Digital Collections for Understanding Mesoamerican Cultures

USC Digital Library

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) awarded a $499,728 Digitizing Hidden Collections grant to Cal State LA and the USC Libraries to support the digitization of cultural artifacts, rare books, and photography collections from both institutions that preserve a diverse and visually compelling record of Mesoamerican and Spanish colonial cultures and many facets of the region's complex history. The rare materials will be freely accessible via the USC Digital Library, the Cal State LA digital library, Calisphere, and the Digital Public Library of America.

The collaborative project will create digital resources for understanding cultures from Mexico and Central America with profound connections to Southern California. In addition to highlighting the contributions by Aztec, Maya, Shaft Tomb, and other Indigenous cultures, the digital collections created by the project team will trace these cultures’ contacts with Spanish colonial entities, the changes in the Mesoamerican built environment over time, and the role of the Mesoamerican past in the formation of Latinx identities in the United States. The digital collections will provide essential resources for researchers, K-12 educators, and everyone with a stake in better understanding these complex and interconnected histories of the Americas.

Some of the highlights from the project include numerous well-preserved examples of ballplayer figures from the Chupicuaro, Las Bocas, Maya, Shaft Tomb, and other cultures dating to 500 BCE as well as striking artifacts such as an effigy figure of the rain god Tlaloc from the Teotihuacan culture that retains much of its original earthen pigments. In addition, the project includes rare books such as a 1598 edition of Francisco del Alvarado Tezozómoc’s Cronica mexicana, which traces the history of the Aztec empire, and richly illustrated volumes showing what important sites like Chichen Itza in the Yucatan looked like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The project also includes nearly 25,000 photographic images that capture the appearance of Cholula, Copan, Monte Alban, Quirigua, Teotihuacan, Uxmal, and many other sites from multiple perspectives and at different points in time—starting in the 1930s before damage to inscriptions and features like the hieroglyphic stairway at Copan, major excavations and restoration work at numerous cultural sites, and the significant expansion of tourism. The images also capture Spanish colonial architecture in Antigua, Guatemala, and other cities as well as churches like the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios built atop the Tlachihualtepetl pyramid at Cholula. The photographs were captured by former USC School of Architecture professor Verle Annis, photojournalist and USC alum Payne Johnson, and UCLA anthropology professor and pioneering Aztec specialist H.B. Nicholson.

As the project gets underway, the joint Cal State LA and USC Libraries project team will be sharing digital images from the archival collections held by the two institutions. The team will also collaborate closely on digital humanities projects utilizing the open-source Scalar platform, primary source literacy initiatives, exhibitions, and work with a number of L.A.-area K-12 schools and community partners to expand access to these rich materials documenting the Mesoamerican past.

The joint project team is led by Mario Ramirez and Azalea Camacho of Cal State LA and Barbara Robinson of the USC Libraries’ Boeckman Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies. It includes Jamie Zeffery of Cal State LA and Bill Cunningham, Wayne Shoaf, Louise Smith, Tim Stanton, and Michaela Ullmann of the USC Libraries.