-1897
Carl Lumholtz 1896-1898
Eduard Seler 1897

Sources of Information: Archives, Anthropology Division, American Museum of Natural History

Bandelier, Adolph.
1940 Pioneers in American Anthropology; the Bandelier-Morgan Letters, 1873-1883, edited by Leslie A. White. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Bernal, Ignacio.
1980 A History of Mexican Archaeology: the Vanished Civilizations of Middle America. Thames and Hudson, New York.
Kirchhoff, Paul.
1952 Meso-America in Heritage of Conquest, edited by Sol Tax, pp. 17-30. Glencoe, Illinois.
Lang Charles H. and Carroll Riley.
1996 The Life and Adventures of Adolph Bandelier. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Lucas, Frederic A.
1921 General Guide to the Exhibition Halls of the American Museum of Natural History.American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Lucas, Frederic A.
1931 General Guide to the Exhibition Halls of the American Museum of Natural History.American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Osborn, Henry Fairfield.
1911 The American Museum of Natural History. Its Origin, Its History the Growth of its Departments to December 31, 1909. Irving Press, New York.