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Modern Monumentality: Art, Science, and the Making of Southern Mexico

  • Author(s): Kett, Robert John
  • Advisor(s): Zhan, Mei
  • et al.

This dissertation project began as a historical ethnography of Olmec archaeology, interested in tracing the development of a science to study what is often referred to as Mexico’s “mother culture” over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, as research for this project continued, it became clear that Olmec archaeology was bound up in a much wider modern rediscovery of the Olmec and the southern Gulf Coast region where they once built their largest settlements. A region that had resisted many previous projects of foreign colonization, the twentieth century witnessed the rapid “discovery,” documentation, and exploitation of not only the the region’s cultural past but also its natural resources, most famously the Gulf Coast’s rich oil deposits but also its biological diversity. The work of Olmec archaeology bore intimate connections to these broader transformations through the sharing of regional knowledge between experts, the exchange of methods between disciplines, and the material proximity of various projects of knowledge-making and resource development. The region was then a highly trafficked zone where the field practices of scientists, surveyors, artists, and other experts collided to unexpected ends. Through a series of case studies, this dissertation charts the dynamics of transdisciplinary knowledge on the southern Mexican resource frontier, considering the field as a site where disciplines are simultaneously made and unmade and where knowledge-making has palpable and unanticipated effects. Holding these various projects simultaneously in view—an approach which decenters more traditional disciplinary or developmental histories—reveals a fraught modernity marked, not by the imposition and failure of any unified or centralized plan, but by a tense ecology of numerous knowledges of and visions for the region.

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