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Zelia Nuttall did not suffer fools.
One of the first — and most important — Mexican archaeologists, Zelia was a mama bear to what mattered to her: her proteges, her work, and especially her daughter (whom she raised alone!). The vast majority of the time, she was nurturing and kind, a welcoming host and well-regarded socialite. But cross her, and hoo boy, the claws would come out.
An unconventional life
From the start, Zelia1 wasn’t interested in a conventional life. While the other girls were engrossed in fairy tales, 8-year-old Zelia was head down in her copy of Antiquities of Mexico, realizing what she wanted to be when she grew up. She married and had a kid early on, but 4 years into the marriage, decided to go it alone2. She got a divorce, sole custody, and her freedom — under her maiden name.
From there, her career just took off. Her first archaeological dig resulted in a published paper, which led to a Special Assistant position at Harvard that she kept for 47 years. She discovered the most complete set of pre-Conquest Mexican writings that still exist, uncovered lost manuscripts from Sir Francis Drake, presented at the World’s Fair – she did it all.
Moreover, she totally paid it forward. Early on, she partnered with financier Phoebe Hearst (mother to William Randolph), and set about educating local peoples to preserve their own heritage. One of her indigenous proteges, Manuel Gamio, would go on to become Mexico’s most famous archaeologist — after Zelia fought tooth and nail to secure his education. Pretty rad!
Not to say any of this was easy. Besides the omnipresent sexism, Zelia also had to fight the status quo of archaeology, which was replete with sleazy treasure hunters. And it’s here that she had the incident that really cemented her reputation.
The dust-up revolved around the Isla de Sacrificios, a tiny (haunted!) island that, Zelia discovered, housed the ruins of a site for human sacrifice. Once Zelia set up shop there to excavate it, the Mexican government immediately presented her with three setbacks: they slashed her funding; they limited the area in which she could work; and, because she was a woman, they gave her a supervisor. This was Salvador Batres, son of her archenemy, Leopoldo Batres.
Zelia haaaaaaated them. The Batreses, besides being corrupt dicknostrils who’d sell off priceless treasures to even bigger dicknostrils, were staggeringly incompetent. Upon starting work at the National Museum of Mexico, Salvador completely reorganized their classification system, turning a decent setup into a nigh-unusable one. Similarly, upon starting work at the Isla de Sacrificios, he destroyed an ancient fresco in the process of unearthing it. But the thing to top it all off: they sent out a press release claiming to have discovered the ruins themselves.
Zelia flipped shit.
In short order, a couple things happened. She resigned in disgust from her post at the National Museum. She got the Mexico Herald newspaper to run a correction. And, most importantly, she wrote a 42-page article in a major academic journal that burnt her enemies to the ground.
She wrote a 42-page article that burnt her enemies to the ground.The article, (which you can find online here!) laid out the backstory on finding the site, talked about her methodology, and, midway through, took an aside to eviscerate Salvador and Leopoldo for their incompetence (starts on page 278). Soon thereafter, the Mexican government followed through on Zelia’s suggestion to hire “competent and honorable engineers and architects,” and got rid of the Batreses.
She wrote a 42-page article that burnt her enemies to the ground.
A bold host
She lived out the rest of her life as a nurturing host and advocate. She threw a lot of weight into trying to revive native traditions of solar worship, and wanted to see annual festivals celebrated in schools. She also grew to be quite the botanist — collecting seeds from ancient Mexican plants and growing them; cultivating medicinal herbs; recreating foods from olden times. But more than anything, she was known for her gracious hosting, whereupon I found an anecdote that perfectly sums her up.
At one point, two young men came to visit Zelia. As she descended down a staircase to greet them, her dress snagged on something and came right off. Without missing a beat, she walked up to them, shook their hands, and continued with the pleasantries — as her maid frantically grabbed the dress and ran off.
Zelia Nuttall: alpha as fuck.
- Properly Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall. ↩
- From the sound of it, her husband may have been one of the fools she did not suffer. Although there aren’t a ton of details I could find about him, he did apparently spend no small amount of money buying a crystal skull — yeah, like the ones in the shitty Indiana Jones movie — from a shady French antiques dealer. Zelia was a woman of science. It’s not a leap to assume she did not exactly approve of this move. ↩
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- The location here is the Casa Alvarado, where she lived most of her life. She’s tending a garden both as a reference to her interest in botany, but also how she nurtured the field of archaeology, her daughter, and her proteges.
- You can see, in the flower bed by Zelia, some bits of pottery scattered about. That’s historically accurate — she found a ton of Aztec pottery fragments in her own garden, and did an excavation on them. It was actually the first-ever academic study of Aztec pottery, and it happened in her house.
- The maid in the background is, of course, running off with the snagged dress.
- The book is based off a copy of Antiquities of Mexico. Her baby daughter is reading it, just like Zelia herself did early on.
- Her necklace has an Aztec swastika on it. This is a callback to her research into the worldwide symbolism of swastikas, which she linked to astrology. If you want to go down a strange path, you can check out this very peculiar website, which lays out a lot of conspiracy theory-style links to Nuttall.
- Her ethnicity is a bit of a question mark to me. Her father was Irish, but her mother was at least born in Mexico (I couldn’t figure out her exact ethnicity). I left her skin tone a somewhat ambiguous shade (I figured she was out in the sun a lot). Even if she wasn’t ethnically Mexican, she was as culturally Mexican as anyone out there.
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Next Time on Rejected Princesses
Next week is an American holiday and I’m going out of town, so I’m going to skip next week — back in two weeks with another non-warrior entry. Here’s your hint:
This patron saint of thieves had the golden touch.
Sold into sexual slavery to Hernan Cortes, this maligned woman became his interpreter, and it was with her words that the Aztec Empire fell.
Chaste and virtuous woman spends life assuming she's better than her more sex-positive neighbor, and for this haughtiness becomes in death a demonic woman who lures wayward men to their death - a stunning indigenous inversion of the Madonna/whore complex.