Is National Patrimony Important? by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma



[0:00:00] It is important to consider national patrimony, for example, in the case of Mexico because it is part of Mexico’s own history. This is to say, all of the cultures that were here before the arrival of the Spaniards are part of our history, of our past. Therefore, the mandate of [national patrimony law] is precisely related to our own history: to protect the objects and materials produced by the cultures of the past in Mexico, which are considered our roots, our historical antecedents. From this perspective, there is such strong protection of archaeological materials because they constitute such a significant part of the history of the country.

This is why their protection, their defense, their historical diffusion [promulgation], their study, are considered so important: so that people become familiar with them and respect them such that they can continue to provide rich information for the understanding of our past.

Mexican Law

[01:35:00] In Mexico, the law is very clear with respect to archaeological objects, which is to say, Precolumbian objects are considered national patrimony [those objects discovered since the passage of the law]: they cannot be sold, moved, or damaged because they are national property. Therefore, the sale of any archaeological object would be covered by this law and would be considered an illicit act. The law is very harsh regarding archaeological destruction or the sale of archaeological objects. The law says that anyone who destroys, transports, or sells archaeological material is subject to a one to ten-year prison term.

Only the National Anthropological Institute (INAH)—or other national or foreign institutions that receive its permission—can carry out archaeological excavations in Mexico. Beyond this, people who have archaeological material in their possession—in their home—must register it with the INAH. If they fail to do so, it is illegal to keep the material. The law, in general, vigorously protects the archaeological monuments which are considered national property.

Types of Theft

[03:47:00] Well, it’s very well known that in 1985 there was a robbery at the National Museum of Anthropology. More than one hundred archaeological pieces were stolen from four rooms of this museum. The police immediately investigated and years later were able to recover all of the items. The robbers are still in jail—still imprisoned for their crime.

There is another type of robbery: the plundering of archaeological sites that are remote or in the jungle, that are not very well guarded. These are also the object of sacking by organized groups. This is also highly punishable, as I have mentioned, because going to an archaeological site to obtain objects and sell them is considered a destruction of national patrimony. On occasion, the authorities have been able to detain people who were carrying pieces stolen from some archaeological site, and they have arrested them, recovered the pieces, and applied the law to them as well.

As one can see, private property in terms of archaeological objects, in essence, doesn’t exist because they’re considered objects of national patrimony. From this perspective, any robbery in a museum, any robbery in an archaeological zone, any attempt to remove archaeological objects from the country is a criminal act punishable by law.

Return of Cultural Patrimony within Mexico?

[06:02:00] In Mexico, there are currently fifty-six indigenous groups, but, in general, the circumstance of them asking for the return of archaeological materials of their ancestors has not presented itself. This situation hasn’t arisen. I have been able to speak with some indigenous peoples, and they are very proud to see their ancestry in museums and to see that the whole world can view these pieces there—that everyone can visit and see that their ancestry had great civilizations, great cities—that they created magnificent objects. What I see is that they are proud that, through the museums, people can come to know these materials.

Mexican Museums

[07:06:00] Mexico has an enormous archaeological and museographic stock. We all know that the National Museum of Anthropology won international awards when it was built. This is to say that there is a very strong tradition regarding museums, and they continue to open new museums—some large, some small—all of which give some sense of the cultures of the region where these museums are situated.

Many archaeological sites have been excavated, and consequently many new museums—such as the Museum of the Templo Mayor, as I mentioned earlier—have been opened. They opened a museum in Casas Grandes, the Museum of Northern Cultures. Also near the city of Merida in Yucatan, the Museum of the Maya People was opened. In this way, many new museums were opened far and wide across the country.

When I began to study in ’59 and the ’60s, ideas circulated which have now been corroborated or discarded. For example, in the ’60s, the work that the University of Rochester [New York] did at Teotihuacan was very important. It greatly extended for us the panorama of this city. Later, new currents were entering the field of archaeology. Something called the “new archaeology” developed, but these ideas passed quickly. Actually, I think we are now in a moment of transition in which many ideas have changed and in which we have come to know certain societies much better. Think of the Maya, for example: a great advance has been to be able to read Mayan writing on the stelae and the monuments. This has been a strong step forward in the knowledge of the Maya culture.

My History

[9:20:00] Before entering the university to study archaeology, I had doubts about what to study. I didn’t know if I would study architecture or some other discipline. But one day a book called Gods, Tombs, and Sages fell in my hands. It’s a book originally written in English, and it deals with archaeology in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica. In short, it deals with various examples. I became impassioned by the part on Egypt. I read a great deal, and I especially enjoyed the ancient history of Egypt, of the pharaohs, etc. This inclined me toward the study of archaeology, so I entered the School of Archaeology in 1959 and graduated in 1965. I’ve worked in great ancient cities such as Teotihuacan, Cholula, Tenochtitlan, Tula and other sites. I have specialized in urban archaeology—let’s say, of the great ancient cities.

Perhaps the most important work is that which we are conducting here at the Templo Mayor—in the principal temple of the Aztecs, where we’ve been excavating for five years, and about which my colleagues and I have published much work concerning what we found. And these findings have been disseminated so that it is well known what was encountered here. Since it was inaugurated in 1987, the actual museum—along with the archaeological zone—has been visited by more than seven million people. These findings had very large repercussions. I, myself, have been asked to give conferences in many parts of the world regarding these discoveries. I have been to diverse universities—the University of Colorado at Boulder awarded me an honorary doctorate in science for work on the Templo Mayor. In Paris, I was granted a number of academic recognitions. Finally, this work with my collaborators had a very large, strong repercussion, and I think the [promulgation of this work] is why the museum and the archaeological site are visited by so many people.