Photo: Simon Martin

(Periódico La Jornada, April 16, 2010) The archaeologist Enrique Nalda Hernández, one of the most widely recognized experts on Maya culture, died at the age of 73 in Mexico City on Wednesday, April 14, a victim of cancer.

He was born in Logroño, Spain, on August 14, 1936. The son of a family exiled by the Spanish Civil War, Enrique Nalda began his career in archaeology after graduating as an engineer and following a career in that field.

He studied in the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ENAH), where he knew and was close to key figures in Mexican archaeology, such as Pedro Armillas, whose contributions were crucial in Nalda's interest in aerial photography as a tool for archaeological investigation.

He was a teacher at ENAH, where he promoted the creation of the Archaeological Research Department, a move that made it possible for that institution to have a seat on Archaeology Council of the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) for the first time, allowing the latter's projects to be more closely linked to the work carried out at the school. Nevertheless, the controversy this department generated eventually led to its disappearance in 1984.

Nalda then accepted the chairmanship of INAH's Archaeological Registry Office and left ENAH, continuing to be involved only as a teacher of archaeological techniques. During this career phase he carried out an inventory of Pre-Hispanic settlements in the Northeastern region of the State of Morelos based on the interpretation of aerial photography. He led the last phase of the Morelos Project, with a strong focus on the so-called "Southern Corridor" of that State.

Ichkabal, the cherry on the cake

At the Archaeological Registry Office, together with Javier López Camacho, Enrique Nalda set the foundations for the National Archaeological Map project. In 1986 he was appointed Coordinator of INAH Domestic Centers. He was also a founding partner of the newspaper La Jornada.

Towards 1988 Nalda focused his research on the Yucatan peninsula. As told by his colleague Adriana Velázquez Morlet, who is the director of the Quintana Roo INAH Center, Nalda was looking for a relatively late site that could document the so-called "collapse" of the Maya Classic period.

That is how he came to Dzibanché, a site in the south of that state that was first discovered by Thomas Gann in 1927, to which he dedicated the work of many years. In 1987, Nalda began excavating at the site.

From the earliest seasons, the researcher became aware of Dzibanché's monumentality. The greatest advance in investigation was accomplished in 1992, when the project was included within a special group that received financing from the Office of the Presidency, that allowed exploration both of the Main Group and of the K'inich Na Group, so as to gain knowledge of some of the monumental buildings of the ancient settlement and led to the site's opening to the public.

Simultaneous with Nalda's tenure as INAH's technical secretary, the Dzibanché project carried on in tandem with a second project, which originally was to be more modest and took place in the nearby site of Kohunlich.

Work carried out there under the field direction of Adriana Velázquez showed a much more complex site, with a strong occupation during the Late Classic period and with a very different configuration from Dzibanché's.

Velázquez explains that more than 25 years of archaeological explorations allowed Nalda to visualize not only Kohunlich and Dzibanché as two independent entities, but the whole of Quintana Roo's southern region as an area that was never peripheral to the dominion of the Peten kingdoms.

"On the contrary, Enrique Nalda's investigations allow a glimpse into the enormous complexity of the area, whose political and economic importance during its protracted history attained the same level as that of emblematic sites, such as Tikal or Calakmul.

"The work he began at the enormous site of Ichkabal in 2009, 'the cherry on the cake', as he liked to say, allowed him to continue advancing along the same lines of investigation he had drawn during more than one quarter of a century of work. The Pre-Hispanic history of Southern Quintana Roo and indeed that of the Maya area in general cannot be understood without Enrique Nalda's contributions.

"He was an unparalleled teacher, a shaper of generations of archaeologists, who taught us to question accepted wisdom and to doubt dogmas. Hard, sometimes even too hard, he was a brilliant scrutinizer of the past, a voracious reader and an indefatigable laborer. He had no tolerance for ineptitude but always honored friendship. Maya studies can be divided before and after Enrique Nalda; as few others, he understood the importance of producing history through archaeology," remarks Velázquez Morlet.

Invaluable work as a teacher

Archaeologist Salvador Guilliem Arroyo, national INAH Archaeology coordinator, points out that Enrique Nalda "was one of the most important researchers of Maya culture. His work as a teacher at the ENAH was invaluable, as was his contribution as an INAH official. The Pre-Hispanic history of Southern Quintana Roo and indeed that of the Maya area in general cannot be understood without Enrique Nalda's contributions".

María José Con Uribe, an archaeologist and researcher at the Quintana Roo INAH Center who heads the archaeological projects for Cobá and Xcaret, says her colleague was "a brilliant theoretician of archaeology, who was both controversial and polemic and endowed with a great capacity for analysis and understanding of the cultural processes of ancient civilizations. His investigations in Southern Quintana Roo for more than two decades strengthened and opened the doors to modern archaeology in the state. During his 'Maya period', he became passionate for fieldwork and was able to join the anthropos with the logos. Whenever the winds blew hard, though, he was always at the side of his friends".

For Rosalba Nieto Calleja, an archaeologist and researcher at INAH's Archaeological Studies Office, the teachings of Nalda at the ENAH "allowed us to become familiar with innovative theoretical and methodological aspects, as well as with the different techniques applied in the practice of archaeology. He was an exceptional teacher, an archaeologist who loved and enjoyed his profession. As a colleague and as a friend, he showed us that obstacles are only in one's mind and that everything can be overcome. As a friend, he was always available. He will live on in our memory".

Archaeologist Hortensia de Vega Nova, a researcher at the Morelos INAH Center and leader of the Oxtankah archaeological project in Quintana Roo, declared that the presence of the dear "friend, colleague, teacher and advisor will be impossible to erase from the lives of those colleagues with whom he shared his projects".

His relatives (among them, his widow, Rebeca Panameño, who is in charge of La Jornada's photographic archive), friends, colleagues and former students have been bidding him their last goodbye at the Memorial San Ángel.

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