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From the magazine:
Mexico in the New Millennium  

in the New Millennium

The Castillo at Tulum , Quintana Roo, once a vital way station in the obsidian trade, offers splendid views of the Caribbean. (© Justin Kerr )
For more than 4,000 years, the cultures of ancient Mexico--the Olmec, the Maya, the Aztec, and the builders of Teotihuacan--flourished, founding empires and excelling in astronomy and the arts. Today, their legacy survives in countless architectural masterpieces that dot the Mexican landscape, sheer paradise for the adventure traveler. 
ARCHAEOLOGY spoke with Alejandro Martinez Muriel, national coordinator for archaeology of Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), about his country's archaeological treasures and what they hold for both the scholar and first-time visitor.

"INAH is headquartered in what was once the residence of the Mayorazgo de Guerrero," he says, ushering us into his spacious, light-filled office, cluttered with books, magazines, photographs, and artifacts. INAH is located near the Zocalo, Mexico City's Historic Center, just a few blocks from the excavated remains of the Templo Mayor, the holiest shrine of ancient Tenochtitlan. Capital of the Aztec Empire, which flourished from the early fourteenth century until the arrival of the Spanish in 1521, Tenochtitlan had been built on a series of islands, literally a New World Venice, complete with canals, temples, palaces, and gardens. 

An eighth-century tablet from Yaxchilán
Justin Kerr )
"Mexico's archaeological heritage is incredibly rich," says Martinez. "We have recorded some 300,000 sites of varying size and importance, but you must realize, these represent only 15 to 20 percent of the remains we have. Needless to say, managing what has been excavated is a great responsibility. Our archaeological heritage is a national priority. In fact it is a patriotic symbol and, as such, is strongly protected."

A figurine from the Templo Mayor
Justin Kerr )

When asked about advances in Mexican archaeology, with absolutely no hesitation he replied that of all areas of research, the most impressive breakthroughs have been made in the field of Maya studies, especially in the decipherment of the hieroglyphs. The Maya flourished in the states of Chiapas, Yucatán, Campeche, Tabasco, and Quintana Roo from ca. 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1540.

New tombs have been found in the Pyramid of the Moon, which marks the north end of Teotihuacan's Street of the Dead. (Flavia Ciabattino)

"Even though the sixteenth-century bishop Diego de Landa had discribed the phonetic nature of the Maya hieroglyphs in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, it wasn't until the work of scholars such as the Russian linguist Yuri Knórosóv and Tatiana Proskouriakoff in the 1950s and 1960s that the first glyphs were understood--dates and place names mostly. We now have some 60 percent of the language deciphered, thanks to the recent efforts of such scholars as Peter Mathews, David Stuart, Simon Martin, and the late Linda Schele. The Maya, who wrote in ancient Chol and Yucatec, ancestral to languages still spoken in many Maya communities, left us a wealth of information on historical events. It is also clear from the glyphs that the Maya had poetry and played with their language, with puns and rhymes." 

Martinez is quick to note, however, that epigraphy is not the only area of Maya research to have seen major advances in recent years. "In the past decade we have learned much more about the settlement patterns of the Maya, how their towns and villages were distributed, their migration patterns, and demographics. For example, we now know that they began settling in the south and later migrated to the north. We have also been able to identify the type of agricultural systems they used, and have come to understand why they abandoned their cities, noting that recent analysis of pollen show that the Maya, especially those living on the Yucatán peninsula, suffered from years of drought that struck in the ninth and tenth centuries."

The Castillo and Observatory at Chichén Itzá (© Justin Kerr )
What are the most exciting projects currently underway in Mexico? "In 1992, we embarked on a major excavation, conservation, consolidation, and restoration campaign. Entitled 'Special Archaeological Projects,' this program focused on the Maya sites of Palenque , Chichén Itzá , Kohunlich, Calakmul , Toniná , Dizbilchaltún, and Dzibanché.

"We have made a number of very exciting discoveries. At Calakmul , for instance, we have found tombs and extremely rare bóvedas de medio cañón (half-cylinder-shaped arches), reminiscent of those found in Romanesque churches; more common pointed and corbelled arches are usually found in Maya sites. At Palenque in Chiapas, INAH worked with the University of Texas on the excavation of an altar with two lengthy inscriptions and a tomb with mural paintings of a very distinct style. Palenque is noted for its stone carvings and stucco, but not for paintings. We will be exploring this tomb this year."

"Other exciting discoveries include three tombs at Oxkantok, near Chetumal, Quintana Roo, and a royal tomb recently excavated in the main pyramid at Ek Balam (Black Tiger) near the town of Valladolid. At Toniná , Chiapas, a site mid-way between the highlands and the coast, archaeologists have discovered a building whose facade literally forms a codex, each side a page from a Maya book."

Palenque 's palace, built in the seventh century (Alejandro Martinez Muriel, courtesy INAH)

Martinez mentions ongoing work at Xcambó on the north coast of Yucatan, a Late Classic city that produced and exported salt to much of the Maya world. At Chichén Itzá , work continues in the oldest part of the site (Chichén Viejo) in the south. The latter will be open to the public in the near future.

He tells of a number of exciting projects underway in other parts of Mexico, citing enthusiastically, the investigations into the settlement patterns of the nomadic tribes that once inhabited the region of Sierra de San Francisco, in Baja California Sur, and their pinturas rupestres (cave paintings). "We have already been able to establish some dates and have even found their pigment mines. The paintings are truly extraordinary, depicting people and animals such as Cimarron sheep and deer. Some of the paintings are so high, that the Jesuit missionaries who settled in this area thought that they must have been painted by giants. There are almost 300 caves in all, and all have been registered." According to Martinez, Sergio Raul García, the recently named director of INAH, is anxious to promote further studies in this region.

A painted mural at Bonampak depicts a parade of dignitaries.
Justin Kerr )

"Another exciting find was uncovered just a few months ago, in the heart of the Zocalo, during excavations for a Governor's Mansion that was to go up across from the Templo Mayor. Archaeologists found a tightly sealed stone box that contained exceptionally well-preserved ceremonial headdresses, vest-type garments made from amate tree bark adorned with flowers and feathers, cotton textiles, figurines made of copal resin, and gourds." He also notes projects underway at Teotihuacan, an hour north of Mexico City. There, he says, archaeologists from the University of Arizona and INAH dug a series of tunnels through the central axes of the Pyramid of the Moon, discovering two tombs and a number of sacrificial offerings. 

"One of the fantastic things about Mexico," says Martinez, "is that amazing new discoveries are being made every day." Information (in Spanish) on INAH's ongoing projects is posted on their website at .  

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Yucatán · Mexicana · Cumbre Tajín

Thanks to Justin Kerr for the use of his photographs. For more of his work, see and .