BLOG: Research in the Archives of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia: Part I, State Archaeology in the Archivo Técnico by Sam Holley-Kline

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Today we return to looking at physical research repositories in a single country; in this case, Mexico. If you are also interested in writing a post(s) on the challenges and joys of doing research on Latin America and the Caribbean, please click here.

Sam Holley-Kline is Dean’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of History at Florida State University. He is currently working on his first book project, tentatively titled "In the Shadow of El Tajín: Labor and Landscape on a Mexican Archaeological Site,” and has published work in Archaeological Dialogues and Complutum. These posts are based on his dissertation research, supported by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad grant and a Stanford University Graduate Research Opportunity Award.

Research in the Archives of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia: Part I, State Archaeology in the Archivo Técnico

In 2012, I began a project that would eventually become a dissertation on the archaeological site of El Tajín, Veracruz. Thanks to a suggestion from Meghan Rubenstein, then doing her dissertation research on Kabah, I learned about a series of archives held by the Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). While the bulk of my fieldwork ended up being ethnographic, I spent the summers of 2017 and 2018 conducting research at these archives. The following posts reflect those conditions. Since then, a new federal administration and changes in personnel have made certain details outdated, so I’ll try and keep things broad.

INAH is legally mandated with the management of the country’s archaeological, historical, and paleontological patrimony. According to current legislation, Mexico’s archaeological heritage consists of all movable and immovable goods, flora and fauna, and human remains produced before Spanish colonization. Considering Mexico’s history of human habitation, this gives the INAH’s legal jurisdiction quite a scope; it is sometimes called, half-jokingly, the Instituto Nacional de Arqueología e Historia for the practical emphasis on the safeguarding of the pre-Hispanic past.

The best-known of the INAH’s archival holdings is probably what’s often just called the archivo técnico: the Archivo Técnico de la Coordinación Nacional de Arqueología del INAH. Though the INAH was founded in 1939, the institution consolidated heritage management and research agencies that date back to 1885.1 The archive thus has a few different holdings, depending mostly on the time period of interest.

The first, the Archivo Técnico de la Dirección de Monumentos Prehispánicos, is organized into bound tomes, divided by states. Each of these tomes includes excavation, survey, and maintenance reports dating from around 1913 to 1975. For an example of what these reports look like, check out the journal Arqueología, conveniently available online. A catalog was published in 1982 and remains current: Roberto García Moll, Indice del Archivo Técnico de la Dirección de Monumentos Prehispánicos del INAH (Mexico City: INAH). At the time of this writing, it is accessible on HathiTrust.

For archaeological research conducted since 1975 (and through the 2010s), the Coordinación Nacional de Arqueología has another set of catalogs available. Each state has a binder, available by request: material is organized by name, author, and report number. It can take a bit of muddling through, but the archival assistants were always willing to help (I found it useful to ask for Coordinación Nacional de Arqueología or simply, Veracruz, for the binder in question). Given the vulnerability of certain sites to looting, reports may be embargoed, though I personally didn’t run into any of these.

If this is enough to pique a researcher’s interest, the actual consultation process is straightforward—though actually finding the archive takes a bit of planning. Formerly located on Donceles, near Mexico City’s centro histórico, the archive was (relatively) recently moved to Avenida Revolución 1900, Colonia San Ángel, Cp. 01000, Delegación Álvaro Obregón. The move was supposed to be temporary, with the Museo Nacional de Antropología the final destination, but, as yet, there are few indications of further movement. Otherwise, the archive remains open to consultation. The Doctor Gálvez Metrobus station is less than a block away, though unfortunately the closest metro stations (Miguel Ángel de Quevedo and Copilco) are both about a mile away. The address, too, is a bit misleading. The entrance is actually around the corner, on calle Loreto (see Figure 1) and you have to ring the bell to get in.

Figure 1: The Archivo Técnico’s street entrance, on Loreto. Credit: Google Maps.

From there, it’s just a matter of signing in and leaving your bags with the security guard. I’d recommend keeping a mask and gloves on hand: depending on the age of the materials you’re consulting, you may be asked to use them. The space is fairly limited—one big table, with room for perhaps six researchers, and a floor outlet—so showing up early is also advisable. Otherwise, the space is generally accommodating. There are two well-stocked gender-neutral bathrooms—though no public wi-fi was available. Notably, too, photography is not allowed. After a number of visits, I ended up writing an oficio addressed to the Coordinador Nacional de Arqueología, asking for permission (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Oficio formatting and text used to solicit permission to take photos.

Permission was granted (took about a day) on the condition that I bring a copy of the finished work to the archive and provide them with digital copies of all the photos I took (an external hard drive was useful for this).

While a stop by the Archivo Técnico is an obvious choice for any archaeologist interested in working in Mexico, anthropologists, historians, and others may also be interested to see the nuts-and-bolts of a state science at work. For examples of scholarship that uses these archives, see publications from Mónica Salas Landa, Haydée López Hernández, and myself.2

In the next post, I’ll detail three additional INAH archives housed in the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Aside from an excuse to visit the Bosque de Chapultepec, these archives offer a detailed view into the inner workings of the INAH and the museum itself.

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1 These include the Inspección y Conservación de de Monumentos Arqueológicos de la República Mexicana (1885-1917), the Dirección de Estudios Arqueológicos y Etnográficos (1917-1919), the Dirección de Antropología (1919-1924), the Departamento de Antropología (1925), the Dirección de Arqueología (1926-1930), and the Departamento de Monumentos Artísticos, Arqueológicos e Históricos (1930-1938). These institutions duplicated and, in some cases, competed with museum- and university-based archaeology. See Luis Vázquez León, “Mexico: The Institutionalization of Archaeology, 1885-1942,” in History of Latin American Archaeology, ed. Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 1994), 69–89.

2 Sam Holley-Kline, “Nationalist Archaeology and Foreign Oil Exploration in El Tajín, Mexico, 1935-1940,” Archaeological Dialogues 26, no. 2 (2020); Sam Holley-Kline, “El guardián Modesto González y la historiografía de la arqueología mexicana,” Complutum 30, no. 1 (2019): 13–28; Mónica Salas Landa, “(In)Visible Ruins: The Politics of Monumental Reconstruction in Postrevolutionary Mexico,” Hispanic American Historical Review 97, no. 1 (2018): 43–76; Haydée López Hernández, "De la gloria prehispánica al socialismo: Las políticas indigenistas del Cardenismo," Cuicuilco 20, no. 57 (2013): 47-74.

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