Zelia Nuttall

Birth: 1858


Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall (6 September 1857, San Francisco - 12 April 1933, Coyoacan, Mexico) was an American archaeologist and anthropologist specialised in pre-Aztec Mexican cultures and pre-Columbian manuscripts. She discovered two forgotten manuscripts of this type in private collections, one of them being the Codex Zouche-Nuttall. She was one of the first to identify and recognize artifacts dating back to the pre-Aztec period.

Nuttall was born in San Francisco in 1857 to Irish father Dr. Robert Kennedy Nuttall and Mexican-American mother Magdalena Parrott. She married the French anthropologist Alphonse Louis Pinart in 1880 and had a child, but they divorced in 1888. She was educated in France, Germany, and Italy, and at Bedford College, London. During Nuttall's first trip to Mexico in 1884 with her family, she worked for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City as an Honorary Professor of Archaeology.

While visiting Teotihuacan that year, she collected terracotta heads from San Juan Teotihuacan. The pieces had been studied before but they had not been properly dated or understood. This was the foundation of the publication which would lead her into prominence, the "Terra Cotta Heads of Teotihuacan" for the American Journal of Archaeology (1886). Because of the success of this article, she was appointed Special Assistant of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard.

Frederic Putnam, leading American anthropologist and curator of Peabody from 1875 to 1909, and German-American anthropologist Franz Boas saw her as an excellent mediator between Americanist circles in different countries because of her education and cosmopolitan relations. In his 1886 annual report for the museum, Putnam praised Nuttall as "familiar with the Nahuatl language, having intimate and influential friends among the Mexicans, and with an exceptional talent for linguistics and archaeology." Her family background made of her a particularly ideal partner for relations with Mexico. This would play an important role in the creation of the institution of international cooperation Escuela Internacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia Americana.

From 1886 to 1899 she followed her family to Europe and lived mainly in Dresden. In 1902 she moved to Mexico City in an eighteenth-century house called Quinta Rosalia, which was her main residence until her death. Her home, which she renamed Casa de Alvarado, became a meeting place for foreign Americanists, scientists and intellectuals. The large land she owned allowed her to develop her passion for gardening. She studied Mexican garden art, medicinal herbs, and undertook a collection of unknown local seeds in the United States, which she intended to introduce. She also participated in the introduction of taro cultivation in the state of Orizaba.

Nuttall had seen many archaeological artifacts in museums and visited several sites, but it was in 1910 that she made, with the agreement of the Mexican authorities, her first important excavations on Isla de Sacrificios, where she discovered the ruins of a site of human sacrifice. During this expedition, her supervisor, Salvador Batres, claimed the discovery himself. She resigned from her position at the National Museum of Anthropology and wrote "The Island of Sacrificios", published in 1910 in American Anthropologist. It was a detailed account of the site's discovery and excavation which prompted the Mexican government to have Batres replaced.

Nuttal was a member of several academic institutions, including the Harvard Peabody Museum and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and she carried out most of her activities without pay and on a fee-for-service basis. She did, however, have some patrons, including Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Hearst, founder of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, to which Nuttall donated many pieces.

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