Archeology has been primarily a “men’s” field since its creation around five centuries ago. That is slowly changing. Currently, among the archeological workers of peer groups of 20s and 30s year olds, about 50% of them are women. But in the 19th century, when archeology began to follow procedures that would enable it to become a science, the vast majority of people in the trenches, in the labs, in the colleges and universities, and in the museums were men. But even during those formative decades, a woman with an excellent education and family funding could make a name for herself in the field.
Zelia Nuttall was born on September 6, 1857 to a white father and a Mexican-American mother in San Francisco. Nuttall’s father was a respected physician who made a good living. Her mother, Magdalena Parrott, was a woman of education and independent means. She gifted her daughter with a copy of Edward King, Viscount of Kingsborough’s 9-volume work The Antiquities of Mexico. While his work was of dubious academic value, it stirred interest in young Nuttall.
Nuttall’s family moved to Europe owing to her father’s health when she was around 8 years old. While in Europe, Nuttall was able to take advantage of educational opportunities in France, Germany, Italy, and England. She attended Bedford College, London, the first women’s college in in England. Through her education and living in multiple countries, Nuttall was fluent in four or five languages and was also self-taught in Aztec.
In 1880, at the age of 23, Nuttall married Alphonse Louis Pinart, who was also interested in studying past cultures. The couple’s shared cultural interests drew them to a combination honeymoon and scholarly expedition to the West Indies, France, Spain, and Mexico. However, Nuttall returned to San Francisco and gave birth to their only child, Nadine, in 1882. By 1884 the couple separated and were divorced in 1888. Unusually for her day, Nuttall reclaimed her maiden name, gave it to her daughter, and got sole custody of the child.
During her marital separation, Nuttall traveled with her mother, brother, and daughter to Mexico in 1884. There she began her lifework as an archeologist with the finds and study of small terra-cotta heads from Teotihuacan. Her first scholarly publication, in 1886, focused on those heads, and her detail and clarity proved her value to the field. That year, Frederic Ward Putnam, curator of the Peabody Museum of Harvard, made Nuttall a Special Assistant in Mexican Archeology and helped her get into the Archaeological Institute of America. A few years later, she was inducted into the American Philosophical Society.
While she could and did go into the field, Nuttall specialized in archival work, looking into collected materials that few had an ability for or interest in studying. Repeatedly she rediscovered notes and documents and brought them to the attention of her colleagues through her more than 40 articles. She also promoted the work of anthropologists, who were beginning to study indigenous peoples, often tying their discoveries into the artifacts she wrote about. For example, she rediscovered the Drake Manuscripts, which recorded trials conducted by Spanish explorers against native “witches” and revealed a dark truth about the European conquests.
Her most famous rediscovery was the Codex Zouche-Nuttall in 1902. This was a screenfold book on deer hide that told two stories, one of the life, feats, and family of the Mixtec ruler, Eight Deer Jaguar-Claw; and the other tracing the history of important Mixtec sites. Nuttall not only found the artifact but also documented its chain of ownership and had a copy created of it to help preserve it while allowing it to be showcased.
Probably her most influential scholarly work was her 1901 study, “The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations.” She had noticed that the swastika symbol in various cultures around Mexico was connected to the region’s wide interest in astrology. She extended her search into Central and South America and found the symbol throughout those lands. Then she turned to ancient civilizations around the world and documented several similar if not identical symbols. Today we would rightly challenge some of her statements, but at the time it helped fuel interest in the study of native cultures in the Americas.
Nuttall not only studied the Mexican cultures of the past but also helped the people in the area. She bought a house in 1902 on the outskirts of Mexico City. There she hosted students of Mexican culture, whether they were archeologists or anthropologists, who were interested in both native and colonial cultures. Nuttall helped create the International School of American Archeology and Anthropology in Mexico.
While it may seem like Nuttall had it easy, her sex was used as a reason to offer her less funding at various points in her life. Similarly, her ventures into the field were directly challenged by lack of funding or even the requirement of male supervision, even if the man in question had far fewer qualifications. In 1909, Nuttall made a major discovery on the Island of Sacrificios, but the Mexico government insisted she required male oversight in the person of Salvador Batres, a known artifact thief. Nuttall refused, and Batres tried to claim her finds as his own. She roundly defended herself from this attempt via an article in the American Anthropologist that destroyed his standing academically.
Even after her death on April 12, 1933, Nuttall’s work continues to inspire a new understanding of the indigenous people of the Mesoamerican world.