Felipe Solis: Archaeologist who assembled one of the world's greatest collections of Pre-Colombian artefacts

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The Independent Online

Thirty-one years ago, when Felipe Solis was working with the team that discovered the first image of the Moon Goddess, Coyolxauhquil, he "felt the hands of the gods on my shoulder."

He knew that the huge carved stone disk representing one of the most important members of the Aztec pantheon would be one of the highlights, not only of his own illustrious career but of modern Mexican archeology. Last year, on the anniversary of the find, he confirmed studies which showed that the three-and-a-half-ton stone monolith was used to catch the bodies of prisoners sacrificed at the Templo Mayor, making it one of the most important objects unearthed at the site, which stands next to the present day Zocalo or main square in Mexico City.

Solis, who died in the Mexican capital from pneumonia following a long battle with heart disease, went on to become head of one of the world's greatest collection of Pre-Colombian artefacts – Mexico City's spectacular National Anthropology Museum, often referred to as "El Antro".

A tour of the collection with Solis was a true privilege, "a walking tutorial," recalls Colin McEwan, head of the Americas collection at the British Museum who knew him for 20 years. A week before he died, Solis escorted President Obama around the museum's Mexica Room, which he had curated for many years before becoming overall director of the museum in 2000. Early in his career as a field archeologist, working sometimes with his mentor Ignacio Bernal, who also became director of the Antro and, like Solis, a senior member of the National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH), he spent time in the southern state of Chiapas at the then little-explored site of Yaxchilan before returning to his beloved Mexico City, where he oversaw the rescue of the great aqueduct. He wrote or co-authored more than 200 publications, occasionally with members of a select band of protégés whom he tutored informally.

Along with Eduardo Matos, Solis was to play a key role in the way archeology – which has always been treated as a distinct science in Mexico – is conducted in a country with one of the richest pre-conquest cultures in Latin America. He was admired for his precise approach to his work which increasingly took him overseas, becoming a roving ambassador for archaeology, not only in Mexico, where his interests lay predominantly with the Aztec or Mexica peoples and the gulf coast civilizations.

He traveled widely and held professorships at the largest university in the Americas, UNAM as well as institutions in Chile and Spain. He never tired of rummaging among the storage rooms housing the Americas collections at the British Museum. Yet he also believed that archeology should be accessible to all, and he helped to publish a guide for children in his final months.

A workaholic, Solis was collaborating on several new openings at the time of his death: a new show about the Aztec capital Teotihuacá*will start in Mexico next month, while the forthcoming landmark exhibition on the Aztec emperor Moctezuma is due to open at the British Museum in the autumn. Solis had recently submitted an essay for inclusion in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition and his loss is, says McEwan, "a huge blow" to plans for the exhibition which will now surely form part of his legacy.

He kept his personal life very private, and did not comment on newspaper stories some years ago that he had wittingly or unwittingly helped the art trafficker, Leonard Patterson, to disguise the provenance of a number of pieces confiscated by police during a raid on a warehouse in which more than 1,000 Pre-Columbian artifacts were allegedly found. In keeping with Mexican tradition a number of family members, friends and colleagues attended his velación, or wake, at the museum to which he gave so much of his life.

Elizabeth Mistry

Felipe Solis Olguin, archeologist: born Mexico City 18 December 1944; died Mexico City 23 April 2009.