Carved stone figures at Monte Alban's museum.
A local school group is on a field trip.
The teacher asks which god he is pointing to.
Elaborate clay urn.
Monte Alban sits high on a hill overlooking the
A vendor shows us his
The vendors are everywhere.
Zapotec ball court.
Monte Alban pyramid.
Looking across the central plaza.
"You are here" in Zapotec.
"Los Danzantes" - Captured
rival leaders castrated &
ready for sacrifice.
School kids burn off energy out on the stairs.
Now they can sit still for a class picture.
Restored pyramid building.
Pyramid building unchanged since "discovery" in the early 1800's.
Painstaking work numbering all the stones and resetting
them in the walls.
Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in the Santo
Ceiling art in the Cultural Center.
Grand double staircase in the Cultural Center.
Fine gold Mixtec handiwork.
Mixtec jewelry from Tomb #7
Clay sculpted urn.
God of old age and wisdom (note
the wrinkled skin).
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
thought to have
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
nearby. He said no, they
were just from a local
school and the kids
probably had mixed
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.