Christina Bueno. The Pursuit of Ruins: Archaeology, History, and the Making of Modern Mexico. 280pp., 23 illus., 3 maps, notes, bibl., index. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2016. $95 (cloth), $29.95 (paper), $29.95 (eBook)

Christina Bueno’s The Pursuit of Ruins provides an engaging and comprehensive account of the development of archaeology as a national, modernizing project in Porfirian (late nineteenth and early twentieth century) Mexico. The volume is well-researched, extremely readable, and resonates well with much of the scholarship on the history of archaeology that has emerged in recent years. I recommend it as an introduction not only to the history of archaeology and “the past” in Mexico, but also as a useful comparative work for scholarship on the history of archaeology elsewhere in the world, which often seems to ignore the discipline’s development outside of Euro-America, the Mediterranean, and South Asia.[1] As Bueno notes, debate about whether Latin American countries “are postcolonial nations” is ongoing (8). The Pursuit of Ruins reveals the merits of a postcolonial perspective in the Mexican case.

The book comprises an introduction, epilogue, and eight chapters, each of which addresses a different thematic aspect of the use and practice of archaeology and history in Mexico under the modernizing and centralizing presidency of Porfirio Díaz. Central to many of these chapters is a nuanced discussion of the archaeologist Leopoldo Batres, who held the position of Mexico’s inspector of monuments for a quarter of a century (75), and who exercised considerable—and often unwelcome—power over the development of the Mexican past as a result. By engaging with Batres’s entanglement with Mexico’s history thematically, Bueno avoids placing too acute an emphasis on one person’s agency. This move not only makes a welcome difference to much traditional work in the history of archaeology. It also allows Bueno to discuss the variety of actors—human and non-human—who helped to make archaeology part of the Porfirian project.

That project ultimately sought to construct a particular type of pre-Hispanic Mexican past. In what was becoming a familiar story around the globe, under Porfirio Díaz, Mexico not only attempted to make state patrimony through legal and material action. The country also undertook this project “on the backs of people [Indians] who were considered a degraded reflection of their glorious ancestors” (13). As Bueno notes, Mexican elites “were grappling with a problem […] of forging an ‘authentic’ national past in a Western-dominated world, a world whose racial hierarchies and cultural standards Mexican leaders had not only imbibed but would reinforce” (44). Structural violence, as ever, seemed to be the result of this process, which itself provided “a means to challenge the Western values that the elites ironically had absorbed” (44).

Of course, this sort of analysis risks the production of a simplistic dichotomy between Mexico and “the West.” Bueno, however, makes clear the complexities of how Mexican patrimony was made, illustrating how a group of actors helped to circulate and materialize ideas about the Mexican past. From collectors and museum curators interested in ancient artifacts, to the middlemen (and women) who assisted them and the local communities living and laboring at what became archaeological “sites,” and from the train tracks that had to be built to access these places to the vegetation that grew around them, Bueno’s monograph demonstrates the nuances of how the Mexican past took shape. In this sense in particular, The Pursuit of Ruins makes a clear contribution to current work in the history of science that seeks to understand how knowledge has come into being across, and helped to make ideas of, the globe and its constituent parts.[2] The volume should therefore be usefully read as such.

I do have one concern with The Pursuit of Ruins. But it is also a concern that relates to much of the literature on the history of archaeology more widely. Even as this literature has become increasingly critical and nuanced, much of this work has had a tendency to reproduce the categories and value-judgments made by archaeologists both now and in the past; as, sometimes, does The Pursuit of Ruins.[3] This characteristic does not sit well with attempts to address the archaeological discipline as a phenomenon both in, and constitutive of, society at large. For instance, Bueno occasionally makes statements along the lines of “archaeology was a science in formation. It lacked the consistent, reproducible methods that we associate with any given science today” (25), “archaeological data is not open to endless interpretation” (64), and, commenting on the work of Leopoldo Batres, “rigor was never his strong suit” (78). Rigor may well not have been Batres’s strong suit. But to stress this point is to reproduce strategic—and obviously self-aggrandizing—criticisms made both by his contemporaries and by archaeologists working in Mexico today. Moreover, to talk about the lack of “consistent, reproducible methods” in archaeology is to reproduce a narrative of scientific progress that has not only been similarly strategic, but also thoroughly debunked by work in the history and sociology of science.

Towards the end of the volume, Bueno notes the importance of understanding how archaeological critiques relate to the historical context in which they were made; she also makes clear that such critiques have often been character assassinations (208). Elsewhere, she states that words like antiquity and artefact “are not neutral terms” (11). But Bueno does not escape the tension concerning how historical writing about a discipline like archaeology should proceed when much of the work that this writing currently depends upon is—at best—asymmetrical in purpose. Nor, perhaps, did she write this excellent volume with the intent of grappling with the historiography in this way, especially as the book explicitly “does not pretend to be an intellectual or institutional history of archaeology” (10). Future work, however, might do well to reflect on an issue that continues to surface (at least in this reviewer’s mind) all too regularly. In the meantime, The Pursuit of Ruins comes highly recommended.

[1] Margarita Díaz-Andreu’s A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) offers a notable corrective to this issue, which is of course anecdotal. As an editor of the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, however, it is my impression that the majority of submissions we receive relate to these parts of the world.

[2] See, for example, the “Focus” section on “Global Histories of Science” in Isis 101, no. 1 (2010), 95–158.

[3] One recent example of this phenomenon would be Jason Thompson’s Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology 1: From Antiquity to 1881 (Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2015). A lack of critical engagement with institutional practices of archiving makes achieving a change in this situation more difficult, as Christina Riggs demonstrates in “Photography and Antiquity in the Archive, or How Howard Carter Moved the Road to the Valley of the Kings,” History of Photography 40, no. 3 (2016), 267–282.

Authors
William Carruthers: contributions / carruthers@ghil.ac.uk / German Historical Institute London