Our Mission, History, and Method
The intellectual mission of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive and Research Project (MMARP) is to organize and transmit new knowledge about the history of religion and society in Mesoamerica, one of the seven cultural areas in the world where humans independently developed the urban form we recognize as the city. The Archive’s educational program takes as its inspiration and model the productive interdisciplinary work of the Templo Mayor Project in Mexico City guided by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, which illustrates the dynamic interactions between an imperial capital and its peripheries and how its ceremonial center functioned as the microcosm that organized and represented everything in the universe.
The Archive draws upon the disciplines of archaeology, art history, archaeoastronomy, history, anthropology, biology, cultural studies, and the History of Religions to interpret the empirical record of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, the colonial encounters between European, African, and Indigenous peoples, and current situations in contemporary Mesoamerican communities. The Archive utilizes an ensemble approach that focuses on the rich variety of Mesoamerica’s cultural expressions including sculpture, painting, architecture, pictorial manuscripts, ethnohistorical accounts, ritual practices, and mythic traditions among ancient, colonial, and contemporary peoples. It strives to promote and share the results of this interdisciplinary methodology with colleagues and new generations of students through publications, scholarly gatherings, public lectures, and teaching.
Under the direction of Davíd Carrasco and a distinguished group of advisors, the Archive convenes and supports seminars, conferences, and research projects focused on specific topics in Mesoamerican studies, such as the rise of urbanism, the history of religious expression, the role of ceremonial centers in imperial states, the performance of sacrifice and ritual violence, the iconographic language of ritual offerings, the interpretation of primary sources, and the processes of transculturation in colonial and contemporary communities.
The deeper story of the history and method of the Mesoamerican Archive begins with a claim, a frustration, and a concern. The claim was made by Charles H. Long, Carrasco’s teacher at the University of Chicago, who repeatedly said, “A university is a good conversation,” meaning that the organization of new knowledge depended on unending dialogues between researchers who asked fundamental questions of each other, such as: “What is religion?” “What is Mesoamerica?” “What is power?” “For what purposes do people use it?” and so forth. The frustration at the origin of the Mesoamerican Archive was felt by Carrasco after attending several meetings of the American Academy of Religion in the United States and the Congress of Americanists in Mexico, where, he noted, the good conversations were too fleeting, short, and in passing, and often little more than “stand up/give a twenty-minute talk/sit down/go off into a crowd.” Something better had to be done.
Around the same time, Mircea Eliade in a private conversation told Carrasco, now at the University of Colorado at Boulder, that he stayed up one night thinking about the need to bring Mesoamerican materials—the pictorial screenfold manuscripts, colonial accounts, archaeology, architecture, sculpture, poetry, and so on—into stronger dialogue with the academic discipline of the History of Religions. Eliade was concerned that unless a better method for research and synthesis was found, neither the History of Religions nor Mesoamerican Studies could reach their full potential. Carrasco was riveted by the insights of Long, Eliade, and Joseph Kitagawa that the study of Mesoamerican religions could yield significant, new insights, not only into the History of Religions, but into the history of religion and culture in the Americas.
Carrasco’s search for a different kind of conversation, one that would bring the Mesoamerican materials into dynamic exchange with the Chicago School of the History of Religions, had been quietly underway during the writing of his Ph.D. dissertation, “Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire.” For when he encountered the more than fifty primary sources (sculpture, poetry, ethnohistorical records, colonial texts, etc.) that transmitted what the great anthropologist H. B. Nicholson had called the “Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tollan Tale,” it was clear that at least two methods had to be employed to advance the study of Mesoamerican religions in the United States: One was a much more effective method for studying the religious dimensions of human experience as it was expressed in the documentary record, in which Carrasco, following the work of Long’s teacher, Joachim Wach, hoped to bring Religionswissenschaft (History of Religions) into Mesoamerican Studies. The second method was an intensive ensemble approach to the complex, puzzling, and often contradictory empirical record of Mesoamerican religions. When Carrasco spoke to Long, Eliade, Matos, and the archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni about the need for a different kind of conversation, three things became clear:
First, the only way to employ an effective ensemble approach was through the direct participation of a group of scholars representing different disciplines who also wanted to learn something of the methods and results of scholars in other disciplines. The Archive would have to form a group that included historians of religions, archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, art historians, archaeoastronomers, ethnohistorians, philosophers, biologists, and other specialists. Aveni urged that we follow this scientific group approach, and Carrasco agreed. At the University of Chicago, Carrasco also had been mentored by the distinguished urban ecologist Paul Wheatley, whose comparative analysis of the rise of cities as ceremonial centers had provided Mesoamericanists with a rich, new perspective to study social stratification and cosmology. Wheatley encouraged the formation of a new center of study and participated in several events and publications.
Secondly, and this was where Carrasco felt he could make the most direct contribution to the scientific team, the studies accumulating through the influence of the Chicago School of the History of Religions on sacred space, sacred time, the sociology of religion, rites of passage, myth, and ritual had to be brought more forcefully into the dialogues. Carrasco was greatly impressed with Eliade’s claim about the importance of knowing the religious dimensions of non-Western empirical evidence. In a chapter entitled “The Problem” in his Myth of the Eternal Return (1954), Eliade wrote about the so-called “primitive” and the ancient cultures of Asia, Europe, and America:
“Obviously, the metaphysical concepts of the archaic world were not always formulated in theoretical language; but the symbol, the myth, the rite, express, on different planes and through the means proper to them, a complex system of coherent affirmations about the ultimate reality of things, a system that can be regarded as constituting a metaphysics” (3).
With these notions in mind Carrasco sat down to talk with Matos about a new teamwork approach involving scholars and students from the various fields of Mesoamerican Studies. It became clear that a third move was needed to develop in the United States a new kind of conversation. It was decided that Mexican scholars associated with the Templo Mayor Project and Teotihuacan would be given some pride of place because their training, fieldwork, and writing were yielding new knowledge about the history of religions in Mesoamerica.
Although these ideas, notions, and moves gradually took shape between 1978 and 1984, the year that the Archive was officially established with the help of the Moses family, a conference held in 1979 at the University of Colorado effectively launched these efforts as a lived intellectual experience and a good conversation, in which two other individuals—art historian John D. Hoag and archaeologist Pedro Armillas—played key roles.
John D. Hoag, who had taught at the University of Colorado since 1965, had supported all of Carrasco’s efforts to initiate a new conversation on Mesoamerica in Boulder. The depth of Hoag’s knowledge of Mesoamerican art, architecture, ritual, history, and scholarship astonished leaders in the field such as H. B. Nicholson and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. Hoag gave lectures, hosted receptions, and opened his home and library to visiting Mesoamericanists during the fifteen years that the Archive resided in Colorado.
During his graduate years at the University of Chicago, Carrasco also studied with the historian Frederick Katz who introduced him to Pedro Armillas.The great Spanish archaeologist’s work at Xochicalco, Teotihuacan, and a host of other Mesoamerican sites had led the anthropologist Eric Wolf to dedicate one of his books: “To Pedro Armillas, who led the way.” Armillas took Carrasco under his wing and began to tutor him in the history of Mexican archaeology while at the same time embracing his interest in putting together a group of scholars who could actualize the ensemble approach. It was Armillas who then introduced Carrasco to Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. Armillas was enthusiastic about the possibility of a conference at the University of Colorado on the new discoveries of the Templo Mayor. When news of Armillas’s acceptance of Carrasco’s invitation to participate in the conference reached Mexico, it caused a sensation among the Mexican participants who hurried to join the conference.
Readers of this website can see elsewhere the lists of subsequent conferences and publications that grew out of the Archive’s innovative method, but two specific events that represent the way the Chicago School of the History of Religions and Mesoamerican Studies came together in a new conversation deserve special mention:
As word of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive’s conference, lectures, and publications spread through the United States, Mexico, Europe, and Japan, various people approached Carrasco about the possibility of staging a major exhibition at the Denver Museum of Natural History. After several years of conferences, negotiations, and input from the Mesoamerican Archive scholars, an extraordinary, five-month “Aztec: The World of Moctezuma” exhibition, which ultimately drew in nearly 800,000 visitors, was mounted through intensive cooperation with Mexican archaeologists, museologists, and translators in the fall of 1992 and winter of 1993. The design, content, and lectures of the exhibition reflected the three-part Archive method that integrated the History of Religions and Mexican leadership into the ensemble approach.
Soon after this highly successful international collaboration between the Mesoamerican Archive, the Templo Mayor Museum, and the Denver Museum of Natural History, the Oxford University Press invited Carrasco to serve as editor in chief for a new multi-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Carrasco, with the invaluable assistance of Scott Sessions who served as development editor of the encyclopedia, integrated many members of the Archive working group into the editorial and advisory board that included Anthony Aveni, Elizabeth H. Boone, William Fash, Linda Manzanilla, William B. Taylor, John K. Chance, Doris Heyden, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, H. B. Nicholson, Wendy Ashmore, William Bright, Pedro Carrasco, Nancy Farriss, David C. Grove, Miguel León-Portilla, Andrés Lira González, Alfredo López Austin, Leonardo Manrique Castañeda, Álvaro Matute Aguirre, Dominique Michelet, Mary Miller, John Monaghan, Karl Taube, Evon Z. Vogt, Jr., and Gordon R. Willey. This critically-acclaimed reference work presenting articles from more than 250 scholars in eleven countries provided readers with a fresh, sometimes radically new look at the cultural, religious, and political dimensions of Mesoamerican history in the pre-Hispanic, colonial, and modern eras. It also included, unlike many previous major research publications, a significant percentage of Mexican authors who were experts in the field.
These two productions alone—“Aztec: The World of Moctezuma” and the Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures—are witness to the creativity and productivity of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive’s ensemble approach designed to illuminate the pervasive role of religion, cosmovision, and cultural change in Mesoamerica from pre-history to the present. The first extended the good conversation to a wider public, including scores of schools, thousands of tourists, and scores of thousands of Colorado residents. The second, as revealed by its prestigious honors and awards, has extended the Archive’s good conversation for decades to come among scholars, students, and serious readers.
Obviously, the Archive’s style has also benefited from other Mesoamerican meetings and organizations, yet a special chemistry between scholars and a fresh lens of interpretation developed which resulted in more than interdisciplinary research and the dissemination of knowledge. In dealing with the material forms and ideational expressions of Mesoamerican culture, our History of Religions/Mexican-oriented ensemble approach placed a new kind of pressure on the epistemological structure of thought itself. We gave new status to the power of cosmomagical patterns and the work of regeneration through ritual in ceremonial centers so that the social and political relationships we examined would never lose the shadows of their origins.