9: Sharing History

Oaxaca, Mexico
L. Nicholas
Television Interview

In previous dispatches from this season and others, I’ve spoken of the process of securing permissions for conducting archaeological research in Mexico. That process for domestic and foreign research begins with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH, The National Institute of Anthropology and History).

By Mexican Federal Law, as I understand it, all archaeological resources are under the purview of this Institute. In contrast to the United States, where private property tends to reign supreme, archaeological remains, like mineral resources, by law belong to Federal authorities, even when on private property.

Linda and I began our research careers in the Valley of Oaxaca as part of a regional survey project in 1977 (Gary) and 1980 (Gary, Linda). Under the direction of Professors Richard Blanton and Stephen Kowalewski, these projects involved the systematic walk-over of the entire region (the second largest highland valley in Mexico), recording and mapping archaeological sites from surface remains.

Of course, permission for these regional studies always began with INAH, but we always took the key and necessary step of also getting local permissions for the survey or walk. That process may sound straightforward, but it wasn’t. In fact, it took a great deal of time, effort, and diplomacy—in part because there are so many municipios (municipalities) in the Valley of Oaxaca, and at each of these local communities, permission to walk the land had to be negotiated.

Although the Valley of Oaxaca has close to 100 municipios, there is a smaller jurisdictional unit as well, the agencia. Agencias are dependencies of larger municipios, and at the time that we conducted the regional surveys (decades ago), we tended not to visit every agencia, as the word of the municipal president or mayor carried forth throughout his larger jurisdiction (there were no women municipal presidents at that time).

Even with INAH’s federal permission in hand, it’s understandable why gaining permission to walk over or excavate on someone’s land has never been easy, either 40 years ago or today. After all, can you imagine somebody from afar trying to cross private property in many parts of the United States? But, mirroring trends across the world, the push toward local authority (think of the break-up of the Soviet Union and many of the countries of Eastern Europe) has made some aspects of this process more complicated today than it was decades past. Today, agencias in Oaxaca are more likely to assert their autonomy, and even the federal purview of INAH has at times been challenged in different parts of the country.

Given these fundamental realities, Linda and I believe that it's both good politics and, more importantly, proper citizenship for us to share our findings with the local populace through as many different media and mechanisms as possible (above image and Photo #1 below.) We’re here to address historical and scientific questions concerning the past and its processes, but our time also is heavily invested, and we think appropriately so, in trying to frame what we learn so that it can be understood and absorbed by as many different local publics as possible.

We have been and are currently privileged to study the history of this key region, and that privilege carries the obligation to share what we learn in a responsible and digestible manner with those who are the descendants of the historical tradition.

More soon,

© L. Nicholas
Radio Interview
© L. Nicholas
2011 Crew