Oaxaca’s Monte Alban – Mysterious Ancient Zapotec Ruins

Sail blog post - Heading inland to Oaxaca, Mexico, from the marina in Huatulco, we were awe-struck by the evocative Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban

Carved stone figures at Monte Alban's museum.

Museum at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

A local school group is on a field trip.

Museum at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

The teacher asks which god he is pointing to.

Elaborate clay urn at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Elaborate clay urn.

Clay figure at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Hillsides at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban sits high on a hill overlooking the

Oaxaca Valley.

Clay figurine vendor at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

A vendor shows us his


Vendor at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

The vendors are everywhere.

Ballcourt at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Zapotec ball court.

Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban pyramid.

Stone pyramid buildings at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Looking across the central plaza.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Archaeological site at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Layout of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

"You are here" in Zapotec.

Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Archaeological site at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Central plaza at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Los Danzantes, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Los Danzantes" - Captured

rival leaders castrated &

ready for sacrifice.

Tall stairs at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

School kids burn off energy out on the stairs.

Schoolkids at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Now they can sit still for a class picture.

Restored pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Restored pyramid building.


Pyramid building unchanged since "discovery" in the early 1800's.

Painstaking restoration at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Painstaking work numbering all the stones and resetting

them in the walls.

Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in the Santo

Domingo Cathedral.

Ceiling decoration at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Ceiling art in the Cultural Center.

Gold leaf decoration at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Grand double staircase in the Cultural Center.

Gold Mixtec artwork from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Fine gold Mixtec handiwork.

Crystal urn from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Crystal urn.

Ornate necklace from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Mixtec jewelry from Tomb #7

Sculpted clay urn from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Clay sculpted urn.

Clay figurine from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral Sculpture from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

God of old age and wisdom (note

the wrinkled skin).

Bear sculpture from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mid-February, 2012 - Just six miles outside of Oaxaca are the

outstanding and thought provoking ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte

Alban.  We took a public bus to get there and found the first museum

room filled with carved stones.  The carvings featured crazy looking

animals and people.

We came in right behind a

school group, and I was as

intrigued by this group as

by the carved stones.  It

was a Saturday and this

was obviously an exciting

field trip for them.  A

museum guide gave them a rousing talk about the Zapotecs, the original builders

of Monte Alban (around 500 BC) and their gods who were depicted in the stone

carvings.  All the kids were extremely attentive, taking notes and answering his


He explained what a lot of the carvings represented.  Most were gods

of various things, recognizable by certain characteristics like a beaked

nose, a particular arrangement of feathers on the head or wrinkled

eyes.  To my amazement, when the guide asked the group which god

a particular image represented, their hands shot up.  They knew.

There were lots of little clay sculptures that to

us simply looked other-wordly.  But most were

images of Zapotec gods which, like those in

other ancient pantheons, represented war,

old age, wisdom, fertility and other things.

We headed outside and found the Monte

Alban site is about the size of six football

fields and is situated within an overall archaeological zone of about 8

square miles.  It sits on a hill at 6,400' elevation, and the Zapotecs

partially leveled the hilltop for its construction.  It was the capital city of

the Zapotecs, built away from three other major valley communities of

the time (500 BC).  Its population was 17,000 people between 100 BC

and 200 AD, and continued to grow until it reached its zenith between

200 and 500 AD, some 800 or so years after its construction.

Taking the path less traveled, we entered the ruins from a track that went around the back side.

While we were blocked from the sight of other tourists by the back of a large monument, a fellow

stopped us to show us some things he carried in his backpack:  little clay copies of some of the

items that have been excavated here

and a few original chips from larger

artifacts.  We looked at his stuff

quizzically and he explained that not only had he made the little clay

figures himself, but it was legal for local people to sell any artifacts

they found in their fields while farming.  The artifacts in his backpack

were things that had turned up under his hoe in his fields, and he

pointed in the general direction of his

house in the valley.

It all sounded pretty good, until we

rounded a corner into the main plaza of

ruins and discovered that there were

guys like him at every turn.  They all

had little clay replicas they had made

themselves, and presumably their

backpacks all held original artifacts they

had dug up in their farm fields.  Hmmm.

We asked later at the museum and they

assured us it was definitely not legal to

sell anything original, no matter how

small, and that nothing those guys had

was a real artifact.  Oh well, it had made

for an interesting conversation on the

back side of the ruins!!

The first ruin we came across was the

ball court, built in 100 BC.  Monte Alban

was the first true Meso-American State

with a government run by the priestly

class.  Its economy

was based on tributes

(taxes) paid by the

outlying communities in

the Valley of Oaxaca.

It is thought that the

ball game helped

resolve legal conflicts

and land and tax

disputes and that the

ball was hit with the

elbows, hands and knees.

We were intrigued by the difference between this ball court and

that of Wupatki outside Flagstaff, Arizona, built some 600 years

after Monte Alban.  Wupatki's ball court is the northernmost

known ancient ball court, and it is elliptical rather than

rectangular.  It is thought that the game there was played with a

curved stick.  So it seems the southerners played a soccer-like

game which the northerners transformed, years later, into


The ruins are dramatic.

They squat in quiet

splendor around a central

suite of buildings, all

spaced apart by a large

flat open area.

Some of the

buildings are

thought to have

been either

religious or


buildings and

others may

have been


Visitors from all over the world ran up and down the stairs of each

building, taking photographs and saying "Wow!" to each other.

Meanwhile the school

group got quite an

education that day.  I

asked the teacher if the

kids were of Zaptotec

descent or were from a

Zapotec community

nearby.  He said no, they

were just from a local

school and the kids

probably had mixed

Mexican heritage,

although of course

some might be

Zapotec.  But these ruins are part of the rich legacy of all Oaxacan kids,

whether they trace their routes to the Zapotecs or the Mixtecs who moved into

Monte Alban once the city went into decline, or even the Spanish who came in

later and crushed all things indigenous.

Interestingly, the signs were all in Spanish,

English and Zapotec, including the little

phrase "you are here."

In one area we found the carved stone replicas of the

stones we first saw inside the museum.  Created between

350 and 200 BC and now called "Los Danzantes," these

once formed a wall.  Today the replicas stand side by side

out in the harsh elements while the originals are inside the

museum.  Oddly, the characters are mostly heavyset men

who appear to have been castrated.  It is thought that

perhaps they were the leaders of outlying communities who

were captured and then offered up to the gods in sacrifice,

perhaps using the stunning Meso-American method of

carving their still-beating hearts out of their chests and

holding them up to the sky.

Wonderfully gruesome imagery like that will get any kid excited, and the school children were

suddenly let loose and told to run around and get the wiggles out.  They ran up and down the

stairs of one of the buildings, shrieking excitedly until they were all tuckered out.  Then they

sat obediently for a class picture with their teacher.

Having walked up and down the

very tall stairs of these buildings all

day, we wondered why the small

indigenous people had made

buildings with such tall steps.

Watching the kids line up with their

teacher one possibility became

apparent:  they make perfect stadium

seats.  The stairs of all the buildings

face the main plaza, so perhaps it was

a good place to watch an event -- or

just eat lunch like the tourists do


As we left Monte Alban we passed one of the buildings that is still in the state in which it was first discovered, before the

archaeological digging and reconstruction began in the 1930's.  It made a dramatic contrast to the fully restored buildings that fill

the site today.  This suddenly made me realize that what we see at Monte Alban now, like Wupatki and all other restored

archaeological sites, is at best a recreation of its once former glory and is subject to the interpretation and knowledge of its


The center buildings were in the process of being restored, and it was amazing to see the

scaffolding, the pile of carefully numbered stones, and the newly restored wall filled with

numbered stones.  It is a painstaking process to bring the site back to its original

magnificence, but you have to wonder at the same time if what we see today is really how it

looked in its heyday.  Archaeologists claim the walls were covered with stucco at the time and

were smooth, unlike the raw rock facing we see now.  But what else?  Was there

landscaping, was the open plaza filled with market stalls and people?  The silent stones are

coy with their secrets.

Back in Oaxaca we checked out the

Cultural Center that is located in a

former monastery in back of the

Santo Domingo Cathedral.  The

building alone is worth the price of


It not only has a grand courtyard

but has an even grander double

staircase that, together with the

walls and ceiling, is ornamented

with gold leaf.

If you walk through the rooms of

this museum in the correct order,

you are taken through all of

Mexico's history -- from the

Oaxacan perspective --

beginning with the first

indigenous peoples and going

right through to the new

millennium.  It is a terrific visual

presentation of the very

convoluted and confusing

history of Mexico, from its

indigenous states, to the

Spanish conquest, to the

revolution, the war of

independence and the world wars.  Of course all of this happened

right alongside the technological advances that have brought

humanity to where we are today, and the domestic tools and weaponry of

the last 500 years are all finely displayed.

We managed to go through the

museum in zig-zag order, passing

through most rooms backwards, from

later years to earlier years, thus picking

up tid-bits of history in a rather jumbled

chronology.  Oops.  It really didn't

matter, though, as the museum is

absolutely fascinating no matter what

order you go through it.

Over at Monte Alban archaeologists

discovered several tombs that were filled with fantastic

Mixtec artwork.  The word "Mixtec" comes from the

Nahuatl word for "Cloud People," which gives a

wonderful image of the people that moved into Monte Alban after the

Zapotecs.  They remodeled some of the buildings and created lots of

delicate sculptures and jewelry.   One tomb in particular, Tomb #7, was the

richest discovery of artifacts in Meso-America to date.  The Zapotecs had

used the tomb in their time too, but the Mixtecs buried one of their most

prominent leaders in that tomb and sent him off to the afterlife accompanied

by a boatload of treasure.

From fine filigree gold jewelry to cut crystal glass to endless sculpted clay

urns, this leader met his maker surrounded by worldly wealth.  What great

fortune that this one tomb was not robbed and emptied by the conquering

Spanish like so many other tombs in other places.

It was a dizzying day of culture and history and relics from an era and from

peoples we had known nothing about.  I came away shaking my head, trying

to get it straight in my mind.  "Okay," I said to Mark, "So first it was built by

the Zapotecs.  Then they were later replaced by the Mixtecs.  And those

guys eventually succumbed to the Aztecs…"

"Yup," he added.  "And then came the Discotecs and

last of all the Village People."

So goes our anthropological education in Oaxaca,

which we continued with a trip to the ancient Zapotec

palace ruin, Mitla.

Find Oaxaca (Monte Alban) on Mexico Maps.