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The Archaeologist Who Helped Mexico Find Glory in Its Indigenous Past

Disrupting a stereotype of Mesoamerican savagery, Zelia Nuttall brought the ingenuity of Aztec civilization to the fore

Zelia Nuttall, who began an academic career in archaeology after she divorced her archaeologist husband in 1888, is best known for her work on ancient Mexican manuscripts. (Photo illustration by Smithsonian.com; Photos by Wikimedia, Bancroft Library, FreeVectorMaps)
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Historically, 19th century archaeology has centered on heroic histories of white men’s conquest and exploration of foreign lands. Mexican-American archaeologist Zelia Nuttall was neither a man, nor an explorer in the traditional sense. Perhaps her unique perspective helps account for her unconventional approach: For over 30 years, Nuttall investigated Mexico’s past to give recognition and pride to its present—a project Western archaeology had largely ignored in favor of bloody, salacious narratives of Mesoamerican savages.

In 1897, Nuttall challenged the popular belief that ancient Mexicans were “bloodthirsty savages, having nothing in common with civilized humanity,” as she put it in an article for The Journal of American Folklore. This dangerous representation, she wrote, had “such a hold upon the imagination that it effaces all other knowledge about the ancient civilization of Mexico.” She hoped her work would disrupt this narrative and “lead to a growing recognition of the bonds of universal brotherhood which unite the present inhabitants of this great and ancient continent to their not unworthy predecessors.”

Temple of the Moon
View of the Pyramid of the Moon from the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico. (Wikimedia Commons)

Born in San Francisco on September 6, 1857, Nuttall was the second of six children. Her Mexican-born mother, the daughter of a wealthy San Franciscan banker, and Irish physician father gave Nuttall and her siblings a privileged upbringing. When she was a child, her father moved his family to Europe in an attempt to improve his poor health, and they spent time living in England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Nuttall became fluent in Spanish and German, receiving ample education mainly through private tutors.

The family returned to San Francisco in 1876, where in 1880, Nuttall met and married French explorer and anthropologist Alphonse Louis Pinart. In the first years of their marriage, Nuttall and Pinart traveled widely through Europe and the West Indies for Pinart’s work. By the time the couple returned to San Francisco in 1882, Nuttall was pregnant with their daughter Nadine and the marriage had unfortunately become an unhappy one. She legally separated from Pinart in 1884 and formally divorced in 1888, maintaining custody of Nadine and winning back her maiden name of Nuttall.

Despite the unhappiness of her marriage, Nuttall found her love for archaeology during her travels with Pinart. After their separation, Nuttall took her first trip to Mexico in 1884, along with her daughter, mother, sister and younger brother. That winter, she undertook her first serious archaeological study.

When she entered archaeology in the late 19th century, the field was overwhelmingly male and not yet formalized. Within decades, prominent archaeologists like Franz Boaz were making concerted efforts to professionalize the field. Pioneering women archaeologists, including Nuttall, Egyptologist Sara Yorke Stevenson and anthropologist of the Omaha people Alice Fletcher, often hadn’t received a formal scientific education at universities—an option overwhelmingly barred to them in the 19th century. These women found themselves considered “amateurs” by default. Despite this, they excavated sites and published their findings with equal skill as their male colleagues.

Archaeology at the time was also strongly linked to European and North American colonial expansion. As dominant nations competed to stack up colonies, explorers similarly vied to bring glory to their countries by bringing back artifacts from colonized nations and the excavations of indigenous sites. Yet Mexico also participated in this international competition, despite being itself often the site of foreign intervention and excavation. Historian of archaeology Apen Ruiz argues that this focus was integral to Mexican identity and power on the world stage.

Mexican politicians and intellectuals believed that the country’s history of indigenous empires gave Mexico a uniqueness that other competing nations didn’t have. But at the same time, they “did not want to acknowledge the relationship between the indigenous present and the glorious past,” Ruiz writes. Any connections between the supposedly “savage” indigenous people of the past, they feared, could make Mexico appear backward in an increasingly modern world. When Nuttall arrived on the scene, this debate—whether present-day Mexicans were direct descendants of the country’s former Aztec empire—was at the heart of Mexican archaeology.

Aztec Empire Map
Map of the Aztec Empire lead by Tenochtitlan circa 1519, before the arrival of the Spanish. (Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0)

While visiting the historical site of Teotihuacan in 1884, located northeast of Mexico City, Nuttall collected a series of small terracotta heads. These artifacts had been studied before, but had yet to be accurately dated and understood. In a comparative study of her collection and others, Nuttall concluded that the heads were likely created by the Aztecs near the time of the Spanish Conquest, and had once been attached to bodies made from degradable materials. She concluded that the figures were portraits of individuals representing the dead, were arranged into three classes, and were not all made in the same location.

Nuttall published her results in her paper “The Terracotta Heads of Teotihuacan” in The American Journal of Archaeology and the History of the Fine Arts in 1886. The study was original, thorough, and demonstrated an authoritative knowledge of Mexico’s history—as evidenced by the glowing responses of the archaeological community. That same year, Frederic W. Putnam, a leading American anthropologist, made Nuttall an honorary special assistant in Mexican archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum—a position she accepted and maintained until she died.

In his 1886 annual report for the Museum, Putnam praised Nuttall as “familiar with the Nahuatl language, having intimate and influential friends among the Mexicans, and with an exceptional talent for linguistics and archaeology.” He went on: “As well as being thoroughly informed in all the early native and Spanish writings relating to Mexico and its people, Mrs. Nuttall enters the study with a preparation as remarkable as it is exceptional.”

Putnam asked Nuttall to head the museum’s Central American collection, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, intending to take her research abroad, she declined. Nuttall and her brother George then moved to Dresden, Germany, where they lived for 13 years. During this time she traveled around Europe, visiting different libraries and collections, and to California, where she met Phoebe Hearst, member of the wealthy Hearst family and benefactor of University of California’s Museum of Archaeology. Hearst became a patron for Nuttall, providing financial assistance for her travels and research.

Without formal attachment to an institution, Nuttall had significant freedom to pursue work she deemed important, wherever it happened to be. In this way, Nuttall’s amateur status worked to her advantage, granting her an independence other professional archaeologists did not have.

After 13 years of study and travel, Nuttall published a flurry of works. In 1901, at age 44, she published her largest academic work, The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations. One of her most lasting contributions was recovering ancient Mexican texts that Europeans had taken from Mexico and let fall into obscurity. One was the Codex Nuttall, a facsimile of an ancient Mexican manuscript of pictographs that had ended up in the hands of a British baron, Zouche of Harynworth. Nuttall learned about its existence from a historian in Florence, tracked it down and published it with a thorough introduction detailing its historical context and translating its meaning.

Nuttall Codex
Paper facsimile of the Codex Nuttall, which Zelia Nuttall had published along with an introduction describing the collection of indigenous Mesoamerican pictographs and their meaning. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

As Nuttall’s love for archaeology blossomed, so did her love for Mexico. In 1905, she decided to make Mexico her permanent home. With Hearst’s financial backing, she purchased a 16th century mansion in Mexico City known as Casa Alvarado, where she lived with her daughter. This, too, made Nuttall different from other foreign archaeologists, who tended to conduct research abroad but ultimately return to their home countries and institutions.

Not all of Nuttall’s theories turned out to be correct. In her 1901 text, she postulated that Mexican civilization had developed in parallel with those in Egypt and the Middle East. Long before Columbus, she argued, seafaring Phoenicians sailed to the Americas and interacted with the indigenous peoples of Mexico, influencing their cultural traits and symbols. Archaeologists have since largely rejected this idea.

Yet Nuttall is primarily remembered for effectively using archaeology as way to engage in the nationalist politics of the turn of the century. In the debate as to whether or not modern Mexicans were related to the native Aztecs, she claimed that “the Aztec race is represented by thousands of individuals, endowed with fine physiques and intelligence, who speak, with more or less purity, the language of Montezuma.” The portrayal of ancient Mexicans as uncivilized, she argued, kept modern Mexicans from claiming their indigenous heritage.

“She opened a reading of the Aztecs and ancient Hispanic peoples of Mexico to see them on the same level, through the same lens, that they saw other great civilizations of the world,” Ruiz tells Smithsonian.com. “It was not so much about amazing discoveries, it was about changing the discussion.”

Unlike other explorers, Ruiz adds, Nuttall “was in dialogue with and talking to the people who were doing archaeology in Mexico, and was invested in conversations about what was important to Mexicans.”

Near the end of her life, Nuttall advocated for the revival of Mexican traditions that had been eradicated by Spanish conquest. In 1928, she called for a renewed national celebration of the indigenous New Year, which was traditionally observed twice annually by numerous Mesoamerican cultures when the sun reached its zenith and cast no shadows. That year, Mexico City celebrated the Aztec New Year for the first time since 1519.

In a personal letter to friend Marian Storm, Nuttall expressed her pure joy at the event: “It is strange to have archaeology produce such lively offspring! You can imagine how happy it has made me to have extracted from the grave of the past a germ so vital and lively that it will set children dancing and singing and observing the sun every year.” For Nuttall, archaeology wasn’t just exploring a foreign culture—it was also about deepening and awakening her own.

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