National Museum of Anthropology

Living and managing archaeological sites in a historic urban landscape: Mexico City

“Let’s start from a statement speaking about the city of the ancient Mexicans: Mexico-Tenochtitlán has been and still is the root of all that has happened in this enormous metropolis, it is the substratum of the nation’s capital.”

“Vamos a partir de una afirmación al hablar de la ciudad de los antiguos mexicanos: México-Tenochtitlán ha sido y es la raíz de todo lo que ha acontecido en esta enorme metrópolis, es el sustrato de la capital del país.”

– Miguel León Portilla (2001).

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Sacred Square of Tenochtitlan, at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

 

Mexico City is the capital of the United Mexican States (official name of Mexico) and the fourth most populated city in the world with 21 million inhabitants, according to the recent United Nations revision on World Urbanization Prospects (UN 2014), just after Tokyo, Delhi, and Shanghai. Its historical background is vast and currently visible as an expression of continuity of human occupation through time and accumulation of cultural layers by landscape transformation, where its World Heritage value lies.

Founded in AD 1325, taken and afterwards destroyed by the Spanish army during the conquest in AD 1521, the pre-Hispanic city (‘cities’) of Mexico-Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco located in central Mexico was once the capital of the Mexica Empire. Today, for those who live in or visit Mexico City it is difficult to imagine, or be aware, that below the streets and colonial buildings of the Historic Centre, a city on an island, in the middle of a lake, connected to the mainland and surrounding settlements by straight causeways, existed just a few centuries ago. Since the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan until modern Mexico City today, the human occupation in the urban area has been permanent and constantly growing.

Diego Rivera's mural of the everyday life in Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco (National Palace).

Diego Rivera’s mural of the everyday life in Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco (National Palace).

I live in Mexico City, more specifically in the Historic Centre, which was declared Historical Monuments Zone by the federal government in 1980, and inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1987, alongside with the southern lakeside colonial town of Xochimilco, as one of the world’s outstanding urban landscapes, which illustrates the historic transformation of the environment and the great periods in the history of the Mexican capital. The actual boundaries of the World Heritage Property follows the boundaries of the Historical Monuments Zones, according to the limits of the city in the 19th century (perimeter A), and a buffer zone (perimeter B, where I actually live).

Wider perspective to see the dimension of the urban area of Mexico City with the Historic Centre boundaries.

Wider perspective to see the dimension of the urban area of Mexico City with the Historic Centre boundaries.

Mexico City's Historic Centre boundaries. Perimeter A (red) and Perimeter B (blue). The main archaeological sites are indicated.

Mexico City’s Historic Centre boundaries. Perimeter A (red) and Perimeter B (blue). The main archaeological sites are indicated.

Not only I live in the historic centre, but also I work in the area, in the back of the Metropolitan Cathedral (the biggest in America), next to the Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone. I’m currently working at the Sites Operation Department of the National Coordination of Archaeology, within the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which is the government body responsible of the preservation, conservation, communication and research of the cultural heritage in Mexico. On this matter, it is important to clarify that the cultural heritage in Mexico is regulated by federal law, and this means also the conceptual definition of that heritage, which is identified as artistic (20th century), historical (1521 until 19th century), and archaeological (before 1521, the year of the fallen of the pre-Hispanic city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, by the Spanish army).

Bearing in mind those cultural heritage specifications, on my daily basis at the Sites Operation Department as the planning and management in chief, alongside with my colleagues, I look forward to the management of the archaeological heritage, specifically of the 187 archaeological sites officially opened to the public in the country. This is a really impressive number, if we consider that the INAH is the only institution responsible of the archaeology in the whole country, and that in total there’s an estimate of about 45,000 registered archaeological sites. But, my job is not only directed to these 187 sites, also to the 130 archaeological sites with some kind of visit, even though they are not officially opened to the public. The Sites Operation Department have the responsibility to look for the management, protection, regulation, infrastructure development, and operation and logistics of the sites organisation of personal and resources. It is the archaeological heritage, before 1521, the cultural resource that my department is responsible of.

The pre-Hispanic archaeological remains of Mexico-Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco have been identified and excavated in particular areas within the Historic Centre of Mexico City, from the first findings in 1790 of the ‘Coatlicue’ and ‘Piedra del Sol’ monoliths during reformation works of the city’s main plaza (known as “Zócalo”), to the discovery of the ‘Coyolxauhqui’ monolith in 1978, from where the research and excavations of the Templo Mayor next to the Metropolitan Cathedral begun, consolidating the INAH’s Urban Archaeology Project (PAU), until today.

Coatlicue (left) and the Piedra del Sol or "Aztec Calendar" (right). Both monoliths were found in 1790 in the main square.

Coatlicue (left) and the Piedra del Sol or “Aztec Calendar” (right). Both monoliths were found in 1790 in the main square.

 

Coyoulxauqui monolith (1978).

Coyoulxauqui monolith (1978).

Archaeological research within urban contexts was a new approach in the first half of the 20th century, when the Mexican administration was keen on the research directed to the study and reconstruction of the most prominent and monumental archaeological sites around the country (e.g. Teotihuacan and Chichén Itzá). The constantly growing development and urbanization of Mexican cities brought a new concern with archaeological practice, reflected in the increasing implementation of archaeological strategies to rescue and preserve the archaeological heritage under threat of damage or destruction by the new urban developments, which was (and still is) more evident in Mexico City and the metropolitan area.

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone, north of the Historic Centre's boundaries.

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone, north of the Historic Centre’s boundaries.

Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone, in the southern part of the city, all surrounded by urban areas.

Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone, in the southern part of the city, all surrounded by urban areas.

Current research strategies to approach the archaeological heritage within urban areas in the last 25 years in Mexico City and other Mexican cities around the country have been determined by pressure of the constant use of spaces within the city. The archaeological activity is restricted in time and space, and precise and holistic strategies are needed and have to be improved, which sometimes are influenced by the political context.

Going to the office, I walk by every day next to archaeological remains integrated to the colonial buildings or modern urban spaces, which are the visible witnesses of the pre-Hispanic layer of the city, and are mostly un-recognized and misunderstood. Some examples of archaeological remains within the historic centre are the pre-Hispanic stone in Madero Avenue with an Aztec design called “Chalchihuitl”, a military shield; the snake head in a colonial building corner where the City Museum currently is; the temple of the god of wind, also known as the “Temple of Ehécatl” within one of the most crowded metro stations, Pino Suárez (discovered in 1968 during its construction); the Templo Mayor archaeological zone, and even Tlatelolco archaeological zone, further north the Historic Centre’s boundaries but part of the pre-Hispanic cultural landscape of the island-city of Tenochtitlán.

A stone with an Aztec design in a colonial building facade (Madero Avenue).

A stone with an Aztec design in a colonial building facade (Madero Avenue).

Snake head integrated to a colonial building corner (City Museum).

Snake head integrated to a colonial building corner (City Museum).

The temple of the god of wind, within Pino Suárez metro station.

The temple of the god of wind, within Pino Suárez metro station.

Because of this panorama my MA dissertation in UCL was related with the interpretation of the wider context, the historic urban landscape, in order to communicate to the public the relevance of understanding all these remains as part of a single environment, and not as isolated sites without cultural context. At my working department, we look for the development of a management system that considers this current context on the cultural heritage management in the city, trying to take advantage of the Historic Centre boundaries and work in a planning process in all management levels, world heritage, federal declaration, archaeological sites, the public, conservation, interpretation and communication. It is such a challenge, not only alongside the country, but also because the complexity of the city’s cultural layers. Working in the management plans of Templo Mayor and Tlatelolco, we can link both sites not only in a management level, which is regulated by the Institute (which is an advantage in the sense of coordination of resources, processes, and information), but also in the wider interpretation level, looking forward to a better preservation and understanding of the sites within a common cultural landscape.

Diego Rivera's mural of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. Tenochtitlán on the right, Tlatelolco on the left.

Diego Rivera’s mural of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. Tenochtitlán on the right, Tlatelolco on the left.

Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone (Tenochtitlán).

Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone (Tenochtitlán).

A model of Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone, where is possible to appreciate the context of the site within the main buildings of the Historic Centre (Templo Mayor Museum).

A model of Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone, where is possible to appreciate the context of the site within the main buildings of the Historic Centre (Templo Mayor Museum).

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone (also known as "The Three Cultures Square")

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone (also known as “The Three Cultures Square”)

Another perspective of Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone.

Another perspective of Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone.

Following the UNESCO’s historic urban landscape statement, the key to understanding and managing any historic urban environment is the recognition that the city is not a static monument or group of buildings, but subject to dynamic forces in the economic, social and cultural spheres that shaped it and keep shaping it. The archaeological heritage in Mexico City’s Historic Centre could be sources of social cohesion, awareness of the pre-Hispanic past, factors of diversity and drivers of creativity, innovation and urban regeneration.

Mexico City's main square, also known as "Zócalo", with the colosal flag, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace.

Mexico City’s main square, also known as “Zócalo”, with the colosal flag, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace.

Madero Avenue, which connect the main square with the west of the Historic Centre. The Latin American Tower in the background.

Madero Avenue, which connect the main square with the west of the Historic Centre. The Latin American Tower in the background.

Mexico City's skyline, with the volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl in the background.

Mexico City’s skyline, with the volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl in the background.

And, finally, I would like to share my personal project looking for a wider and friendly communication of the archaeological heritage in Mexico City, the country, and international context. I created CONARQUEmx, an outreach communication initiative which includes articles, photography, academic perspectives, and guided tours to the unknown and untold pre-Hispanic Mexico City.