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The Allure of Antiquity: Archaeology and Museums in the Americas


Christina Bueno

Northeastern Illinois University, US
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From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico. By Miruna Achim. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Pp. ix+ 327. $30.00 paperback. ISBN: 9781496203373.


Framing a Lost City: Science, Photography, and the Making of Machu Picchu. By Amy Cox Hall. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. Pp. xiv + 267. $29.95 paperback. ISBN: 9781477313688.


Knowing the Day, Knowing the World: Engaging Amerindian Thought in Public Archaeology. By Lesley Green and David R. Green. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013. + 308. $55.00 hardcover. ISBN: 9780816530373.


Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico: Art, Tourism, and Nation Building under Lázaro Cárdenas. By Jennifer Jolly. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. Pp. xi + 340. $29.95 paperback. ISBN: 9781477314203.


Nature and Antiquities: The Making of Archaeology in the Americas. Edited by Philip L. Kohl, Irina Podgorny, and Stefanie Gänger. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. Pp. ix + 246. $60.00 hardcover. ISBN: 9780816531127.


Our Indigenous Ancestors: A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877–1943. By Carolyne R. Larson. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. Pp. viii + 221. $79.95 hardcover. ISBN: 9780271066967.


Maya Cultural Heritage: How Archaeologists and Indigenous Communities Engage the Past. By Patricia A. McAnany. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. Pp. ix + 245. $85.00 hardcover. ISBN: 9781442241275.


Making Machu Picchu: The Politics of Tourism in Twentieth-Century Peru. By Mark Rice. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. xvi + 233. $29.95 paperback. ISBN: 9781469643533.

How to Cite: Bueno, C. (2021). The Allure of Antiquity: Archaeology and Museums in the Americas. Latin American Research Review, 56(1), 242–250. DOI:
  Published on 09 Mar 2021
 Accepted on 28 Sep 2020            Submitted on 28 Apr 2020

Antiquities have a sort of siren’s call. For centuries, they have been collected, studied, and displayed. In the late nineteenth century, this fascination with the things of the ancient past began to solidify into the formal science of archaeology throughout much of the world. Antiquarianism gave way to a discipline with professional training and organizations as well as fieldwork guided by more systematic methods. We know a good deal about the development of archaeology in certain places but much less about it in Latin America, where the discipline’s history did not begin to be studied in earnest until the 1970s. Written by archaeologists, most of these early works focused on taking stock of the field. Some of the first were Gordon Willey and Jeremy Sabloff’s History of American Archaeology and Brian Fagan’s Elusive Treasure, books that traced the leading figures, discoveries, and questions that shaped the science.1 The last few years, however, have seen a burst of critical studies on the history of archaeology in Latin America. Far from a simple recounting of great discoveries and brave explorers, this scholarship offers unique ways of examining topics as diverse as nation building, imperialism, science, identity, and race, as well as the history of museums, heritage management, tourism, and material culture.

The eight volumes reviewed in this essay expand our understanding of the meanings and uses of the remains of the pre-Hispanic past. Taken together, they highlight a certain ambiguous quality about archaeology. At its heart, archaeology is an object-based science. At the same time, the meaning of these objects is inherently unstable. Antiquities are simply objects left behind by earlier people; their significance and the stories they are thought to tell are determined by those who possess them, whether they be state officials, museum curators, or indigenous peasants. Who has a right to possess them? How should they be interpreted?

Throughout history, the interpretations of archaeologists have tended to silence all others, especially those of indigenous communities. At the same time, native peoples have been essential to the science. They have worked alongside archaeologists, serving as porters, guides, and diggers in excavations. Yet their voices have gone unrecorded. They rarely surface in historical documents, and, as a result, they are not a topic of focus in the first six books examined here, which are works of historical scholarship on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The absence of native voices is a reminder that archaeology developed as a discipline of cultural appropriation, one that distanced local, often indigenous, communities from their own heritage. In recent decades, the alienation of native peoples from field practices and other aspects of the science has been actively called into question. Many archaeologists have engaged in a critical rethinking of their discipline and its impact on local communities. The last two works under review are representative of this current of scholarship, which aims to challenge the inequalities inherent in the science. They focus on community heritage initiatives and public archaeology programs designed to affirm the values of native peoples.

Nature and Antiquities: The Making of Archaeology in the Americas provides a fascinating look at archaeology when it was an especially tentative science. Edited by Philip Kohl, Irina Podgorny, and Stefanie Gänger, this volume of ten essays examines how nineteenth-century scholars and collectors studied native peoples and their material remains. The book covers both continents of the New World but focuses mainly on Latin America, exploring the initial stirrings of archaeology when “there were no established criteria for what American archaeology was to be” (14). Organized by theme, the fine-grained historical studies span a wide range of topics. As with all edited volumes, certain essays will appeal to individual readers more than others.

The first section of the book, “Interplays,” examines the interactions between archaeology and other fields of knowledge, especially the natural sciences. Joanne Pillsbury’s “Finding the Ancient in the Andes: Archaeology and Geology, 1850–1890,” for instance, reveals how botany and geology provided a template for depicting ancient objects. Archaeology appropriated the conventions for illustrating and classifying specimens from these other sciences. Pillsbury highlights one of the main themes of the book: that the making of archaeology cannot be “understood without taking seriously its relationship with the study of nature— in the shape of natural history, geological fieldwork, or botanizing” (13).

Scholars are increasingly paying more attention to how artifacts are transformed into museum pieces, a topic addressed in the book’s second section, “Settings.”2 Nineteenth-century antiquarians often amassed the weirdest collections. Gänger focuses on one of these, the cabinet of curiosities of Ana María Centeno de Romainville, an aristocrat in mid-nineteenth-century Cuzco. Centeno accumulated hundreds of objects in her mansion, everything from antiquities to human fetuses and a three-footed chicken. While the modern-day observer would be hard pressed to find a unifying organizational principle in Centeno’s hodgepodge of things, Gänger emphasizes that the items shared the common characteristic of simply being curiosities—a quality that is not necessarily valued in the supposedly rational world of science. Adam Sellen similarly turns his attention to the museum of the Camacho brothers, two Spanish priests living in early nineteenth-century Yucatán, whose eclectic collection attracted a steady stream of Mexican and foreign visitors. Podgorny’s chapter in this same section chronicles the Spanish American travels of Joseph Charles Manó, a French naturalist, con man, and avid trader in antiquities. These essays drive home one of the book’s central points: that there was no established set of discourses or practices for the study, collection, and display of pre-Hispanic relics during the nineteenth century. While this idea is not necessarily new, the authors bring it to life with vivid and thought-provoking examples.

The final part of the book, “Narratives,” analyzes scholarly accounts of the history of native peoples. The last two essays are especially powerful. Alice Beck Kehoe’s “Manifest Destiny as the Order of Nature” explores nineteenth-century discourses in the United States that equated Indians with nature. Kehoe demonstrates how archaeological theories and discoveries reinforced the belief that the United States had no history until the invasion of Europeans, an imperialist notion that helped justify the American government’s treatment of Indians and their forced removal from traditional lands. John S. Gilkeson’s “Saving the Natives: The Long Emergence and Transformation of Indigeneity” considers similar themes. These last two contributions are a potent reminder of the profound impact that archaeology can have on the lives of native people. Both Kehoe and Gilkeson end their essays with optimism by emphasizing how Native Americans today are redefining and making their pasts. Apart from these two chapters, most of Nature and Antiquities does not look at the relationship between archaeology and larger political concerns. The volume reminds us that the political was “only one and at times not a terribly significant aspect” of archaeological practice (9).

Much of the recent literature on Latin America’s history of archaeology does assess the discipline’s connection to political issues, especially nationalism and nation building. Archaeology has played a central role in the process of nation building by endowing countries with pedigrees that extend back to remote times. The science has been particularly useful to the creation of official national pasts, histories that give a population a shared heritage and origin. One key place where these pasts are constructed is national museums. Not surprisingly, many recent works focus on these institutions, what are essentially warehouses of national patrimony.3 National museums provide a lens for analyzing the relationship between archaeology and the federal government, an association that has been especially strong in Mexico. The most obvious example of this connection is Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, the enormous modernist structure in the Mexican capital packed with over three miles of corridors full of artifacts. Today, visitors are overwhelmed by the seemingly countless objects on display. The museum is celebrated as a world-class institution and a national treasure. But it did not start out that way.

Established in 1825 as the National Museum of Mexico, the institution was neglected for much of the nineteenth century. Its present state obscures its rocky past, explains Miruna Achim, who traces the museum’s early, chaotic years in From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico. Achim’s chronological account eloquently reconstructs the institution’s history from its foundation to the end of the Second Empire in 1867, when the museum, like the Mexican nation, was in the early stages of coming into being. Her goal is to avoid a teleological recounting of the museum’s past. “There is nothing essential or obvious” about the emergence of the institutions of modernity, she notes, “there is improvisation and uncertainty, conveniently forgotten and overwritten by stories of success” (5).

Piecing together the history of Mexico’s museum is complicated by the fact that, like many museums of the time, it left behind few records. Achim attempts to overcome this dilemma by following the “paths of people and objects associated with the museum beyond the cramped spaces of the institution to places as far off” as the Louvre in Paris and the jungles of Yucatán (8). This strategy makes sense and generally works well, although it causes Mexico’s museum to fade into the background and completely disappear at several points throughout the book’s six chapters. The approach, however, does allow Achim to convey the fragile beginnings of the institution as well as the cast of characters, both Mexican and foreign, who were essential to its development. One of these was Lucas Alamán, the intellectual and statesman who convinced congress to establish the museum in hopes of creating a house of learning for his fellow Mexicans. The National Museum was founded in the Royal University, where it held pre-Hispanic antiquities along with objects from history and the natural world. But it was immediately abandoned by a Mexican government preoccupied with other matters—the country’s incessant turmoil, invasions, and civil wars.

Achim illustrates how the survival of the museum depended on the often heroic efforts of dedicated individuals like Isidro Icaza, the institution’s first curator (1825 to 1834). Icaza struggled to establish basic rules and protocols, such as hours of operation and procedures for the collection and display of objects. Many of his projects failed; a museum journal created as a monthly series was terminated after just three volumes. Lack of funding and personnel prohibited the institution from mounting expeditions to gather antiquities, forcing it to rely on donations. To build the archaeology collection, the museum also collaborated with foreign explorers like the eccentric French illustrator Jean-Frédéric Waldeck. Achim traces a series of these joint ventures in the late 1820s and 1830s to the ruins of Palenque. The expeditions, however, similarly ended in failure due to logistical and political obstacles. Meanwhile, Mexico’s few laws prohibiting the exportation of antiquities went unenforced, allowing foreigners to flee the country with trunks full of relics.

Another one of the museum’s perennial problems was the lack of space. Antiquities were crowded and jumbled together, making it impossible for the institution to articulate a clear message about Mexico’s ancient past. The cramped quarters “offered little opportunity for scripted and coherent exhibits,” writes Achim (17). To make sense of the archaeology collection, scholars turned to paper. Drawings, essays, lithographs, and molds allowed Mexicans and foreigners to produce and circulate knowledge about the antiquities. Paper, in other words, contributed to the development of Mexican antiquarianism. William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), for instance, offered the world a glimpse of some of the museum objects. Paper also allowed Mexicans “to make the case that Mexican antiquities belonged in Mexico because they were being studied there” (168).

Perhaps no one understood this last point better than José Fernando Ramírez, the celebrated historian, politician, and museum director (1852–1865). Ramírez spent his life accumulating a massive archive of documents about Mexican antiquity. During the Second Empire, he sided with Maximilian, a decision driven in part, according to Achim, by a desire to protect the museum from the French invaders. Achim’s final chapter looks at the museum under French occupation, when the institution saw one definite improvement: it was moved to a better location in the National Palace, where the archaeology collection remained for close to a century. In 1964 the collection was transferred to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, an institution that bears little resemblance to its much earlier, humble predecessor.

In addition to institutional histories, the focus on archaeology has led scholars to analyze representations of national identity, the subject of Carolyne Larson’s book on Argentina, the Latin American country most commonly associated with white, creole identity. Our Indigenous Ancestors: A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877–1943 takes readers into the ethnographic museums of belle époque Argentina to challenge the “narrative of national whiteness,” the idea that Argentina has imagined itself exclusively as an ethnically European nation. Larson demonstrates that creole Argentines were decidedly interested in their nation’s Indian heritage. Museum anthropologists, collectors, the press, and the public incorporated indigenous cultures into the process of constructing an “authentic” national identity. They created “strategic and possessive connections with Argentina’s indigenous heritage” in museums, newspapers, schoolrooms, and other settings. (6).

“‘Big ideas’ like national identity are shaped by small, quotidian actions,” writes Larson, who chronicles the formation and daily operations of three museums: the Museo de Ciencias Naturales de la Plata, the Museo Etnográfico “Juan B. Ambrosetti” in Buenos Aires, and the Instituto de Etnología at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán (11). Each of these institutions had a significant impact on museum anthropology in Argentina. Through a brief introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue, Larson’s cultural history details the interconnections between science, museum practices, national identity, and depictions of native peoples. Her work makes a decisive contribution to the recent scholarship that interrogates representations of race in Argentina.

Larson begins by examining the Museo de Ciencias Naturales de la Plata, established by the prominent scientist Francisco Moreno in 1884. Moreno is considered a foundational figure in Argentina, where he is proudly known as “Perito” (the expert) Moreno. He carried out scientific expeditions in Patagonia—a famous glacier there is named after him—that helped solidify the nation’s claim to the territory. Larson focuses on Moreno and the museum’s efforts at amassing Argentina’s largest anthropological collection, a dizzying display of human skulls and bones. Many of these specimens came from the bodies of recent victims of the Conquest of the Desert, the military campaigns that sought to put an end to the country’s “Indian problem” by slaughtering and subjugating the native peoples of the southern pampas and Patagonia. In addition to these displays, the Museo de Ciencias Naturales also housed living specimens—a group of indigenous captives, some of whom lived out their last, sad days in the institution.

Native peoples were not completely erased from Argentine narratives of national identity, a point Larson teases out in a concise yet deeply nuanced way in her first chapter. She demonstrates how the displays of indigenous bodies in the Museo de Ciencias Naturales reinforced accounts of creole racial superiority, conquest, and the control of national space. The exhibits helped creoles construct a modern national identity in contrast to the “archaic” peoples on display. At the same time, visitors did not experience an “indigenous-free Argentina” as they walked through the museum. The institution made native cultures an “inextricable element of the national past and present” (48). This is a well-researched chapter, but its analysis of the museum displays would have benefited from a more thorough treatment of racial science and the specific ways the science shaped the institution.

After the turn of the century, Argentine anthropologists shifted their focus from indigenous bodies to pre-Hispanic antiquities. The region celebrated as the cradle of Argentina’s most sophisticated ancient peoples was the northwest, with its stone structures, bronze tools, and other objects that were thought to be evidence of advanced civilizations. Placed on museum shelves, these artifacts were used to support the idea that Argentines were the successors of prestigious civilizations. According to Larson, creoles expressed this connection to ancient Indians as one of inheritance rather than genealogy. They considered themselves heirs rather than descendants of these cultures. In this way, they could both self-identify as “ethnically European and as the inheritors of an indigenous past” (52). Larson’s excellent study underscores how a nation can both strategically embrace native cultures while simultaneously marginalizing and attempting to destroy them.

Indigenous people were often subjects of study in archaeological explorations. The expeditions of Yale professor Hiram Bingham in Peru’s Machu Picchu in the early twentieth century, for instance, turned local Quechua speakers into specimens of anthropometry, the analysis of human body parts that was used to prove the inferiority of nonwhites. Bingham is famous for “discovering” Machu Picchu in 1911. But Machu Picchu was not lost. Local people were familiar with the site; cartographers even depicted it in maps dating back to the 1860s. The Yale professor, however, defined the way the site is imagined. His expeditions, and more specifically, his use of the camera, portrayed Machu Picchu as a discovery, argues Amy Cox Hall in her engaging Framing a Lost City: Science, Photography, and the Making of Machu Picchu. Cox Hall looks at all three of Bingham’s Yale Peruvian Expeditions; the first (1911) was financed by Bingham’s family money and Yale, while the last two (1912 and 1914–1915) were backed mainly by Yale and the National Geographic Society. Each of Cox Hall’s six chapters delves into a different aspect of Bingham’s scientific practices to show how they constructed an image of Machu Picchu as a discovered lost city. Theoretically sophisticated, the book builds on the work of scholars such as Jorge Coronado and Deborah Poole that scrutinizes the way the Andes and its people have been imagined.

Bingham didn’t really do much archaeology in Machu Picchu. No one on his team was trained in the science. Bingham was a historian, and his crew consisted of a geographer, osteologist, naturalist, topographer, and many assistants. This was typical of the time, as few had formal training in archaeology. The discipline was a budding science with a wide range of practitioners with varying degrees of schooling and rigor. One of the goals of the science at the time was the reconstruction of sites. Archaeologists rebuilt pyramids according to what they thought they must have looked like, a practice that has come to be questioned. Today’s scientists believe that reconstructions are a product of conjecture; they are artifacts of Western science, constructs based on “specific criteria and logics of authenticity,” explains Quetzil Castañeda.4 Rather than reconstruction, today’s aim is consolidation: archaeologists work to restore a structure and protect it from further collapse instead of rebuilding.

And while archaeology continues to be an object-based science, during Bingham’s day the goal of excavations was usually to accumulate as many items as possible. For this task, Bingham hired the local people. Cox Hall reveals how the Yale professor was not interested in the modern archaeological methods that were gaining ground at the time, practices such as stratigraphic excavation, a procedure that records an object’s location in the strata of the earth to establish its relative age. To the modern-day “dirt” archaeologist, context is everything. The place of an artifact in the soil is an invaluable source of information—without it, the object does not offer much insight into the past. Bingham paid little attention to context. Instead, he carried out what Cox Hall characterizes as an “antiquarianism-inspired collecting spree—or, less generously, strategic ‘grave robbing’” (49). Ultimately, the Yale Peruvian Expeditions did not produce any significant archaeological discoveries. Nevertheless, the sheen of science guaranteed them a long cultural legacy.

Rather than archaeology, Bingham’s team focused mainly on photography and map making. Photographic images, the focus of Cox Hall’s well-researched work, played a significant role in shaping Machu Picchu as a lost city waiting to be found. Panoramas of the landscape, for instance, positioned Bingham as “both knower and finder” (75). Eastman Kodak was a corporate sponsor of the expeditions. National Geographic Society had rights to the thousands of photographs from the last two expeditions, which were published in its magazine in ways that conveyed an “aesthetic of discovery” (111). Bingham’s team also took photos of the local native peoples. In the words of Cox Hall, these images “furthered the portrayal of Machu Picchu as a lost city by emphasizing the historical chasm” between the ancient peoples and the supposedly degraded contemporary Indians (132).

Curiously, while Bingham is the protagonist of the story, we do not learn much about him. Cox Hall’s book is not meant to be a biography of the explorer, but one often wishes she had put more meat on this character’s bones. This would have helped us understand Bingham’s “civilizing mission” and the drive that turned him “from a little-known professor of South American history to a world-class explorer,” especially since Bingham’s desire to fashion his own image seems to have been inseparable from his depiction of Machu Picchu as a lost site (65–66).

Ultimately, Framing a Lost City is about race, imperialism, and power. Bingham portrayed Machu Picchu as a place dedicated to foreign visitors. The fact that indigenous people escorted him to the site he supposedly “discovered” continues to go overlooked. But there is more to this racialized vision, which Cox Hall deftly unpacks. While Bingham was initially welcomed by Peruvian officials and intellectuals who assisted him in a variety of ways, many saw Machu Picchu as national patrimony and came to question the special treatment the explorer and Yale received, especially Yale’s rights to the ancient artifacts. Peru had allowed the university to export antiquities on the condition that they would be sent back when Peruvians asked. For the next century, Peruvians fought for the return of the objects, some of which Bingham had illegally smuggled out of their country. Cox Hall’s final chapter looks at this long, bitter custody battle. Yale finally began repatriating many of the artifacts in 2011 in time for the centennial celebration of Bingham’s first visit to Machu Picchu. These were placed in la Casa Concha, a museum in Cuzco. Although the museum is affiliated with both Yale and Cuzco’s National University of San Antonio Abad, it tells the story of Machu Picchu from Yale’s perspective. It is a monument to Bingham, according to critics. The efforts of the many Peruvians who helped him, from statesmen to local Indians, have been “transformed through scientific witnessing to become Bingham’s and Yale’s alone” (179).

Ironically, much of the archeological work in Peru and Latin America at large would have been impossible without the aid of indigenous communities. In Mexico, for instance, native peoples not only facilitated excavations but also served (and continue to serve) as guards at sites. A growing body of literature examines the interactions between these communities and archaeologists. My own research as well as that of Sam Holley-Kline, Sandra Rozental, and Mónica Salas Landa draws on this approach to highlight how indigenous people have shaped archaeology by both aiding and opposing government-sponsored heritage management.5 Many communities have claimed the ruins as their own and used them in a variety of ways. By placing popular culture and state institutions into the same frame of study this literature offers insights into the contested nature of patrimony, as local communities—along with regional officials, collectors, foreign explorers and others—have historically challenged national governments’ claims to the pieces of the past. While scholars are looking at new actors and asking new questions, the field would definitely benefit from more comparative studies that shed light on archaeological trajectories and traditions across nations and regions. We know little about how this history developed in Mexico, say, compared to Peru.

One topic that is gaining attention is the study of tourism at ruins. We can take the work of Mark Rice as an example. Rice’s Making Machu Picchu: The Politics of Tourism in Twentieth-Century Peru is a comprehensive analysis of the history of tourism in Machu Picchu over the course of the twentieth century. At the same time, the book also contributes to our understanding of economic development, national identity, and the connections between the regional and the global. Rice begins his lucid, chronological account by noting that Machu Picchu’s transformation into a global tourist destination did not follow a simple or set path. It was not inevitable that the ruins would become one of the most recognized icons of Peru and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1983). Soon after Bingham’s expeditions, Machu Picchu faded from popular consciousness. Its transformation into a tourist site was initiated by locals in Cuzco in the early twentieth century who wanted to promote their region. Many of these figures were motivated by indigenismo—the intellectual current in Latin America aimed at exalting and protecting the Indian—and sought to advance an idealized vision of indigenous culture. This effort soon coincided with the United States Good Neighbor policy. In 1948, Peruvian elites put their misgivings about Bingham on hold and invited him back to inaugurate a new highway to Machu Picchu. Leaders in Peru and the United States celebrated the occasion as a symbol of “the promise of an amicable Pan American future” (69). But the Peruvian state’s support for Machu Picchu was often inconsistent, even as the glorification of Andean culture became a part of leaders’ modernizing vision for their country. Since the 1970s, Machu Picchu has come to be associated with the exotic and adventurous in Peru. This phase has coincided with a shift to more private interests along with more foreign capital.

Indigenist concerns similarly helped turn Pátzcuaro, Mexico, into a tourist hub. The small Michoacán city was transformed into a center of national tourism in the 1930s, the subject of art historian Jennifer Jolly’s wonderful book, Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico: Art, Tourism, and Nation Building under Lázaro Cárdenas. Pátzcuaro became a model for regional economic and cultural development in postrevolutionary Mexico. Populist president Lázaro Cárdenas gave the city and surrounding area a makeover by commissioning new monuments, murals, schools, libraries, as well as tourist infrastructure. Richly illustrated, each of Jolly’s five substantive chapters considers different aspects of this project. Much like Rice, Jolly skillfully highlights the connections between the regional and the national. She argues that Pátzcuaro became a “microcosm of cultural power” in 1930s Mexico. National and regional officials along with celebrated intellectuals and artists eagerly participated in this transformation. They generated “a robust variation of national ideology in Pátzcuaro,” and their efforts “contributed to the development of national institutions and techniques of governance” at large (12). Their modernizing agenda emphasized references to Mexican history and lo típico, things that were thought to be typical of Mexico—folklore, handicrafts, marketplaces, and timeless, charming villages. The project was generally well received but also full of contradictions. In 1933, Cárdenas had a massive statue of independence leader José María Morelos erected on Lake Pátzcuaro’s tiny island of Janitzio. The modernist statue not only looked completely out of place—a source of local complaint—but its reference to history also clashed with the notion of a “traditional” village, what Jolly calls the “ahistorical premise of the picturesque” (60). The monument disrupted “the picturesque assumption that rural and indigenous Mexico had no history and that its inhabitants were a passive part of a timeless past” (63). Jolly skillfully interrogates elite ideas about Indians and race as Pátzcuaro’s indigenous past and present were propped up as tourist attractions. In 1937, the renowned archaeologist Alfonso Caso began excavating and reconstructing the Purépecha ruins of Tzintzuntzan, fieldwork that eventually came under the auspices of the INAH, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. Caso also worked at the ruins of Ihuatzio. But there, the community rejected the plan for an on-site museum and resisted the site’s transformation into a tourist destination.

Today, many archaeologists have come to challenge the practices and premises of their work. They have taken a hard look at how archaeology reproduces asymmetrical relations of power. They question the discipline’s role in distancing local and indigenous communities from stewardship of their lands and objects. Some of these scholars have sought to change the terms of archaeology’s engagement with communities. As a result, they are transforming the science.

Patricia McAnany, an expert on the ancient Maya, is one of these archaeologists. Her Maya Cultural Heritage: How Archaeologists and Indigenous Communities Engage the Past analyzes the workings of two community heritage programs she initiated in southern Mexico and northern Central America. The programs focus on the study and conservation of Maya heritage. They are designed to foster collaboration between archaeologists and communities living near archaeological sites. By creating a context for equitable research, the programs aim to affirm the values of local communities and restructure the ways knowledge is produced. Their ultimate goal is to help enable native peoples to reclaim their historical narratives.

McAnany’s interest in community heritage programs was initially sparked by two incidents in Belize in the 1990s. In one, a girl of Yucatec ancestry seemed completely unaware of her Maya heritage. In another, an American tourist questioned whether the ruins had actually been built by the Maya. For McAnany, these incidents underscore the gap or “discourse of discontinuity” that has severed the connections between past Maya peoples and present descendants (140). McAnany’s programs seek to bridge this gap. This type of “activist research” is not driven solely by ethical concerns. As McAnany points out, working with local people is essential to the future of archaeology. “There is growing concern among archaeologists” that the neglect of local populations is both harming communities, and, in the long run, “compromising the sustainability of the discipline” (5).

Maya Cultural Heritage is divided into three well-structured parts. Part 1, “Background and the Big Ideas,” sets up the historical and theoretical backdrop. McAnany focuses on how historical forces worked to estrange Maya people from their history and heritage. Colonialism, nation building, and neocolonialism created inequalities that helped subvert indigenous understandings of Maya culture. Archaeology was another one of these forces. It undermined indigenous interpretations by claiming that Maya history was the purview of science and “expert knowledge” (44). This section of the book also offers a clear and concise overview of postcolonial critiques of anthropological research. It ends with a look at recent Maya efforts to secure greater self-determination, especially through struggles over land and heritage rights.

In part 2, “Connecting with Communities around Heritage Issues,” McAnany focuses on case studies from the two heritage programs that she established: the Maya Area Cultural Heritage Initiative (MACHI) and InHerit: Indigenous Heritage Passed to Present. The first program was founded through Boston University in 2006 and the second through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011. Initiatives from both programs have been carried out at various sites throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Some of these collaborative efforts involve classroom-based heritage education designed in partnership with local school teachers and other community members. The curriculum also consists of field trips to archaeological sites where students learn about Maya history as well as archaeological methods. None of this might seem particularly radical, but it is. As McAnany explains, indigenous history is rarely ever part of the typical school curriculum in the region. What’s more, many of the school children who live near archaeological sites had never visited them before the programs’ field trips. In addition to these strategies, the heritage programs promote initiatives that feature performative methods such as radio novelas, mapping projects, plays, and puppet shows. All of these efforts are discussed in detail in this section. The radio novelas in Petén, Guatemala, for instance, address issues of looting and conservation. They are scripted and acted out by locals in both Spanish and Q’eqchi’. McAnany includes web links in the text for readers to access the novelas.

In the final part of the book, “In Their Own Words,” McAnany takes stock of the effectiveness of the programs. She does this by examining the results of questionnaires that were used to record the opinions of the students, teachers, and other participants. This section of the book is also full of insights. For example, the responses demonstrate a “strong impulse toward conservation” and a “desire to keep excavated artifacts close to home” (167). Overall, the questionnaires reveal that most people had a favorable impression of the program initiatives. McAnany’s study is a solid work of scholarship that highlights how archaeology can be used to help disrupt some of the forces of inequality that it helped to create. The book is a model for how to design heritage initiatives; it should also be of interest to a variety of scholars concerned with native peoples.

Much like McAnany, Lesley Green (an anthropologist) and David Green (a videographer) had a series of experiences that changed their approach to archaeology. They recount these in Knowing the Day, Knowing the World: Engaging Amerindian Thought in Public Archaeology. In the late 1990s, the authors set off to Brazil to begin a project on public archaeology, a type of archaeology that puts emphasis on engaging the public in the discipline’s research. Once the authors arrived in the state of Amapá, they realized that the Palikur people of the area had never heard of archaeology. The authors’ first challenge was to translate the idea of archaeology into Palikur. The phrase they came up with was the study of “things left in the ground.” After some weeks of excavating with the Palikur, however, they realized that this term did not capture the people’s understanding of archaeology. The native people suggested a new term, ivegbohene amekenegben gidukwankis, or “reading the tracks of the ancestors.” As Lesley Green explains, “In this translation were the traces of a way of knowing the world that was about relationships more than it was about what we understood to be things” (8).

This experience (and others) led the authors to the realization that every aspect of their project was a “product of a modernist vision,” one that had no local purchase among the Palikur. (10). The chronologies of archaeology had little in common with local ways of comprehending history; archaeological maps had nothing to do with Palikur notions of space. Concepts such as time and space that are so fundamental to archaeology had different imaginaries among the Palikur. In order to collaborate with the native people and generate research questions that would inform their public archaeology project, the authors realized that they needed to understand Palikur ways of knowing.

Lesley Green’s introduction begins by arguing that Western academic disciplines are inadequate for comprehending cultures like the Palikur. Amerindian ways of knowing not only defy the limits of these disciplines, they defy the frameworks of modern rationality. Palikur understandings exceed Western categories. Archaeology and anthropology cannot help but translate Amerindian cultures through a Western lens. As Green explains, the challenge is “how to hear Amazonian ways of knowing the world in ways that transcend the limitations of ethnohistory, ethnomathematics, ethnoastronomy, or any of the other ‘ethnos’ that assume ‘native’ versions of disciplinary knowledges exist as equivalents of what Euro-American scholarship already knows” (5). Drawing on the insights of Bruno Latour and other intellectuals, Green’s work contributes to the growing body of anthropological scholarship that seeks to pay close and thoughtful attention to alternative ways of understanding and being in the word.

What began as a public archaeology project, then, soon became something very different. Knowing the Day, Knowing the World is not simply a chronicle of the authors’ archaeological fieldwork at the Amazon archaeological site of Kwap. Instead, the book attempts to trace Palikur thinking about space, time, and personhood. This is done primarily through ethnographic material. The book is based on hundreds of interviews with roughly a dozen elder storytellers recorded by David Green (a fluent speaker of the Palikur language) between the late 1990s and 2008. The six substantive chapters consist of analysis intermingled with extensive anecdotes and narratives, a product of the interviews. The narratives appear in the book in both Palikur and English. Each chapter explores different aspects of Palikur knowledge: ideas about presence, movement, rationality, temporality, cosmology, and space. For instance, in chapter 2, “So Many Stories on This Day-World,” we learn that Palikur conceptualizations of space are based on movement and interactions rather than stasis. As Lesley Green notes, “to know a place is not to have its information, but to know what it is to be present in it” (78).

Knowing the Day, Knowing the World makes a strong case for prioritizing local modes of understanding in archaeological and anthropological research. The writing is clear but often relies on jargon—words like “worldmakings” and “worldmakeries”—that would be more familiar to the anthropologists and theorists that seem to be the authors’ intended audience. The book’s insightful analysis will surely be of relevance to anthropologists and other scholars of native people, especially archaeologists who are rethinking fieldwork methods and ways of engaging with local communities. Like all the other works examined here, the Greens’ book shows us that a critical reflection on archaeology and its history can illuminate topics far beyond the ruins.


1Gordon R. Willey and Jeremy A. Sabloff, A History of American Archaeology (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974); and Brian Fagan, Elusive Treasure: The Story of Early Archaeologists in the Americas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977). 

2Works in this vein include Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed., Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 6th and 7th October 1990 (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1993); Luisa Fernanda Rico Mansard, Exhibir para educar: Objetos, colecciones y museos de la ciudad de México (1790–1910) (Mexico City: Ediciones Pomares/Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2004); Miruna Achim and Irina Podgorny, eds., Museos al detalle: Colecciones, antigüedades e historia natural (Buenos Aires: Colección Prohistoria, 2013); Stefanie Gänger, Relics of the Past: The Collecting and Study of Pre-Columbian Antiquities in Peru and Chile, 1837–1911 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Sandra Rozental, “Stone Replicas: The Iteration and Itinerancy of Mexican Patrimonio,” Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 19, no. 2 (2014): 331–356; and Christina Bueno, The Pursuit of Ruins: Archaeology, History, and the Making of Modern Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016). 

3Several scholars were pioneers of this approach. See, for instance, Mónica Quijada, “Ancestros, ciudadanos, piezas del museo: Francisco P. Moreno y la articulación del indígena en la construcción nacional argentina,” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 9, no. 2 (1998): 21–46; and Enrique Florescano, “La creación del Museo Nacional de Antropología,” in El patrimonio cultural de México, 2: 147–171 (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y las Artes; Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997). 

4Quetzil Castañeda, In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichén Itzá (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 105. 

5See Bueno, The Pursuit of Ruins; Sam Holley-Kline, “El guardián Modesto González y la historiografía de la arqueología mexicana,” Complutum 30, no. 1 (2019): 13–28,; Sandra Rozental, “Unearthing Patrimonio: Treasure and Collectivity in San Miguel Coatlinchan,” in Entangled Heritage: (Post)Colonial Perspectives on the Uses of the Past in Latin America, ed. Olaf Kaltmeier and Mario Rufer (London: Routledge, 2017); and Mónica Salas Landa, “(In)Visible Ruins: The Politics of Monumental Reconstruction in Post-revolutionary Mexico,” Hispanic American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (2018): 43–76. 

Author Information

Christina Bueno is Professor of Latin American History and Latina/o and Latin American Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. She is the author of The Pursuit of Ruins: Archaeology, History, and the Making of Modern Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2016).