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Henry ‘Nick’ Nicholson at the Tezcatlipoca symposium, British Museum, 2005

Dr. H.B. Nicholson - ‘Grandfather’ of Aztecs Studies

We are most grateful to Professor Guilhem Olivier, Research Professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City, for allowing us to upload and illustrate his essay on the pioneering work and legacy of Dr. Henry B. Nicholson (right), originally published in French in 2007 (shortly after Nicholson’s passing) in the Journal de la Société des Américanistes, and subsequently translated into English by Michel Besson and published as ‘A Born Raconteur and Warm Human Being’ in the book Codex Nicholson, Brian Dervin Dillon & Matthew A. Boxt (coords.), Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Occasional Paper no. 4, Costa Mesa, California, 2012.

Pic 1: HBN at the monument to Moctezuma II, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, 1983
Pic 1: HBN at the monument to Moctezuma II, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, 1983 (Click on image to enlarge)

On March 2, 2007, H. B. Nicholson, known to all his friends and colleagues as Nick, went to sleep at home, surrounded by his books, and never woke up again. Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UCLA, he had dedicated his whole life to the study of ancient Mexico, and especially to the life and religion of the ancient Mexica, a domain he had made his own and in which he was the foremost world specialist.

Pic 2: Cerro Portezuelo: one of HBN’s reports from the site (L); the main mound of the site in 1967 (top R); two photos of the site from the 1957 season: facing East (bottom centre), team members (bottom R)
Pic 2: Cerro Portezuelo: one of HBN’s reports from the site (L); the main mound of the site in 1967 (top R); two photos of the site from the 1957 season: facing East (bottom centre), team members (bottom R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Animated by a fierce passion for art and archaeology, he directed and participated in digs at Cerro Portezuelo, Chimalhuacán, and Ixtapaluca Viejo in Mexico. Throughout his life he gathered an invaluable amount of information on the sculpture, manuscripts, ceramics, and other arts produced in ancient Central Mexico. A tireless visitor to archaeological sites, museums and private collections in Mexico, the United States, and Europe, he amassed an enormous collection of photographs and bibliographic notes for his famed Aztec Archive, now held at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Many publications emerged from the material documented in his “archive.”

Pic 3: HBN in front of the statue commemorating the arrival of the Mexica from Aztlan, Zócalo, Mexico City, 1989
Pic 3: HBN in front of the statue commemorating the arrival of the Mexica from Aztlan, Zócalo, Mexico City, 1989 (Click on image to enlarge)

In several publications, Nicholson proposed that the concept of “Mixteca-Puebla” should correspond to a “style” shared by several peoples from the Oaxaca, Puebla-Tlaxcala, and Gulf Coast regions, and not to a culture or a civilization, as asserted earlier by George Vaillant. On this theme, besides articles that have by now become classics in their own rights, Nicholson, together with Eloise Quiñones Keber, edited the publication of an important collection of essays on Mixteca-Puebla art and archaeology.

Pic 4: HBN researching in Berlin, 1983
Pic 4: HBN researching in Berlin, 1983 (Click on image to enlarge)

H.B. Nicholson also worked on the pictographic manuscripts of the ancient Mexicans. He compiled and updated a list of the extant codices, and important articles on members of the “Borgia Group,” the Codex Borbonicus and the Codex Mendoza. Nick also wrote very detailed reviews on the various editions of the codices, including the Codex Borgia, Codex Selden 3135, Codex Colombino, and Codex Cospi. These reviews continue to be quoted, as would scientific articles, in specialized bibliographies - a rare occurrence that deserves to be underlined.

Pic 5: ‘Montezuma offering incense to Quetzalcoatl’ [in his guise as Black Ehecatl] - one of the illustrations by Keith Henderson, from ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ by W.H. Prescott, that sparked HBN’s imagination at a young age
Pic 5: ‘Montezuma offering incense to Quetzalcoatl’ [in his guise as Black Ehecatl] - one of the illustrations by Keith Henderson, from ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ by W.H. Prescott, that sparked HBN’s imagination at a young age (Click on image to enlarge)

Throughout his career, H.B. Nicholson was fascinated by the shape-shifting figure of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tollan. The origin of that passion was when the pre-adolescent Nicholson attended a lecture given in 1936 in which a young speaker identified Quetzalcoatl with Jesus Christ. In Nick’s momentous Doctoral Dissertation he gathered and analyzed all the available sources dealing with the “historical personage” of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. After a long discourse, which he presented in a clear and concise manner, Nicholson concluded - with a number of reservations, it is true - that a personage called Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl may have indeed existed at the roots of Toltec history. He added that this historical figure - very often confused with the deity Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl - may have been the model for numerous later rulers, who then adopted his name. Lastly, Nick examined the influence of the myth of the announced return of Quetzalcoatl on the Conquest of Mexico, a subject to which he later dedicated an excellent little monograph.

Pic 6: Plaster cast of the Plumed Serpent portal from Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors, shown in place inside the main entrance of the San Diego Museum of Man, 1915. This replica captivated HBN as a boy growing up in San Diego
Pic 6: Plaster cast of the Plumed Serpent portal from Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors, shown in place inside the main entrance of the San Diego Museum of Man, 1915. This replica captivated HBN as a boy growing up in San Diego (Click on image to enlarge)

In fact, Nick was to return several times during his career to questions raised by his Ph.D. dissertation, such as the relationship between the “man” Topiltzin and the “god” Quetzalcoatl, the Mixtec deity called “9 Wind,” a critical review of the identification of “4 Jaguar” with Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, and the iconography of the “Plumed Serpent.” Nick’s doctoral dissertation - a document very difficult to consult, and only in the Harvard University library - was not published until 2001 by the University of Colorado Press. Nick took great care to add a new scholarly introduction to the volume, where he compiled and commented on new bibliographical material that had been published on the subject in the preceding fifty years.

Pic 7: The sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan - ‘Primeros Memoriales’ folio 269r
Pic 7: The sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan - ‘Primeros Memoriales’ folio 269r (Click on image to enlarge)

Nick’s great interest in ancient written sources was also manifest in several studies on the work of the sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún and his indigenous Nahua informants. Besides general articles consecrated to Sahagún’s life and work, came investigations on the missionary’s period of residence in Tepepulco as well as a critical compilation of the vast scientific corpus generated by his writings. Similarly, Nicholson published several studies focusing on the very rich pictorial section of the Primeros Memoriales: representations of deities such as Huitzilopochtli and Chalchiuhtlicue, the iconography of the veintena celebrations or the famous and much-debated plan of the sacred compound of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan.

Pic 8: The facsimile edition, with separate translation, of ‘Primeros Memoriales’
Pic 8: The facsimile edition, with separate translation, of ‘Primeros Memoriales’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, one owes him the completion of a grand project, started by the late Thelma Sullivan, which had been stalled by her death in 1981. This was the publication of a superb facsimile of the Primeros Memoriales, accompanied by the complete translation of the Nahuatl text included in the manuscript, which had remained partly unpublished. With the contributions of art historian Eloise Quiñones Keber and of translators of the caliber of Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, who finished Thelma Sullivan’s incomplete translations, Nick took on the responsibility of writing the introduction to the volume, compiling the bibliography, and, above all, writing copious notes which are spread throughout the whole book.

Pic 9: Volumes 10 and 11 of the Handbook of Middle American Indians
Pic 9: Volumes 10 and 11 of the Handbook of Middle American Indians (Click on image to enlarge)

The complex pantheon of the ancient Mexicans was yet another compelling subject for Nicholson’s investigations. As early as 1959, he published contributions within this area. Nick’s Handbook synthesis, Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico is probably the most cited of all his writings. In this publication not only does he describe the sources, the myths, the worldview, and the rituals of the Mexica of ancient Central Mexico, but he also organizes the numerous deities into three overarching categories: I. Celestial Creativity-Divine Paternalism; II. Rain-Moisture-Agricultural Fertility; and III. War-Sacrifice-Sanguinary Nourishment of the Sun and Earth. Each of these incorporates a series of “complexes” associated with the main themes, such as the Ometeotl Complex, Tezcatlipoca Complex, Xiuhtecuhtli Complex, Tlaloc Complex, and so on. Nicholson briefly describes these “divine complexes,” underlining the relations that united or opposed them. In this invaluable contribution, one also finds useful tables gathering the various names of the gods as well as of the religious celebrations associated with them. Nicholson was to continue, in later works, his quest for understanding pre-Columbian deities such as Xipe Totec and the group of deities linked with agave wine.

Pic 10: Jeremy Sabloff, Richard Leventhal, HBN, Wolfgang Haberland, ?, Evon Vogt, Gareth Lowe (behind), Gordon  Willey, Joyce Marcus, William Rathje, Gair Tourtellot, Richard Adams, Michael Moseley, David Freidel, and ?
Pic 10: Jeremy Sabloff, Richard Leventhal, HBN, Wolfgang Haberland, ?, Evon Vogt, Gareth Lowe (behind), Gordon Willey, Joyce Marcus, William Rathje, Gair Tourtellot, Richard Adams, Michael Moseley, David Freidel, and ? (Click on image to enlarge)

Whatever subject he tackled, Nick always demonstrated an extraordinary erudition, incorporating with great ease English, Spanish, French, German, or Nahuatl source material. Nick was a born raconteur and a warm human being. His command of primary sources and the specialized interpretive literature was remarkable. One cannot but be in awe of the diversity of subjects that he pursued, always with the strictest scientific rigor. He always responded to a constant flood of inquiries from students and colleagues, generously sharing his immense knowledge. With gratitude we acknowledge the profound debt owed to H.B. Nicholson. His many friends and admirers feel an immense sadness as we come to grips with his untimely departure from our midst.

Translated from the French by Michel Besson.

Pic 11: The cover of HBN’s book ‘Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs’ (University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2001)
Pic 11: The cover of HBN’s book ‘Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs’ (University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2001) (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 1, 3 & 4: photos by and courtesy of Eloises Quiñones Keber
• Pic 2: Photo (L) by HBN, document image courtesy of the Archaeology Collections, Fowler Museum at UCLA; photo (top R) by Jeff Parsons and photos (bottom centre & bottom R) courtesy of the Fowler Museum Cerro Portezuelo Archives, UCLA
• Pic 5: image scanned from our own copy of The Conquest of Mexico by W. H. Prescott (vol. 1), London, Chatto & Windus, 1922, p. 185
• Pic 6: photo provided by and courtesy of the San Diego Museum of Man
• Pic 7: image from Primeros Memoriales (original in the Palacio Real de Madrid) - public domain
• Pix 8 & 9: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, number 2003.14.77 (digital file # 92210012)

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Mexicolore replies: Thanks so much, Jean, for sharing this poignant story. Personally, I’m delighted knowing that those beautiful works are in your good hands (others may be unaware that Jean has been running pioneering codex exhibitions and workshops with young people in France). Keep up your good work!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Professor Carrasco, for completing the story - and, far more importantly, for seeing the dissertation through to final publication...