Tales from Aztlantis

Episode 14: Rescuing the Tonalamatl Aubin

June 22, 2021 Kurly Tlapoyawa & Ruben Arellano Tlakatekatl Season 1 Episode 14
Tales from Aztlantis
Episode 14: Rescuing the Tonalamatl Aubin
Chapters
Tales from Aztlantis
Episode 14: Rescuing the Tonalamatl Aubin
Jun 22, 2021 Season 1 Episode 14
Kurly Tlapoyawa & Ruben Arellano Tlakatekatl

A couple of years back, I visited the British National Museum in London, England, with my wife. As we stood in front of the many Mesoamerican artifacts on display, objects that the hands of our ancestors had meticulously crafted, I was reminded of a scene from the Marvel film "Black Panther." If you have seen the movie, I'm sure you remember which scene I am referring to. In it, the character Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, played by Michael B Jordan, stands in front of African artifacts at the fictional "Museum of Great Britain."

The Museum Director soon approaches and offers to tell him where the artifacts had originated. After listening for a bit, Killmonger interjects and notes that the Fula tribe did not make a seventh-century war hammer in Benin. But rather "It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it's from Wakanda. And it's made out of Vibranium," he then adds "Don't trip—I'm gonna take it off your hands for you."

When the director retorts that the artifacts are not for sale, Killmonger responds: "How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?"

Soon, the curator has collapsed to the floor. Killmonger tells her that She should have paid more attention to what she was drinking than to the galleries' suspicious black man. He and his team, posing as EMTs, charge in, take out museum security, and escape with the artifact.

This scene caused an interesting discussion in the archaeological community and among museum professionals when the movie first came out. In an essay titled "Why museum professionals need to talk about Black Panther" Casey Haughin of John Hopkins wrote that Black Panther "presented the museum as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays."

Now, I'm not gonna lie, part of me wished that I had my own team of highly skilled Nawa operatives with me at the museum in London. And that we were there to pull off a carefully orchestrated heist, liberating the objects of our Mesoamerican cultural inheritance and returning them to the land of their birth. Unfortunately, such acts of daring cultural restitution are the stuff of pure fantasy. More at home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than in the real world.

 Or are they?

Your Hosts:

Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, ethnohistorian, and filmmaker. His research covers Mesoamerica, the American Southwest, and the historical connections between the two regions. He is the author of numerous books and has presented lectures at the University of New Mexico, Yale University, San Diego State University, and numerous others. He is currently a professor of Chicano Studies at the Colegio Chicano del Pueblo, a free online educational institution.
@kurlytlapoyawa

Ruben Arellano Tlakatekatl is a scholar, activist, and professor of history. His research explores Chicana/Chicano indigeneity, Mexican indigenist nationalism, and Coahuiltecan identity resurgence. Other areas of research include Aztlan (US Southwest), Anawak (Mesoamerica), and Native North America. He has presented and published widely on these topics and has taught courses at various institutions. He currently teaches history at Dallas College – Mountain View Campus.
@Tlakatekatl

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/hcarchy)

Show Notes Transcript

A couple of years back, I visited the British National Museum in London, England, with my wife. As we stood in front of the many Mesoamerican artifacts on display, objects that the hands of our ancestors had meticulously crafted, I was reminded of a scene from the Marvel film "Black Panther." If you have seen the movie, I'm sure you remember which scene I am referring to. In it, the character Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, played by Michael B Jordan, stands in front of African artifacts at the fictional "Museum of Great Britain."

The Museum Director soon approaches and offers to tell him where the artifacts had originated. After listening for a bit, Killmonger interjects and notes that the Fula tribe did not make a seventh-century war hammer in Benin. But rather "It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it's from Wakanda. And it's made out of Vibranium," he then adds "Don't trip—I'm gonna take it off your hands for you."

When the director retorts that the artifacts are not for sale, Killmonger responds: "How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?"

Soon, the curator has collapsed to the floor. Killmonger tells her that She should have paid more attention to what she was drinking than to the galleries' suspicious black man. He and his team, posing as EMTs, charge in, take out museum security, and escape with the artifact.

This scene caused an interesting discussion in the archaeological community and among museum professionals when the movie first came out. In an essay titled "Why museum professionals need to talk about Black Panther" Casey Haughin of John Hopkins wrote that Black Panther "presented the museum as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays."

Now, I'm not gonna lie, part of me wished that I had my own team of highly skilled Nawa operatives with me at the museum in London. And that we were there to pull off a carefully orchestrated heist, liberating the objects of our Mesoamerican cultural inheritance and returning them to the land of their birth. Unfortunately, such acts of daring cultural restitution are the stuff of pure fantasy. More at home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than in the real world.

 Or are they?

Your Hosts:

Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, ethnohistorian, and filmmaker. His research covers Mesoamerica, the American Southwest, and the historical connections between the two regions. He is the author of numerous books and has presented lectures at the University of New Mexico, Yale University, San Diego State University, and numerous others. He is currently a professor of Chicano Studies at the Colegio Chicano del Pueblo, a free online educational institution.
@kurlytlapoyawa

Ruben Arellano Tlakatekatl is a scholar, activist, and professor of history. His research explores Chicana/Chicano indigeneity, Mexican indigenist nationalism, and Coahuiltecan identity resurgence. Other areas of research include Aztlan (US Southwest), Anawak (Mesoamerica), and Native North America. He has presented and published widely on these topics and has taught courses at various institutions. He currently teaches history at Dallas College – Mountain View Campus.
@Tlakatekatl

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/hcarchy)

A couple of years back, I visited the British National Museum in London, England, with my wife. As we stood in front of the many Mesoamerican artifacts on display, objects that the hands of our ancestors had meticulously crafted, I was reminded of a scene from the Marvel film "Black Panther." If you have seen the movie, I'm sure you remember which scene I am referring to. In it, the character Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, played by Michael B Jordan, stands in front of African artifacts at the fictional "Museum of Great Britain."

The Museum Director soon approaches and offers to tell him where the artifacts had originated. After listening for a bit, Killmonger interjects and notes that the Fula tribe did not make a seventh-century war hammer in Benin. But rather "It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it's from Wakanda. And it's made out of Vibranium," he then adds "Don't trip—I'm gonna take it off your hands for you."

When the director retorts that the artifacts are not for sale, Killmonger responds: "How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?"

Soon, the curator has collapsed to the floor. Killmonger tells her that She should have paid more attention to what she was drinking than to the galleries' suspicious black man. He and his team, posing as EMTs, charge in, take out museum security, and escape with the artifact.

This scene caused an interesting discussion in the archaeological community and among museum professionals when the movie first came out. In an essay titled "Why museum professionals need to talk about Black Panther" Casey Haughin of John Hopkins wrote that Black Panther "presented the museum as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays."

Now, I'm not gonna lie, part of me wished that I had my own team of highly skilled Nawa operatives with me at the museum in London. And that we were there to pull off a carefully orchestrated heist, liberating the objects of our Mesoamerican cultural inheritance and returning them to the land of their birth. Unfortunately, such acts of daring cultural restitution are the stuff of pure fantasy. More at home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than in the real world.

Or are they?

 

Well, buckle those seatbelts dear listener. Because on today's episode, we delve into a little-known story I like to call

 

RESCUING THE TONALAMATL AUBIN

 

For this episode I will rely on multiple newspaper accounts, particularly the New York Times article "A STOLEN RELIC IS A PROBLEM FOR MEXICANS" published August 29th, 1982 and written by Alan Riding, along with information provided by the website "Mexicolore."

 

The tonalamatl aubin is a Nawa codex consisting of eighteen screen-folded pages. It is constructed from thirteen bark pieces that were pasted together, and is meant to be read from right to left. Its contents include the 260 symbols representing the tonalpohualli, or the count of days in the Mesoamerican timekeeping system. These symbols are broken down on each page into sets of 13 day signs now known as trecenas. Originally 20 pages long, the first two pages have been long lost to time. It is best described as a calendrical document of divination and appears to have originated in the Puebla-Tlaxcala region of Mexico. Experts believe that it was copied from an older, Pre-Kuauhtemok era document.

 

The Aubin first appears as a 'kalendario ydolatrico' or "Idolatrous Calendar" in the inventory of ancient Mexican manuscripts owned by the Italian aristocrat Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci. Boturini was sent to Mexico in 1736 to collect the 1,000 pesetas owed to Doña Manuela de oca Silva Moctezuma, a descendant of Moctezuma Xokoyotzin who sought to claim her overdue pension.

 

While in Mexico, Boturini amassed an impressive collection of rare and precious codices and manuscripts, including items from the collection of noted Nawa historian Alva Ixtlilxochitl. In his own words, Boturini described the value of his rapidly growing collection as "exceeding all the mines of gold and silver in the country."

 

However, due to his propensity for shady dealings, Boturini was arrested on January 31st, 1743, his precious collection confiscated, and an inventory made of its contents. Broke and penniless, Boturini was expelled back to Spain, only to have his ship attacked by pirates, who managed to steal his last few possessions.

 

The items in Boturini’s collection were soon dispersed across Europe, bought, sold, and traded among various collectors. According to the website Trafficking culture:

 

"at that point the codex passed into the hands of the local colonial government that sold the document. A portion of the codex (pages 9 through 20) seems to have been sold in or after 1802 from the estate of Mexican astronomer Antonio de León y Gama to two travelling artists: Carl Nebel and Jean-Frédéric Waldek. It is possible that Nebel purchased the codex then sold it on to Waldek. Waldek sold the codex to Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin in Paris in 1841. Aubin eventually obtained pages 3 through 8 of the codex, but it is unclear when and under what circumstances. The complete document was purchased by Charles Eugène Espidon Goupil in 1889 along with 383 other Mesoamerican manuscripts from the Aubin collection. The Aubin Tonalamatl was then donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris by Goupil’s widow in 1898.”

 

It was there, in Paris, that The Tonalamatl Aubin appeared destined to sit in relative obscurity among countless other Mesoamerican artifacts.

 

However, all of that would all change a mere 84 years later.

 

ENTER THE MEXICAN

 

On Friday, June 18th, 1982 a 36-year-old Mexican journalist and lawyer sat in the French National Library , hereafter referred to as the BNF, in Paris looking over some Mesoamerican codices. When he had finished, he returned the wooden boxes containing the illustrated parchments and left the building.

 

Days later, Library officials discovered that one of the documents, the Tonalamatl Aubin, was missing.

 

Jose Luis Castañeda del Valle, of Cancun, Mexico, had presented credentials to the national library and asked for permission to examine the codices as part of his research. Once alone, he hid the Tonalamatl Aubin on his person, returned the box it came in and headed straight to the airport.

 

Like all great heist stories, there are different versions of how he managed to get the Aubin out of the national library. According to the website Mexicolore:

 

He had been aided by the fact that the codex was stored – as many such precious manuscripts are around the world – in its own bespoke box, which he calmly handed in (empty) along with other materials at the end of his visit, having concealed the original under his jacket (or was it a sarape, as some claimed at the time?!). Franch suggests that he cunningly swapped the original for a fine facsimile – the edition by Carmen Aguilera, which conveniently had just been published the previous year. We'll probably never know – for the record, the BNF lists the Aguilera facsimile edition in its manuscript holdings! 

 

Library officials immediately called in the local police, but Castañeda, had already slipped out of Paris. Interpol in France and Mexico soon became involved, and Castañeda was eventually arrested at his home in Cancún on August 16th, 1982. He surrendered the Tonalamatl to the Procuraduría Federal de Justicia and claimed that he had intended all along to hand the codex over to Mexican authorities.

 

The French Embassy demanded the return of the codex, but Castañeda stirred up a wave of Mexican nationalism by asserting that he had rescued a piece of Mexico's cultural heritage that had been stolen from the country more than a century before. Newspapers argued that extradition of such a Mexican patriot was surely out of the question. He told one reporter 'It was stolen from Mexico, and now we have recovered stolen property'. However, the fact that he kept the codex at home for two months and only handed it in when arrested made many suspect that he planned to sell it on the lucrative antiquities market. Ultimately, only Castañeda knew his true intentions regarding the codex. Inevitably, a diplomatic fight broke out between Mexico and France – the former portraying Castañeda as a hero, the latter labelling him a common criminal.

 

The event tested the strongly nationalistic views of both countries regarding questions of cultural heritage and national identity. After French officials had publicly denounced the "financial and intellectual imperialism" of the United States only a few weeks prior to Castañeda's rescue of the Aubin, France struck a decidedly different tone when it came to themselves.

 

 "The return of part of a national patrimony to the country of origin is a different issue," 

 

argued Pierre Henri Guignard, spokesman at the French Embassy.

 

 "That can be discussed and negotiated at Unesco. But here we're dealing with a common crime. Our reaction is the same as Britain with the Falklands: there was a theft and we cannot accept a theft."

 

Another foreign diplomat said that any decision by France to drop the case would set a dangerous precedent.

 

"Can you imagine the Greeks trying to steal the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, the Italians trying to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and so on?" he asked. "It could be chaos."

 

The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, director of the BNF in the mid-'80s, refused to allow any Mexican to cross the threshold of the library again, and demanded the return of the manuscript on a legal basis: it had been in the BNF since 1898, donated by Eugène Goupil's widow in accordance with her husband's will.

 

Eventually, the two countries would come to an agreement that allowed France to save some face. The Tonalamatl Aubin was symbolically "handed over" to Roberto Garcia Moll, the director of INAH (Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History) by Pierre Charasse, a high-ranking French diplomat. French officials agreed that while the document legally "belongs" to France, it would remain on permanent loan to Mexico.

 

And to this day, the Tonalamatl Aubin rests in Mexican hands. Returned home by a daring young reporter named Jose Luis Castañeda del Valle.