Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall (6 September 1857 – 12 April 1933) 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 recognise artefacts dating back to the pre-Aztec period.
Nuttall investigated Mexico’s past to give recognition and pride to its present at a time where Western archaeology favoured salacious narratives of ancient Mesoamericans. In 1897, Nuttall published Ancient Mexican Superstitions in The Journal of American Folklore. In it, she criticised the representation of ancient Mexicans as “bloodthirsty savages, having nothing in common with civilised humanity”. “Such a hold upon the imagination that it effaces all other knowledge about the ancient civilisation of Mexico”, she wrote. She hoped her work would “lead to a growing recognition of the bonds of universal brotherhood which unite the present inhabitants of this great and ancient continent to their not unworthy predecessors.”
Outside of her work in anthropology and archaeology, Nuttall, partnered with Phoebe Hearst, worked to educate and preserve the heritage of indigenous Mexicans. One of her students was Manuel Gamio, who would eventually become one of Mexico’s most famous archaeologists.
Nuttall advocated for the revival of Mexican traditions that had been eradicated during the Spanish conquest. In 1928, she called for a renewed celebration of the indigenous New Year, which was traditionally observed twice annually by numerous Mesoamerican cultures. That year, Mexico City celebrated the Aztec New Year for the first time since 1519.
Nuttall was known for her ability to find lost or forgotten manuscripts and bring them to the attention of scholars.
She traced the Zapotecan manuscript, now known as the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, in the library of its owner, Baron Zouche of Haryngworth. A facsimile with an introduction by Nuttall was published in 1902 by the Peabody Museum.
In 1890, she identified in the National Central Library of Florence the Codex Magliabecchiano, which she published in 1903 through the University of California under the title The Book of the Life of the Ancient Mexicans. On that occasion, she entered into conflict with the Duke of Loubat, who published it in 1904 without crediting her with the discovery.
In 1911, she found at the National Library of Spain the unfinished text of Francisco Cervantes de Salazar’s Crónica de la Nueva España, dating from about 1560 and tracing the history of the conquest of Mexico. This was published in 1914
She discovered a manuscript in National Library at Madrid relating to the prevention and cure of plague in Spain in 1600-1601. This was published in english translation in 1912
She collected the manuscripts of Francis Drake and John Hawkins contained in the National Archives of Mexico, as well as in collections in New York, Spain, Italy, France and England (Bodleian Library, British Museum and Public Archives of London). The set was published in 1914 by the Hakluyt Society of London under the title A New Light on Drake. To complete the work, she traveled in 1916 to the Juan de Fuca Strait between Vancouver Island and Washington State to confirm the details of Drake’s travels.
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