Archaeology and Nationalism in Guatemala at the Time of Independence

By Mazariegos, Oswaldo Chinchilla | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and Nationalism in Guatemala at the Time of Independence


Mazariegos, Oswaldo Chinchilla, Antiquity


In 1834, the government of the newly-independent state of Guatemala organized exploratory expeditions to the pre-Hispanic ruins of Copan, Iximche and Utatlan. Scarcely noticed so far, this was one of the earliest instances of state-sponsored archaeological research in the New World. An examination of the political and intellectual setting that provided impulse for this venture is pertinent considering current trends in the historiography of archaeology that emphasize an understanding of the social context of research, and the ways in which interpretations of the past have been utilized for constructing contemporary ideologies (Hinsley 1989; Kristiansen 1981; Trigger 1984).

Nationalism has been recognized as a pervasive driving force for the study of antiquity. Proto-nationalism gave precocious impulse to archaeological research in Europe (Hobsbawm 1991: 46-79; Kristiansen 1981; Sklenar 1983: 62-101) and nationalism still provides the intellectual basis for many regional traditions of archaeology in the modern world (Trigger 1984). As pointed out by Hobsbawm (1991: 75), the conviction of belonging to a historic state was an essential element in the definition of nationalities in the 19th century. The search for a suitable historical background led nationalist movements to reassert ties of ancestry with ancient societies on the basis of territorial or ethnic continuity, often with little regard for historical accuracy (Dietler 1994; Hobsbawm 1991: 76-7).

Nationalism was the single most important factor in the development of archaeology in Mexico. The Mexican experience has been widely studied (Bernal 1980; Brading 1983; Keen 1971), and is particularly relevant for the present purpose. Interest in the Aztec past developed in colonial Mexico in close connection with the emergence of creole patriotism. Creole intellectuals of the early 19th century constructed an image of the emerging Mexican state as the immediate heir of the Aztec empire. Independence was construed as the vindication of an ancient Mexican nation that for centuries had been unjustly dominated by Spain (Brading 1983: 73-82). Similar trends developed in neighbouring Guatemala. However, the Guatemalan case was not a simple reflection of Mexican thinking, nor did it produce the same results. No parallel to the 1834 explorations can be found in contemporary Mexico, particularly considering their extraordinary breadth, which was intended to encompass the major archaeological remains known in the country. A summary account of the explorations and an inquiry into their background constitute an important chapter in the history of state archaeology in the New World.

The archaeological explorations of 1834

The travels of US diplomat and explorer John Lloyd Stephens are usually considered the starting point of modern research on the ancient Maya (Stephens 1969). When Stephens arrived in Guatemala in 1839, he complained about the inhabitants' ignorance, carelessness and indifference toward the country's antiquities (Stephens 1969 (I): 98; (II): 118). His judgement was only partially correct. In truth, the small and provincial capital of Guatemala, a country currently ravaged by civil war, could offer little in terms of antiquarian concerns. Nevertheless, only five years before, the state government had been actively engaged in archaeological research. Stephens was aware of the explorations undertaken in 1834 at Copan, having read the report of the government's appointee, colonel Juan Galindo (1835). In Guatemala, he met engineer Miguel Rivera Maestre, 'a gentleman distinguished by his scientific and antiquarian tastes' (Stephens 1969 (II):185) who had been in charge of the explorations at the sites of Iximche and Utatlan. The original government acts ordering the expeditions are preserved in the Archivo General de Centroamerica (AGCA) in Guatemala city. They include provisions to cover the expenses of both expeditions, including transportation and supplies, as well as the necessary clearings and excavations.

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