Christina Bueno

The Pursuit of Ruins: Archaeology, History, and the Making of Modern Mexico

University of New Mexico Press, 2016

280 pages


Reviewed by Diana Heredia-López

In the late nineteenth century, statesmen of emerging nation-states in Latin America sought to modernize their countries through ambitious infrastructure projects. However, such projects did not always involve building new roads or sewage systems. As Christina Bueno shows in The Pursuit of Ruins, vestiges from the antiquity could be turned into meaningful cultural infrastructure for the nation-state. Focusing on Mexican archaeology during Porfirio Díaz´s regime (1876-1910), Bueno analyzes how elites set out to create a national identity rooted in a shared ancient past. She convincingly demonstrates that the National Museum and a network of archaeological sites were crucial in this endeavor as their display under scientific ideals of the era would bring international prestige and validate Mexico as a modern nation.

Bueno takes a close look at the fieldwork that made possible the centralization and modernization of Mexican archaeology. While this approach reaffirms the explicit role of archaeology in constructing an official narrative of the nation, it also shows the complicated paths to the pursuit of ruins. Bueno follows the activities of the Inspectorate of Monuments, which is the predecessor of the current National Institute of Archaeology and History. By doing so, she traces the labor of indigenous guards, local forgers and other overlooked actors that participated or resisted in the Porfirian archaeological project. This way, she exposes this project´s contradictory nature:  it celebrated the glorious past of Mesoamerican sedentary cultures but at the same time saw contemporary indigenous populations as inferior and unworthy of the nation´s archaeological heritage. Bueno further suggests that twentieth-century indigenismo, which emerged during the Mexican Revolution, actually has its roots in this archaeological tradition.

Divided in three parts, The Pursuit of Ruins first presents the intellectual and political motivations that drove the Mexican state to formally create an archaeological heritage. Bueno opens with a detailed description of foreign archaeologists’ work in Mexican ruins. Aside from noting their Euro/Anglocentric attitudes towards ancient objects and the local people, Bueno discusses what these monuments meant to locals in a growing market for antiquities. The following two chapters describe the response of Porfirian elites to the massive outflow of Mexican objects to Europe and the US. Bueno sees the elites as increasingly anxious about their inability to properly showcase and study Mexican monuments.  Statesmen had heated debates on how international scientific cooperation should proceed all while the personnel of the National Museum struggled to operate this institution with limited funds and little training in archaeology. 

It was not until the mid-1880s that Díaz´s regime began a more concerted effort to build an archaeological heritage. In Chapter Four, Bueno introduces a key figure in this process: Leopoldo Bartres. Bartes was the head of the General Inspectorate of Archaeological Monuments and supervised the preservation of archaeological sites and the movement of monumental pieces to the National Museum in Mexico City.  Bueno takes on the complicated task of assessing the legacy of this forgotten figure in Mexican archaeology. Drawing on Bartes´s unexplored personal archive, Bueno shows his quarrelsome and territorial personality as well as his extensive field work and staunch nationalist effort to transform Mexican ruins into archaeological sites. She also narrates how Bartres built his career in the Inspectorate. He practically appointed himself as director as soon Díaz founded this institution. Under his quasi-dictatorial leadership, the Inspectorate´s influence grew across the country and had an unprecedented budget for archaeological study and preservation. Bartres went to great lengths to enforce the Law of Archaeological Exploration (1896) and the Law of Monuments (1897) which according to Bueno, for better or for worse, represented the largest and most intensive effort to preserve archaeological heritage in Mexico. However, he also mistreated locals and blocked the work of national and foreign archaeologists such as Manuel Gamio and Zelia Nutall. Bueno captures many of these bitter disputes in great detail and does not hesitate to point out his dismissive behavior.

Bartres´s presence in the second half of the book contributes to a rich and grounded view of what archaeological work in nineteenth-century Mexico entailed. As Bueno reminds us, the archaeologists at the National Museum rarely did fieldwork. Thus, figures like Bartres provide insight on the appointment of guards (conserjes) for archaeological sites (Chapter Five), the supervision of their activities (Chapter Six), and the centralization of artifacts in the country´s capital (Chapter Seven). The culmination of Bartres´s work is reflected in the reconstruction of the pyramid of the sun in Teotihuacán during the first decade of the twentieth century. However, Bartres stepped down from his post when the Mexican Revolution broke out and within a few years, saw much of his work forgotten and get labelled as useless.

On the whole, Bueno´s monograph adds to a growing body of scholarship of archaeology in the Americas. The strength of this book lies in its rich cultural and political discussion of Porfirian elites, and to a lesser extent, its attention to the social history of anthropology. The latter aspect could have been further developed by using a more extensive hemerographical archive. Bueno only relies on a well-known selection of newspapers compiled by Sonia Lombardo de Ruíz, so a wider array of periodicals could have provided more diverse glimpses into what Mexicans thought of archaeological heritage. Objects are another important source that inform Bueno´s investigation. Even though she asserts that her analysis revolves around them, the treatment of monuments and antiquities is rather superficial and mostly visible in the first two chapters and in Chapter 7. Bueno does acknowledge that artifacts change their meaning as they enter new contexts, yet throughout the text, there are no analyses that detail how this process occurred with specific objects or other forms of material culture.

Admittedly, Bueno did not set out to create an intellectual history of Mexican archaeology or contribute to the history of science. Nevertheless, her study could have benefited from recent discussions in these areas such as those prompted by the work of Irina Podgorny and Miruna Achim. For instance, the concern for what was scientifically accurate or who was actually right comes across as presentist. When Bueno recounts Bartres´s quarrels over Oaxacan ruins against American anthropologist Marshal Saville, it becomes clear that Bartres´s work did not adhere to the emerging archaeological standards (e.g. methodic measurement, thorough inventories of archaeological sites, and detailed descriptions of artifacts). In this characterization, Bartres´s intellectual motives are nothing but a reflection of Mexican nationalism and his own troublesome personality. There is nothing wrong in pointing out the shortcomings and inaccuracies of past knowledge, especially if they justified discriminatory practices. However, a serious engagement with mistaken views can lead to deeper intellectual and political insights of the time. This is equally true for the Porfirian elites who “interpreted antiquity in contradictory ways, but always in the shadow of the constructs of the West” (44). Bueno is right to see that Mexican archaeologists and statesmen did not simply replicate these ideas, yet it is striking and truly paradoxical that they did so in overtly anti-imperial tones. A thorough analysis of this peculiar scientific discourse in Mexico and other parts of Latin America would free scholars of the persistent temptation to interpret every intellectual contribution from the region as a desire to be Western.