email
The Silk Route - Monte Alban, Mexico
americas asia pacific africa middle east europe

Mexico: Monte Alban
July 2016

Monte Alban

 

A fascinating site with an immense history stretching over 2000 years; intriguing carvings and one of the most interesting buildings in Mesoamerica: El Observatorio.

Plan of Monte Alban
Plan of Monte Alban on a north-south axis from a site information board. North is to the right.

 

Monte Alban was the greatest city of the Zapotecs, flourishing from 500 BC, though there had been people in the region for thousands of years.

The Y-shaped Oaxaca Valley is the homeland of the Zapotec people and Monte Alban was founded at the close of the Middle Preclassic 500-450 BC on a strategic hilltop location 400 m above the valley floor at the point where the Valley's three arms meet. It thus has an unsurpassed view over the whole of the Oaxaca heartland. The settlement developed rapidly to become the dominant centre of the culture, replacing San José Magote in the northern valley.1

The hilltop site is a naturally defensive one and was probably chosen for this reason. However, Monte Alban became a religious centre which naturally developed into a trading hub as the people attending religious ceremonies traded goods they brought with them. It extended for 22 sq km, the whole Zapotec-dominated area being 200 sq km. At its peak the population of Monte Alban was around 35,000.

Monte Alban
Model of a typical Monte Alban temple and platform in the site museum.

Thus it is a site with a long complex history, with five distinct phases: I, II, III, IV and V.1 Phases I and II date from the Middle and Late Preclassic - from around 500 BC to 150 AD. Phase III survived through the Classic and Epiclassic periods until around 800 AD, Phase IV appears at the end of the Epiclassic around 650 AD and then Phase V which existed in the Late Postclassic, to the time of the Spanish Conquest. Altogether that is almost 2,000 years of civilisation.

Until recently it was thought to have been abandoned around 700 AD, but discoveries at Atzompa have shown that the Zapotec were still here around 900 AD.

Monte Alban
Looking north over the Valley of Oaxaca from the North Platform. Sister site Atzompa on its lower hilltop with a winding road leading up to it on the left and Oaxaca stretches down the valley on the right.
Monte Alban
Round corners are not uncommon at Monte Alban, here on the eastern side of the North Platform.
Monte Alban
Remains of a residence and Tomb 56 on the east side of the North Platform. So close to the ceremonial centre this was probably an elite residence.

The city was governed by the priestly class with the majority of the residents living in houses on terraces cut out of the hillsides below the ceremonial centre. Crops such as corn, beans and squash were also grown on hillside terraces as well as medicinal plants.

The people also collected wild fruits and seeds, such as agave, and insects - grasshoppers (chapulin) cicadas and worms found in maguey plants. They hunted rabbit, armadillo, deer and even humming birds! The city also received tributes from the villages in the valleys as part of its income.

 

Monte Alban
Edificio X
With two distinct phases of building.
Monte Alban
Entering "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico" from the north west.
Monte Alban
"Conjunto Vertico Geodesico" from the south, the Temple of the Two Columns on the west side.

The site is entered at the north end, near the site museum. In the extreme north east corner is a structure known as Edificio X. The site information board here (the boards are very informative and worth reading) describes it as "a perfect example of the superposition of architectonic structures common to Mesoamerica". The lower building dates from Phase II (100 BC - 350 AD) and the upper from late Phase III to Phase IV (500-800 AD).

We climbed onto the North Platform and into a plaza which is called "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico" on the site map lying at the north end of the excavated site on a mound above the Grand Plaza. The geodesic vertex is a modern topographic measuring point used for mapping.

This was a ceremonial plaza with a platform and temple on each of its four sides.

Monte Alban
"Conjunto Vertico Geodesico"

 

Monte Alban
This urn shows a strong Mayan influence in the facial features. Acording to the museum info "an apparent cranial deformation accentuates a headdress which represents the deity known as "ave del pico ancho" - again this is the "god of the wide-beaked bird".

Tomb 77, 100 BC - 200 AD.
Museum of Anthropology,
Mexico City.2

The temple on the west side is today called the Temple of the Two Columns. The two columns for which it is named are made from a stone not found locally. The stones are carved with bas reliefs of the "God of the Wide Beaked Bird".

Monte Alban
The open rectangular decorative detail on the platform of the south temple of "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico" is very common at Monte Alban and something we hadn't seen elsewhere. This type of decoration is called "double scapula".
Traces of carving can be seen on one of the columns from the Temple of the Two Columns.



Monte Alban
The north west corner of the North Platform, west of "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico".
At the base of the steps on the right hand side is the remnant of a crouching jaguar decoration (below).
Monte Alban
Crouching jaguar decoration.
Monte Alban
West of the south temple of "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico".
Monte Alban
Looking south west over Monte Alban from "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico".
Monte Alban
This collection of skulls of children, aged between 6 and 12 years, was found in association with a residence dating from around 500 AD on the North Platform. Though the Zapotec people usually buried their family dead within the home to honour their ancestors, it is not known with this collection whether it was a sacrifice of decapitated children or skulls collected from various locations. Museum, Monte Alban.

 




Monte Alban
The east temple of "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico".

 



Monte Alban
Replica of a stela on the south slope of the south temple platform of "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico". c. 800 AD
Monte Alban
The original stela in the site museum.
Monte Alban
The stela is carved with images of the ruling elite of Monte Alban, four of the five being female. The main figures are a young man, represented as a jaguar, and an elderly woman, engaging in a ritual which is probably related to the handing over of power from one generation to the next. The other women are assumed to be relatives.
Monte Alban
Looking south along the west side of Monte Alban from the south platform of "Conjunto Vertico Geodesico".

 

 

 

"Conjunto Vertico Geodesico" stands at the highest point of the North Platform above a shelf with other buildings, including Patio Hundido which is a sunken court in the southernmost area. On the south side of Patio Hundido the North Platform drops down to the Grand Plaza.

These patios and temples are part of the huge ceremonial area which has been excavated on the hilltop. The Grand Plaza is the main monumental area, a hugely impressive space with many more temple platforms.

 

 

Monte Alban
Looking south west into the Grand Plaza over Patio Hundido south terrace with remains of columns. The further complex is Sistema M.

Monte Alban
Columns at the south edge of Patio Hundido and steps leading down into the Grand Plaza.
Monte Alban
West side of the Grand Plaza.
The nearest group of buildings is known as Sistema IV or Edificio K.
Monte Alban
The sunken court called Patio Hundido.
Monte Alban
Painstaking restoration under the blue tarpaulin in the south west corner of Patio Hundido.
Monte Alban
The Grand Plaza seen from the south terrace of Patio Hundido.
Monte Alban
The steep steps down to the Grand Plaza from the south terrace of Patio Hundido.

Down on the Grand Plaza we headed west to the nearest group of buildings, Sistema IV or Edificio K. The substantial temple platform has finely carved decorative detail and stands on the west side of its own walled patio with an eastern platform. On the north side Stela 18 stands 5.8 m tall - the tallest at Monte Alban. It is also the oldest, dating from around 2,000 years ago. It is thought to have been used to verify midday and to determine winter and summer solstice by the length of its shadow.

Monte Alban
North side of Sistema IV or Edificio K with Stela 18.
Monte Alban
South side of the North Platform with Stela 9 in front, seen from the Grand Plaza.
Monte Alban
Edificio de los Danzantes
Monte Alban
Slabs displayed on the south side of Edificio de los Danzantes. The building is the temple platform of Sistema M, a complex identical in layout and size to Sistema IV. This complex stands on the south west corner of the Grand Plaza.
Monte Alban
Slabs displayed on the south side of Edificio de los Danzantes, including a slab from a corner with two carved faces.

 

South to the most famous of Monte Alban's buildings: Edificio de Los Danzantes - the Building of the Dancers.

The slabs were set into the outside of a platform and some are obviously very old.1 Some of the Phase I slabs have writing in the form of glyphs representing days and names, and numbers represented by bars and dots.

 

Monte Alban
The horizontal figures are called "swimmers" rather than "dancers".

 

Stone slabs were found here carved with reliefs of figures in strange poses, frozen in what looks like a slow motion dance, hence the name. The figures have Olmec features with closed eyes and open mouths and are thought to represent conquered chiefs of neighbouring towns who were sacrificed in humiliating fashion - castration for instance. Sexual mutilation and nudity signify a contempt for the captives, consistent with the Mesoamerican taboo of nudity, which was considered scandalous.

Monte Alban
Original slabs in the museum.

Monte Alban
Display of Danzantes in Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.2
The single one on the left is original, I believe the wall is a copy.

Monte Alban is widely regarded as one of the earliest examples of a state government, ruling over an area in which there were many smaller settlements. There was a degree of military conquest, as evidenced by Los Danzantes among other things, but eventually rule by Monte Alban became the norm.3

Monte Alban
Original slabs still in place.
Monte Alban
Slabs still in original setting.
I believe these are original.

At a later date the Zapotecs dismantled the wall and the slabs were distributed throughout the site.

Copies have been made of those that were detached and the originals can be seen in the site museum. Where the slabs remained in place, under a roofed portion of the wall, the originals can be seen.

The building that we see today on top of the platform is thought to be the remains of a residential complex, a palace for high status priests perhaps.

Monte Alban
Original slab still in place.

 

Monte Alban
South Platform

At the south end of the site is the South Platform - Plataforma Sur, it's big but not as extensive as the North Platform.

 

Monte Alban
West side of Monte Alban from the South Platform. Sistema M on the left extending into the centre, Edificio de los Danzantes north of it, Sistema IV far right.


Monte Alban
On top of the South Platform, larger temple platform and patio; the smaller temple is on the left behind the trees.

 

On top of the South Platform are two temple platforms, the larger in a much better state than the smaller, separated by a patio.

 

The views from here are superb.

Monte Alban
View north over Monte Alban from the South Platform.
Monte Alban
El Observatorio

 

Just north of the South Platform, in the middle of the Grand Plaza, is the most intriguing building on the site, Building J called El Observatorio - the Observatory - for good reason. It is an arrow-shaped building pointing south west. In 1972 Anthony Averi and Robert Linsley published a paper4 in which they showed that "At the time of construction of the building, a line perpendicular to the base of the steps of J would have pointed to the rising position of the bright star Capella".

 

Monte Alban
Monte Alban
A conquered ruler depicted upside down and carrying what looks like a serpent bar which we had first seen in carvings at the Mayan site of Quirigua in Guatemala.

 

On top of the building are a few Los Danzante slabs and the exterior of the building was faced with over forty stone slabs, each carved with an inscription representing conquests between 100 BC and 200 AD. Each stone has the glyph for Monte Alban and below it an upside down head which represents the conquered people. There are also slabs with carvings of monkeys and crocodiles, animals which aren't found here so these may be emblematic of conquered peoples.

Many of the carvings are very worn and difficult to make out.

Monte Alban
The east side of Monte Alban.

We made our way up the east side of the site, past a number of temple platforms lined up along the perimeter and a palace.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban, the east side.
On the right El Palacio, in the middle Building P with altar/adoratory in front, and on its north side Building II.
Monte Alban
Looking south: the same buildings showing their location wrt the central group: Building P is directly opposite Building H with the Adoratory/altar in between.
Monte Alban
Little remains of El Palacio, a huge residence.
Monte Alban
Building II with an entrance on the south side.

 

Building P north of El Palacio had an unusual feature - a light chamber formed by a narrow chimney in the staircase, thought to have been used to record the sun passing at zenith which happens twice a year.

A prominent position in the centre of the Grand Plaza is occupied by three buildings G,H and I which may have been thought of as a single structure. Between H and P there is an Adoratory, also called an altar or shrine.

Sometime during Phase II a tunnel was constructed linking Building P with the central Buildings G, H and I and Adoratory. It has been speulated that this was to allow a priest in the temple of Building P to disappear and reappear as if by magic at one of the central structures.5

In fact, there is a network of tunnels beneath Monte Alban. Some of the tunnels are very small and there are tunnels outside the ceremonial site where a number of tombs are located in the north west.

 

Monte Alban
Tunnel in front of Building P, Building II to the north.

 

Monte Alban
The Adoratory/altar between Buildings P and H. It has two tunnel entrances, flat in the ground, one on the west and one on the east side.
Monte Alban
The south facing staircase of Building I with unusual curved corners.
Monte Alban
Buildings G, H and I run north-south in the centre of the Grand Plaza just north of El Observatorio.
Monte Alban
Ceremonial vessel with glyphs representing water and a model of streams on the lid; the symbolism evokes the celestial region where the clouds originate.

Adoratorio, 100 BC - 200 AD.
Museum of Anthropology,
Mexico City.2

Originally Buildings G, H, I and J did not look as if they occupied the central spine of the site. Later builders extended Sisteme IV and M so that they appear to do so.5

Building G on the north end has a staircase on its north face, Building H in the middle a monumental staircase on its east face and Building I on the south end a staircase on its south face. With such a prominent location and impressive staircase of Building H this length of three buildings must have occupied an important position in the Zapotec rituals.

Monte Alban
The nine-peaked mountain seen from Yagul
Monte Alban
Adoratory/altar in the middle of the eastern strip of the Grand Plaza between Buildings H and P. The people on the left are grouped around a tunnel entrance on the edge of the altar, there is a similar one on the right hand side, just out of shot.

Perhaps Building H facing east was associated with the rising sun. The Zapotec could observe the movement of the sun here very well and understood the agricultural significance of equinoxes and solstices. On the shortest day the sun set between two mountains and behind a nine-peaked mountain - they associated death with the number nine.

Monte Alban
Magnificent jade pectoral in the shape of a bat mask.

Adoratorio, 100 BC - 200 AD.
Museum of Anthropology,
Mexico City.2

Between these three buildings and the eastern range of platforms was the sunken Adoratory/altar, directly in front of the staircase of Building H, a multi-level platform sunk into the ground. A multiperson sacrificial burial and a fabulous jade bat mask were found here as well as many other high quality items.5

 

Monte Alban
Building 1 with the ball court behind.
Monte Alban
Unusual disc-shaped decoration on Building 1.
Monte Alban
This was found in the north east corner of the Grand Plaza and is now in the site museum. c 800 AD
The stone shows three individuals. The central figure, of advanced age, appears to be lying on his back on some kind of stretcher; on the left a figure is making some kind of offering with hand extended, on the right someone disguised as a bird. There are glyphs representing dates and names. The meaning of the scene is unknown, but certainly the figures would have been from the ruling class and perhaps it is to do with death and the transference of power.

At the north east corner of the Grand Plaza Building 1 is another impressive stepped platform with a stela on top. It stands in front of the ball court to the east. The platform has unusual disc-shaped decorations - perhaps representing the ball?

Monte Alban
Ball Court c 100 BC.
Top left is the south east corner of the North Platform.

The information board describes the ball game in a slightly different way to much of what we had learned previously. For instance, it says that not only was the game a religious activity, it could also be used to resolve civil disputes. The game was played by hitting the ball with any part of the body except the hands and feet, to move it around the court. It is not known how points were scored. No evidence of rings in the sloping walls have been found, as at many other ball courts, and no evidence of human sacrifice. Monte Alban had ball five courts in total.

Monte Alban
The ball court is the common I shape. This is the south cross- section; in the south west corner a niche can be seen. Also there is, at ground level, what looks to be the entrance to a low tunnel - there are several of these in the ball court. The building in the background is Sistema IV.

Monte Alban

 

Monte Alban

 

 

The ball court has a niche in its north east and south west corners, perhaps to hold a statue of a deity, and it also has several low entrances to what may be tunnels. In the centre of the playing area is a ball court marker.

 

Monte Alban is a really superb Mesoamerican site with much of interest and intrigue, it's easy to spend several hours exploring.

 

References

  1. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe & Rex Koontz, Seventh Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  2. Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
  3. PNAS: War and early state formation in Oaxaca, Mexico, Charles S. Spencer.
  4. JSTOR Journal Article: Mound J, Monte Alba, Possible Astronomical Orientation, Anthony F. Aveni and Robert M. Linsley American Antiquity Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 1972), pp. 528-531
  5. How Monte Alban Represented Itself Joyce Marcus