Monte Alban

Tags: Mexico, Monte Albán, Oaxaca

Date: June 7, 2024

Monte Albán is a hill just outside the city of Oaxaca with an archeological site on the top. For nearly one thousand years (from 100 BC to 750 AD), Monte Albán was the leading Zapotec political and economic center. The Zapotec civilization (700 BC-1521 AD) dominated much of what is today the state of Oaxaca and featured monumental buildings, ball courts, magnificent tombs and extremely rich and beautiful grave goods.

The name "Zapotec" was the name the Aztecs gave the people living in the Oaxaca Valley. The Zapotec called themselves by the term "Be'ena' Za'a", which means "The Cloud People". This fits with the religious belief among the elites that they had descended from supernatural beings who lived among the clouds, and that they would return to the clouds after death. It seems like the non-elite people believed they originated from trees or jaguars.

The impressive architectural remains of Monte Albán extend over 6.5 square kilometers and at the height of its power it had an estimated population of 17,200, making it one of the largest Mesoamerican cities at the time.

In addition to the ruins of large building complexes, 249 tombs have so far been discovered in the Monte Albán archeological zone. Most of the graves are found in different places within residential buildings meaning that people lived in the same buildings that housed their dead ancestors. The burial chambers are in many cases richly decorated with colorful murals and in some of the tombs amazing treasures were found. One of the most famous of the tombs, the so-called tomb 7, discovered by Mexican archeologist Alfonso Caso, his wife María Lombardo and archeologist Eulalia Guzmán in 1932 caused a sensation and was deemed "The most important discovery in the American continent”. It was objects from this tomb that we saw at the museum in Oaxaca. The discovery was a milestone in Mexican archeology and led to the creation of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in 1939.

Below is the residential building/tomb 104 at Monte Albán:

The white hatch in the middle is the entrance to the underground tomb, while the walls around it delimit the residential part of the building. Unfortunately there is no access to the underground chambers due to the delicate condition of the murals so we haven't seen any of those.

Right next to building 104 is building 103 which is also a residential building with a tomb:

A look towards complex IV from the top of the North Platform. Complex IV has a temple on top of a platform with steps leading up to it and a enclosed courtyard in the front. The structure is the twin of Complex M seen in the far background:

Here we have turned the camera a bit to the left, showing the wide expanse of the central plaza (200 x 300 m), with complex G, H and I in the middle in front of the giant South Platform in the back and complex P to the left:

Turning even more to the left we see the ball court and complex P in the back:

The ball game seems to have been an important part of most Mesoamerican civilizations.

One more picture of the ball court from the other side:

At Monte Albán, text in a glyphic script has been found, but although some signs can be recognized as calendar information the script remains largely undeciphered.

Stela 9, below, is placed quite centrally at the foot of the largest building complex, the North Platform, and is carved on all four sides with human figures and several glyphs resembling some of those used by the Mayas. Some of the glyphs are probably the names of the persons depicted, while other glyphs are believed to be referring to dates related to the persons:

Second side of Stele 9:

Third side of stele 9 with the stairs to the first level of the North Platform behind it:

Looking over the sunken patio of the North Platform with a structure in the middle that may be an altar:

Stone detail on the corner of one of the buildings:

This stele is carved with representations of individuals of the ruling class of Monte Albán:

It shows several figures — most of them female — alongside their name glyph. On the face seen above, an elderly woman and a young man, depicted as a jaguar, seem engaged in a ritual that might be related to the transfer of power. This indicates that Zapotec women might have been able to hold some form of power.

Félicie in front of Building D:

Here we are the the absolute top of the North Platform, looking down on the sunken patio to the right and the Central Plaza in the background:

View down from Monte Albán towards the valley. During most of our road trip so far, the visibility is not very good:

In some cases, close to larger cities, it may be due to urban air pollution from humans (vehicles, wood burning stoves, etc.). In other cases it is smoke from wildfires or burning of harvested fields.

The stairs leading to the top of Building P:

In the middle of the stairs about two thirds up is an small opening (the dark flat rectangle). The sun shines directly down into a tall shaft below the opening at the solar zenith passages (on May 5th and August 8th in this location). This may have been used to keep track of time.

Building J in the center of the Main Plaza, behind buildings G, H and I, is characterized by its unusual arrow-like shape and an orientation that differs from most other structures at the site:

The building is riddled with tunnels and internal stairs which are unfortunately not accessible to visitors. The walls of the building carries large stone slabs depicting place-names of towns surrounding Monte Albán. This has been interpreted as building J being a monument that lists the places which the Monte Albán claimed to have conquered and/or controlled.

40 m wide stairs leading to the top of the South Platform:

At the small museum at the archeological site as well as the museum in Oxaca we saw a number of small vessels shaped like the clawed feet of animals. They may have been used for offerings or for incense:

This vessel was discovered in a tomb in Monte Albán in 1995 and represents a woman dressed in the jaguar headdress of a warrior. She is sitting on a throne-like platform:

The jaguar was the animal of the absolute elite in Mesoamerican societies being associated with the highest power and authority. This representation of a woman also indicates a role in the power structure of Zapotec society.

Below is a funerary urn shaped like a god, maybe the god of maize, given the two cobs in the headdress . The top part is a lid:

Some original carved stones being safeguarded in the museum: