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Enormous Ancient Building Identified Beneath Monte Albán’s Main Plaza

Enormous Ancient Building Identified Beneath Monte Albán’s Main Plaza

Researchers in Mexico have discovered a vast ancient building buried beneath the Main Plaza at the ancient capital of Monte Albán.

Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site located in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán Municipality, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, approximately 9 km (5.59 miles) west of Oaxaca City. Representing one of the first developed cities in pre-Hispanic Mexico, this expansive civic-ceremonial center was situated on top of an artificially levelled ridge about 1,940 meters (6,364 ft.) above mean sea level and it rises 400 meters (1,312 ft.) from the valley floor.

Over the years, archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of artificial terraces and dozens of mounds concealing lost architecture that completely covered the entire ridgeline. Now, buried beneath the surface of Monte Albán’s Main Plaza researchers from the University of Oklahoma recently scanned and identified a hitherto unknown ritualistic building.

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Reappraising the Monte Albán Plaza

Monte Albán was founded in 500 BC and became a powerful regional capital with many impressive stone buildings featuring a highly developed artistic style and written language system. The Main Plaza at Monte Albán was built, expanded upon, and remodeled over 1,000 years - before the site’s eventual demise around 850 AD. The ancient metropolis was partially excavated in the 1930s and the newly discovered building is similar to the temples discovered back then, which evidence suggested were used ritually, for burning incense , making offerings, and bloodletting.

Monte Albán. ( Dr. Marc Levine )

This new discovery was made by Dr. Marc Levine, assistant curator of archaeology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences . Using ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistance, and gradiometry to locate the structure, the researcher told KFOR that everything at this site “is deeply symbolic.” Furthermore, the intrepid explorer added that this new discovery “changes our understanding of the history of the Main Plaza and how it was organized and used.”

A Site Worth its Weight in Gold, Culturally

For almost a century, researchers have studied and investigated many of the stone buildings located around the Main Plaza at Monte Albán, which is deemed so important to modern Mexican culture that the site is featured on the country’s 20 peso note. However, the actual plaza itself has now been analyzed. Professor Levine says that to put the building in context we can look towards the “National Mall in Washington, D.C.” What he means by this is that every monument and every building on that mall has “a significance and was thought over, carefully planned and oriented in a certain way.” And the same goes for Monte Albán, according to the researcher.

Using ground penetrating radar at Monte Albán. Marc Levine )

To lift the lost building from its time capsule the OU team used drones to digitally map the entirety of Monte Albán’s Main Plaza and its surrounding structures and high resolution 3-D images revealed the sizes of all of the buried buildings. Levine estimates his team will spend the next two years analyzing all of their data to complete their study of the plaza. Their ultimate goal is to calculate how much work was involved in creating the site.

Ancient Mexican Vs Egyptian Pyramids

Since the creation of Lidar scanning technology, Mexico’s ancient secrets have been slowly revealed. For example, in July this year, the Guardian announced a mind blowing discovery at Aguada Fénix , near the Guatemalan border in Mexico’s Tabasco state. Scientists using an aerial remote-sensing method “discovered the largest and oldest-known structure built by the ancient Maya civilization – a colossal rectangular elevated platform built between 1000 and 800 BC.” Unlike Mexico’s other pyramids , this one was constructed with clay and earth, but like all of them, it was used for mass public rituals.

This massive ancient structure measures 1,400 meters, almost a mile long, by 400 meters (a quarter-mile) wide, it stood 10 to 15 meters (33 to 50 ft.) high, and it is estimated that its total volume exceeded ancient Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza . Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza was built 1,500 years earlier and as such it has become the outright winner so far as the most talked about pyramid in the world, but it isn't the biggest pyramid by a long shot.

The greatest of all Great Pyramids is the Great Pyramid of Cholula , an ancient Aztec temple in Puebla, Mexico, with a base four times larger than Giza's, and nearly twice the volume. What we can derive from the size and number of the Mexican pyramids is, if the building of pyramids was indeed an act of prestige by powerful, semi-divine rulers, than the regality and control held by kings in Mexico made the Pharaohs of Egypt look like mere landlords.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula. (juancramosgonzalez /Adobe Stock)


Research in the News

MADAP Co-Directors Alex Badillo and Marc Levine receive a “Win-a-Lab” grant from the Edify software platform to develop lesson plans where students will engage with a virtual reality model of Monte Albán’s Main Plaza, 12/3/20.

Press release on our discovery of a buried building located beneath Monte Albán’s Main Plaza can be found on the website of the Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma. See here.

MADAP Co-Director, Dr. Alex Elvis Badillo, discusses the Monte Albán Virtual Reality Laboratory (MAVRL) on the podcast ArchaeoCafe with host Dr. Otis Crandell, May 7, 2020.

Research from the Monte Alban Geophysical Archaeological Project (MAGAP) was featured in the “First Civilizations” television program, which first aired on PBS on 4/24/18. The episode, entitled “War,” can be seen here.

Photos from the Monte Albán Geophysical Archaeology Project were featured in an exhibit at the Monte Albán archaeological site museum. The exhibit celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Monte Albán’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1987-2017). See more here.


Monte Alban

Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, approximately 9 km west of Oaxaca City.

The site is located on a low mountainous range rising above the plain in the central section of the Valley of Oaxaca where the latter’s northern Etla, eastern Tlacolula, and southern Zimatlán & Ocotlán (or Valle Grande) branches meet.

The archaeological ruins on the nearby Atzompa and El Gallo hills to the north are traditionally considered to be an integral part of the ancient city as well.

Monte Alban is one of the few civilizations in the world that clearly depicts the creation of the State as a form of government. The economy consisted of tributes from the surrounding communities and crops grown on the nearby hills.

Most of what we know about the Monte Alban archaeological site comes from hieroglyphs, which may have been the first written language in Mexico.
Most of the ruins are also roped off so climbing stairs is limited to a few areas.

Origin of the name

The etymology of the site’s present-day name is unclear, and tentative suggestions regarding its origin range from a presumed corruption of a native Zapotec name such as “Danibaan” (Sacred Hill) to a colonial-era reference to a Spanish soldier by the name Montalbán or to the Alban Hills of Italy.

The ancient Zapotec name of the city is not known, as abandonment occurred centuries before the writing of the earliest available ethnohistorical sources.

Site history

As indicated by Blanton’s survey of the site, the Monte Albán hills appear to have been uninhabited prior to 500 BCE (the end of the Rosario ceramic phase).

At that time, San José Mogote was the major population center in the valley and head of a chiefdom that likely controlled much of the northern Etla branch. Perhaps as many as three or four other smaller chiefly centers controlled other sub-regions of the valley, including Tilcajete in the southern Valle Grande branch and Yegüih in the Tlacolula arm to the east.

Competition and warfare seem to have characterized the Rosario phase, and the regional survey data suggests the existence of an unoccupied buffer zone between the San José Mogote chiefdom and those to the south and east.

It is within this no-man’s land that at the end of the Rosario period Monte Albán was founded, quickly reaching a population estimate of around 5,200 by the end of the following Monte Albán Ia phase (ca.300 BCE).

This remarkable population increase was accompanied by an equally rapid decline at San José Mogote and neighbouring satellite sites, making it likely that its chiefly elites were directly involved in the founding of the future Zapotec capital.

This rapid shift in population and settlement, from dispersed localized settlements to a central urban site in a previously unsettled area, has been referred to as the “Monte Alban Synoikism” by Marcus and Flannery in reference to similar recorded instances in the Mediterranean area in antiquity. Although it was previously thought that a similar process of large-scale abandonment, and thus participation in the founding of Monte Albán, occurred at other major chiefly centers such as Yegüih and Tilcajete, at least in the latter’s case this now appears to be unlikely.

A recent project directed by Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has shown that rather than being abandoned the site actually grew significantly in population during the periods Monte Albán Early I and Late I (ca. 500-300 BCE and 300-100 BCE, respectively) and might have actively opposed incorporation into the increasingly powerful Monte Albán state.

By the beginning of the Terminal Formative (Monte Albán II phase, ca. 100 BCE-CE 200) Monte Albán had an estimated population of 17,200 making it one of the largest Mesoamerican cities at the time.

The city has excellent views all the way around. As its political power grew, Monte Albán expanded militarily, through cooption, and via outright colonization into several areas outside the Valley of Oaxaca, including the Cañada de Cuicatlán to the north and the southern Ejutla and Sola de Vega valleys.

During this period and into the subsequent Early Classic (Monte Albán IIIA phase, ca. CE 200-500) Monte Albán was the capital of a major regional polity that exerted a dominating influence over the Valley of Oaxaca and across much of the Oaxacan highlands.

As mentioned earlier, evidence at Monte Albán is suggestive of high-level contacts between the site’s elites and those at the powerful central Mexican city of Teotihuacan, where archaeologists have identified a neighbourhood inhabited by ethnic Zapotecs from the valley of Oaxaca.

By the Late Classic (Monte Albán IIIB/IV, ca. CE 500-1000) the site’s influence outside and inside the valley declined, and elites at several other centers, once part of the Monte Albán state, began to assert their autonomy, including sites such as Cuilapan and Zaachila in the Valle Grande and Lambityeco, Mitla, and El Palmillo in the eastern Tlacolula arm. The latter is the focus of an ongoing project by Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas of Chicago’s Field Museum.

By the end of the same period (ca. AD 900-1000) the ancient capital was largely abandoned, and the once-powerful Monte Albán state was replaced by dozens of competing for smaller polities, a situation that lasted up to the Spanish conquest.

Research history

Being visible from anywhere in the central part of the Valley of Oaxaca, the impressive ruins of Monte Albán attracted visitors and explorers throughout the colonial and modern eras.

Among others, Guillermo Dupaix investigated the site in the early 19th century CE, J. M. García published a description of the site in 1859, and A. F. Bandelier visited and published further descriptions in the 1890s.

A first intensive archaeological exploration of the site was conducted in 1902 by Leopoldo Batres, then General Inspector of Monuments for the Mexican government under Porfirio Diaz.

It was however only in 1931 that large-scale scientific excavations were undertaken under the direction of Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso. In 1933, Eulalia Guzmán assisted with the excavation of Tomb 7.

Over the following eighteen years, Caso and his colleagues Ignacio Bernal and Jorge Acosta excavated large sections within the monumental core of the site, and much of what is visible today in areas open to the public was reconstructed at that time.

Besides resulting in the excavation of a large number of residential and civic-ceremonial structures and hundreds of tombs and burials, one lasting achievement of the project by Caso and his colleagues was the establishment of a ceramic chronology (phases Monte Albán I through V) for the period between the site’s founding in ca. 500 BCE to end of the Postclassic period in CE 1521.

The investigation of the periods preceding Monte Albán’s founding was a major focus of the Prehistory and Human Ecology Project started by Kent Flannery of the University of Michigan in the late 1960s.
Over the following two decades this project documented the development of socio-political complexity in the valley from the earliest Archaic period (ca. 8000-2000 BCE) to the Rosario phase (700-500 BCE) immediately preceding Monte Albán, thus setting the stage for an understanding of the latter’s founding and developmental trajectory.
In this context, among the major accomplishments of Flannery’s work in Oaxaca are his extensive excavations at the important formative center of San José Mogote in the Etla branch of the valley, a project co-directed with Joyce Marcus of the University of Michigan.

A further important step in the understanding of the history of occupation of the Monte Albán site was reached with the Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the Valley of Oaxaca Project begun by Richard Blanton and several colleagues in the early 1970s. It is only with their intensive survey and mapping of the entire site that the real extension and size of Monte Albán beyond the limited area explored by Caso became known.
Subsequent seasons of the same project under the direction of Blanton, Gary Feinman, Steve Kowalewski, Linda Nicholas, and others extended the survey coverage to practically the entire valley, producing an invaluable amount of data on the region’s changing settlement patterns from the earliest times to the arrival of the Spanish in CE 1521.

The site

The partially excavated civic-ceremonial center of the Monte Albán site is situated atop an artificially-leveled ridge, which with an elevation of about 1,940 m (6,400 ft) above mean sea level rises some 400 m from the valley floor, in an easily defensible location. In addition to the aforementioned monumental core, the site is characterized by several hundred artificial terraces and a dozen clusters of mounded architecture covering the entire ridgeline and surrounding flanks.

Besides being one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, Monte Albán’s importance stems also from its role as the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic center for close to a thousand years. Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC, by the Terminal Formative (ca.100 BC-AD 200) Monte Albán had become the capital of a large-scale expansionist polity that dominated much of the Oaxacan highlands and interacted with other Mesoamerican regional states such as Teotihuacan to the north (Paddock 1983 Marcus 1983). The city had lost its political pre-eminence by the end of the Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750) and soon thereafter was largely abandoned. Small-scale reoccupation, opportunistic reutilization of earlier structures and tombs, and ritual visitations marked the archaeological history of the site into the Colonial period.

Monuments

The Gran Plaza was the heart of the ceremonial center, and headquarters for the priestly class. The monumental center of Monte Albán is the Main Plaza, which measures approximately 300 meters by 200 meters. The perimeter is lined with buildings, and also contains four structures in the middle. The site’s main civic-ceremonial and elite-residential structures are located around it or in its immediate vicinity, and most of these have been explored.

To the north and south the Main Plaza is delimited by large platforms accessible from the plaza via monumental staircases.

On its eastern and western sides the plaza is similarly bounded by a number of smaller platform mounds on which stood temples and elite residences, as well as one of two ballcourts known to have existed at the site.

A north-south spine of mounds occupies the center of the plaza and similarly served as platforms for ceremonial structures.

Upon entering the Gran Plaza, the first structure you come across is the Juego de Pelota (100 BC). Contrary to other Mesoamerican cities, there is no evidence that the outcome of the games led to death. Instead, this and the four other ball courts at Monte Alban were more like modern day judicial courts, settling disputes.

Games were played with a rubber ball that led to points when it went through the rings on either side of the ball court. The difficult part for the players was that they could only use their hips, elbows, and knees.

Despite looking like seats today, the sloping sides of the arena were coated with a thick mixture of lime to form a polished surface for the ball to slide back down into the center.

Although you get a good view of the Juego de Pelota before you descend into the Gran Plaza, follow the path left around the ball court. The viewpoint from the other side provides a backdrop of a pyramid and lush trees. The path then leads to the floor of the Gran Plaza.

Heading towards the South Platform, the second building on your left is Edificio P.
Building P is significant as it helped the Zapotec keep track of the calendar.
The light chamber formed by a narrow chimney in the stairway marked the sun’s zenith twice a year.

Constructed during the golden age, this building was once a temporary home to the elite of Monte Alban. Although you can’t climb up the stairs, you can still see the blind entrance.

The narrow pathway directly behind the door blocks the view into the palace, providing privacy for its occupants.

At the center of the patio is a small alter adjacent to a tunnel. The tunnel has yet to be explored, but it is thought to have been used for access to other structures in the Gran Plaza.

El Observatorio

The last structure in the center of the Gran Plaza is the irregular shaped Observatory (100 BC).
Whereas all the other buildings in Monte Alban align to a grid layout, the Observatory defies all rules.
Shaped like an arrowhead, it was built to observe heavenly events.

In Zapotec culture, astronomy played a crucial role in urban planning as astronomy was undertaken daily. Only a select few high class citizens were trained, since childhood, in astronomical observation.

They were able to calculate agricultural cycles, predict the seasonal variances, and the proximity of the rainy season. The knowledge they possessed helped create the development of the State in Monte Alban.

On the south side of the Observatory are hieroglyphs depicting the conquests of other towns between 100 BC to 200 AD. An upside down head placed under the symbol for Monte Alban symbolizes each victory.

This is thought to have reinforced the notion of a powerful army among residents, and a deterrence for potential attackers.

Plataforma Sur

Before you climb the imposing Plataforma Sur, take a look at the base cornerstones that have detailed reliefs.
At the top are two more structures, but the highlight is the panoramic lookout.
You can see the entire city of Monte Alban on one side, and then the commanding view of the valley from the other side of the platform.

TPA Complexes

The west side of Monte Alban’s Gran Plaza is bookended by two temple-patio-altar complexes.
These are thought to mirror the function of modern day churches, and served as ceremonial enclosures.
The walls most likely supported wood and earth roofs to provide privacy for participants.
Sacrifices and offerings probably occurred at the central altar.

Galeria de los Danzantes

One characteristic of Monte Albán is the large number of carved stone monuments one encounters throughout the plaza. The earliest examples are the so-called “Danzantes” (literally, dancers), found mostly in the vicinity of Building L and which represent naked men in contorted and twisted poses, some of them genitally mutilated. The artistic representation of facial features shows an Olmec influence.

The current theory for the engravings is that they depict the rulers from neighboring towns that were captured and sacrificed.
There is evidence that indicates the men were castrated, and the blood was used for an offering to the gods or in a fertility ritual.
The presence of symbols and numerals creates a timeline for Monte Alban’s history.
The only unaltered section is the roof, as the Zapotecs dismantled the remaining walls to be used in future buildings.

The figures are said to represent sacrificial victims, which explains the morbid characteristics of the figures. The Danzantes feature physical traits characteristic of Olmec culture.

The 19th century notion that they depict dancers is now largely discredited, and these monuments, dating to the earliest period of occupation at the site (Monte Albán I), are now seen to clearly represent tortured, sacrificed war prisoners, some identified by name, and may depict leaders of competing centers and villages captured by Monte Albán.

Over 300 “Danzantes” stones have been recorded to date, and some of the better-preserved ones can be viewed at the site’s museum.

Sandwiched between the two TPA Complexes is Building L.
Archeologists theorize that El Palacio on the other side of the Gran Plaza was used as a residence, but this palace was primarily used for administrative and ceremonial purposes.

Much like a modern office, the shape of the rooms were in constant flux. Over the years, they were shortened or enlarged several times to accommodate different requirements.
Located on the left side of Building L is a pair of tombs.

Since it is not common in Monte Alban culture to have exterior tombs, it reflects earlier construction. You will find a series of reliefs on the interior wall if you duck your head and enter the semi-exposed chamber.

Have you ever wondered what a Mesoamerican clock looked like? Well, this basic stela at the Monte Alban is it.
Stela 18 was used to mark the zenith each day.
Midday was one of only four subdivisions in a day for pre-Hispanics. In addition, the stela’s shadow also marked the changing of seasons.
During the summer and winter solstices, the shadow would extend the furthest south and north respectively.

Stela 9 is composed of four distinct glyphs, one for each face and direction.
The southern face depicts an embellished male figure. Facing the east, the carvings show two priests talking.
The western side showcases a very important priest, and the dates that mark his accomplishments.
The most important relief is on the north side, and features a prominent man listening to another.
Numeric and symbolic glyphs at the base may mark an important milestone for the site. Based on the placement of the stela, these people probably performed these actions on the North Platform.

North Platform

The North Platform is one of the most complex aspects of Monte Alban. The sheer size combined with the quantity of structures and interconnections is remarkable.

Depending on changing functions, the platform was constantly being remodeled over the years.
Try to imagine yourself walking beneath a giant portico supported by 12 columns, and descending into a recessed patio.
Whereas the masses could congregate in the Gran Plaza, only the elite would be able to ascend to discuss more private affairs.
While at the top, take your time and enjoy the view over the Gran Plaza from among the columns.
Turning around, you can appreciate the hidden Patio Hundido, and two structures on both sides.
To the far right is the substantial VG Complex.

The VG Complex

The VG Complex had ceremonial purposes in the past, but now is referenced by the topographical measuring point used to map Monte Alban.
The structures to the north, east, and south all were temples.
The distinctive temple is to the west, where two columns of foreign stone supported a roof.
Engraved on the columns is the ‘God of the Wide Beaked Bird’.

When the temple on the south side expanded, a staircase was built from the main level of the North Platform to the top of the temple.
Along the way, the Zapotec’s placed a stela to document part of Monte Alban’s history.
The glyphs depict the transfer of power from generation to generation.
The striking aspect is that four out of five people were women!
Perhaps we have a lot to learn about gender equality from our Mesoamerican ancestors.

Edificio Enjoyado

On the way to the exit, and beneath the east temple of the VG Complex, there is a structure with stone disc panels.

The decoration found on Edificio Enjoyado appears on only two other buildings, but neither are in as good condition. The combination of these designs, a collection of ceramics, and a possible mica workshop lead archeologists to believe there was a small Teotihuacan population in Monte Alban.

It is known that some Zapotec’s resided in Teotihuacan, so it may have been the world’s first exchange program.
It is also noteworthy that this platform leads directly to the North Platform so the two cultures must have been intertwined more than we know.

Most homes of Monte Alban citizens were not constructed to last. However, the ruling class built their homes out of stone, mud, adobe, lime, and sand.

That is why visitors are still able to see the foundations, and the tombs were discovered still intact. All tombs have since been sealed to prevent deterioration, with artifacts inside being relocated to local museums.

Both the wealth and importance of the individual entombed helped to determine the quantity and quality of the goods they were buried with. These often included objects made from clay, stone, shell, jade, bone, gold, and silver.

The Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead, of placing food and offerings on gravestones originates from this tradition.

Hacia la Tumba 104

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Monte Alban is Hacia la Tumba 104.
The walls of the elegant house are grouped around a central patio.
Inside the tomb was a wide assortment of ornate clay products.
The surrounding walls were painted with priests bearing gifts.

Residencia y Tumba 56

Tumba 56 is rather small, but what makes it special is the archway that leads to the tomb.
Large slabs of stone were used to create the arch of the roof.
Inside was one small niche where offerings were placed.

Hacia la Tumba 7

Located to the west of the parking lot, and before the official entrance to Monte Alban is Tomb 7.
This tomb is famous for the Mixtec treasure, and is the best reason to visit Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.

Hacia la Tumba 105 y Juego de Pelota Chica

These two structures are located behind the small parking lot.
They are technically free to visit, but you will definitely want to still see the rest of Monte Alban.
The tomb is underneath the palace, which is one of the largest at the site.
The small ball court looks like it was a training facility for kids to practice before moving up to the ‘big leagues’.

A different type of carved stone is found on the nearby Building J in the center of the Main Plaza, a building characterized by an unusual arrow-like shape and an orientation that differs from most other structures at the site. Inserted within the building walls are over 40 large carved slabs dating to Monte Albán II and depicting place-names, occasionally accompanied by additional writing and in many cases characterized by upside-down heads.

Alfonso Caso was the first to identify these stones as “conquest slabs”, likely listing places the Monte Albán elites claimed to have conquered and/or controlled. Some of the places listed on Building J slabs have been tentatively identified, and in one case (the Cañada de Cuicatlán region in northern Oaxaca) Zapotec conquest has been confirmed through archaeological survey and excavations.

The site of Monte Alban contains several pieces of evidence through the architecture of the site to suggest that there was social stratification within the settlement. Walls that were as large as nine meters tall and twenty meters wide were built around the settlement and would have been used not only to create a boundary between Monte Alban and neighboring settlements but also prove the power of the elites within the community.

In Scott Hutson’s analysis of the relationships between the commoners and the elites in Monte Alban he notes that the monumental mounds that were found in the site seemed to be evenly spaced throughout the site so that each house would be close enough to a mound that it could easily be kept under surveillance. Hutson also makes note that over time the style of houses seem to have changed to become more private to those living in the buildings making it harder for information to be obtained by outsiders. These changes to the ability of the elites to gain information about the private lives of its citizens would have played a key role in the internal political structure of the settlement.

Many of the artifacts excavated at Monte Albán in over a century of archaeological exploration can be seen at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City and at the Museo Regional de Oaxaca in the ex-convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca City. The latter museum houses, among others, many of the objects discovered in 1932 by Alfonso Caso in Monte Albán’s Tomb 7, a Classic period Zapotec tomb that was opportunistically reused in Postclassic times for the burial of Mixtec elite individuals. Their burial was accompanied by some of the most spectacular burial offerings of any site in the Americas.

The site is a popular tourist destination for visitors to Oaxaca and has a small site museum mostly displaying original carved stones from the site. Trails at the site are also used by joggers, hikers, and birders.

Tourist information & Entrance

Opening Hours: 8:00 to 16:30 every day.
Entrance Fee: $3.75

Photography: There’s apparently a 45 peso fee for using your camera but this isn’t usually enforced. You might want to put away your camera just in case.

Best time to visit: Go early in the morning before it gets too hot and the tour buses arrive. Monte Alban is popular with local tourists on weekends so visit during the week if possible.

Parking: Another good reason to get there early is to score a spot at the free parking lot near the entrance. On a busy day it can fill up by 10-11am, especially with tour buses. There’s more parking on the side of the road but you’ll have to walk uphill to the entrance.

Museum: There’s a small museum next to the cafe that’s worth a quick stop but all of the signs for the exhibits are in Spanish.

Cafe: The cafe is a little pricey (as you’d expect) but the vallley views from the terrace are amazing. The menu offers a decent selection of food and drinks.

Gift shop: You can buy Monte Alban books and souvenirs in the small gift shop.

Washrooms: There are clean and well-maintained toilets inside and outside the park

What to Bring: It’s a big site with little shade so you’ll need sunscreen, a hat and water. You could spend hours at Monte Alban so bring snacks to avoid getting hangry. Don’t forget your camera!

How to get there?

From Oaxaca by tourist bus

Tourist buses run every hour to and from Monte Alban for $2-$4 roundtrip.
The ride takes around 25-30 minutes.

From Oaxaca by local public bus

Take a bus marked for Alamos or Atzompa from Calle de Tinoco y Palacios north of the Zocalo.
It takes roughly 40 minutes to reach the final stop.

From there, hike up a dirt path to the road that leads to Monte Alban and follow that uphill to the site.
This takes an additional 45 minutes each way.

From Oaxaca by taxi

By taxi from Oaxaca $8-$10 (11 min).

Google map of Monte Alban

Tourist Assistance + Emergency Numbers

You can dial 078 from any phone, where you can find free information about tourist attractions, airports, travel agencies, car rental companies, embassies and consulates, fairs and exhibitions, hotels, hospitals, financial services, migratory and other issues.

Or dial the toll-free (in Mexico) number 01-800-006-8839.

You can also request information to the email [email protected]

MORE EMERGENCY NUMBERS:

General Information: 040 (not free)

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Around Oaxaca:The Zapotec and Mixtec heartland

The region around Oaxaca can be divided into two parts: the Central Valleys, which radiate from the state capital to the South and East, towards Mitla, Ocotlán and Zaachila and the Mixteca, which extends Northwest towards Puebla and arcs down to the Pacific coast via Tlaxiaco and Pinotepa Nacional. The Central Valleys include the state's most famous and frequented archeological centres, craft villages and colourful markets, while the Mixteca, rich in ruined Dominican convents and ancient towns and villages, is less visited but well worth exploring.

This area saw the development of some of the most highly advanced civilisations in pre-Hispanic Mexico, most notably the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Their craft skills - particularly Mixtec weaving, pottery and metalworking - were unrivalled, and the architecture and planning of their cities, especially at Zapotec-built Monte Albán, stand out among ancient Mexico's greatest achievements. Traditional ways of life and indigenous languages are still vigorously preserved by Mixtec and Zapotec descendants in villages today.

Note that many of the towns outside Oaxaca don't observe daylight-saving time, so your watch might be an hour off local time.

The 50km Oaxaca valley is the cradle of some of the earliest civilisations in Mexico. The story begins here with the Zapotecs, who founded their first city - now called San José Mogoté and little more than a collection of mounds a few kilometres North of the state capital - some time before 1000 BC. As the city grew in wealth, trading with Pacific coastal communities, its inhabitants turned their eyes to the stars, and by 500 BC they had invented the first Mexican calendar and were using hieroglyphic writing. At this time, San José, together with smaller villages in the area, established a new administrative capital at Monte Albán, a vantage point on a mountain spur overlooking the principal Oaxaca valley. By waging war on potential rivals, the new city soon came to dominate an area that extended well beyond the main valley - the peculiar danzante figures carved in stone that you can see at the ruins today are widely considered to be depictions of prisoners captured in battle. By 600 BC, the population had expanded to such a degree that the Zapotecs endeavoured to level the Monte Albán spur to create more space, essentially forming a massive plateau. The resulting engineering project boggles the mind: without the aid of the wheel or beasts of burden, millions of tons of earth were shifted to build a vast, flat terrace on which the Zapotecs constructed colossal pyramids, astronomical observatories and palaces. By the time of Christ, the city was accommodating some twenty thousand people, and Monte Albán had a sphere of influence as extensive as that of its great trading partner to the North, Teotihuacán.

Just like Teotihuacán, Monte Albán mysteriously began to implode from about 700 AD, and the Zapotec influence across the Central Valleys waned. Only Yagul and Mitla, two smaller cities in the principal valley, expanded after this date, though they never reached the imperial glory of Monte Albán. As the Zapotecs disappeared, the gap they left behind was slowly filled by the Mixtecs, pre-Hispanic Mexico's finest craftsmen, who expanded into the Southern valleys from the North to occupy the Zapotecs' magnificent cities. Influenced by the Zapotec sculptors' abstract motifs on the walls at Mitla, the Mixtecs concentrated their artistic skills on metalwork and pottery, examples of which can be seen in the state capital's museums. By the fifteenth century, the Mixtecs had become the favoured artisans to Mexico's greatest empire, their conquerors, the Aztecs Bernal Díaz recounts that Moctezuma only ate from plates fashioned by Mixtec craftsmen.

The two pre-Hispanic archaeological complexes of Yagul and Mitla and a series of pre-historic caves and rock shelters on the Northern slopes of the Tlacolula valley in subtropical central Oaxaca form the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla World Heritage Site. Some of the shelters provide archaeological and rock-art evidence for the progress of nomadic hunter-gathers to incipient farmers. Ten thousand-year-old Cucurbitaceae seeds in one cave, Guilá Naquitz, are considered to be the earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in the continent, while corn cob fragments from the same cave are said to be the earliest documented evidence for the domestication of maize. The cultural landscape of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla demonstrates the link between man and nature that gave origin to the domestication of plants in North America, thus allowing the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations.

Imagine a great isolated hill at the junction of three broad valleys an island rising nearly a thousand feet from the green sea of fertility beneath it. An astonishing situation. But the Zapotecs were not embarrassed by the artistic responsibilities it imposed on them. They levelled the hill-top laid out two huge rectangular courts raised pyramidal altars or shrines at the centre, with other, much larger, pyramids at either end built great flights of steps alternating with smooth slopes of masonry to wall in the courts ran monumental staircases up the sides of the pyramids and friezes of sculpture round their base.

The plateau from the valley to the East, although nobody knows what the hill looked like before they built the pyramids which can clearly be seen, especially by clicking on the picture.

Even today, when the courts are mere fields of rough grass, and the pyramids are buried under an obscuring layer of turf, even today this high place of the Zapotecs remains extraordinarily impressive . . . Monte Albán is the work of men who knew their architectural business consummately well.

Aldous Huxley, Beyond the Mexique Bay

Since Aldous Huxley visited in the 1930s, little has changed at Monte Albán. The main structures have perhaps been cleared and restored a little more, but it's still the great flattened mountain-top (750m by 250m), the scale and overall layout of the ceremonial precinct and the views over the valley that impress more than any individual aspect of the site. Late afternoon, as the sun sinks into the valley, is the best time to see it.

It seems almost madness to have tried to build a city here, so far from the obvious livelihood of the valleys and without any natural water supply (in the dry season water was carried up and stored in vast urns). Yet that may have been the Zapotecs' point - to demonstrate their mastery of nature. Certainly, the rulers who lived here must have commanded a huge workforce, first to create the site, then later to transport materials and keep it supplied. What you see today is just the very centre of the city - the religious and political heart later used by the Mixtecs as a magnificent gold laden burial site - the dominating apex of the region between 300 and 700 AD. On the terraced hillsides below lived a bustling population of between 25,000 and 30,000 craftsmen, priests, administrators and warriors, all of who, presumably, were supported by tribute from the valleys. It's small wonder that so top-heavy a society was easily destabilised. This said, there is still much speculation as to why, just like Teotihuacán, the site had been abandoned by 1000 AD.

Monte Albán is just 9km Southwest of Oaxaca, up a steeply switchbacking road. There's a car park, restaurant and souvenir shop by the entrance, and a small museum in the same complex: the collection is tiny, but there are good photographs of the site and its surroundings before and after clearing and restoration.

You enter the rectangular Great Plaza at its Northeast corner. Sombre, grey and formal as it all appears now, in its heyday, with its roofs and sanctuaries intact, the whole place would have been brilliantly polychromed. The Plataforma Norte, to your right as you enter, the largest structure at Monte Albán, may have been the most important of all the temples here, although now the ceremonial buildings that line its sides are largely ruined. What survives is a broad stairway leading up to a platform enclosing a square sunken patio with an altar at its heart. This ceremonial centre was constructed between 400 and 750 AD, when Monte Albán was at its zenith. At the top of the stairs are the remains of a double row of six broad columns, which would originally have supported a roof to form a colonnade, dividing this plaza from the main one.

The sunken patio from the Northeast and Southwest corners.

There are also views looking back down the the site, from left to right, the Plataforma Sur, Edificios G, H and I with Monticulo J behind, Monticulo M and Sistema IV.

In these closer views of Plataforma Sur, the hole in the foreground is an altar.

It is possible to climb even higher for wider views.

The Eastern side of the Great Plaza consists of an almost continuous line of low buildings, reached by a series of staircases from the plaza. The first of them looks over the Juego de Pelota (ball-court), a simple I-shaped space with no apparent goals or target rings, obviously an early example. The ball-game was used as a means to solve conflict - it is believed that the losing team was sacrificed to the gods.

Otherwise, the platforms on the East side are relatively late constructions, dating from around 500 AD onwards. Facing them from the middle of the plaza is a long tripartite building (Edificios G, H and I) that must have played an important role in any rites celebrated here. The central section has broad staircases by which it can be approached from East or West - the lower end temples have smaller stairways facing North and South. From here a complex of tunnels runs under the site to several of the other temples, presumably to allow the priests to emerge suddenly and miraculously in any one of them. You can see the remains of several of these tunnels among the buildings on the East side. The complex from the East and Sistema IV (see below).

South of this central block, Monticulo J, known as the observatory, stands alone in the centre of the plaza - at 45 degrees to everything else - and its arrow-shaped design marks it out from its surroundings. Although the orientation is almost certainly for astronomical reasons, there's no evidence that this was actually an observatory more likely it was built (around 250 AD, but on the site of an earlier structure) to celebrate an earlier victory. The carvings and hieroglyphics on the back of the building apparently represent a list of towns captured by the Zapotecs: much of the imagery at Monte Albán points to a highly militaristic society. In the vaulted passage that runs through the heart of the building, several more panels carved in relief show danzante figures (dancers) - these, often upside down or on their sides and in no particular order, may have been reused from an earlier building. The second picture from the Southwest includes that side of Edificios G, H and I.

The Southern end of Monte Albán is dominated by its tallest structure, the unrestored Plataforma Sur, a vast square pyramid offering the best overview of the site, as well as fine panoramas of the surrounding countryside.

These views are of Oaxaca with the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán to the right of the close up picture below and the cathedral, partly hidden by trees, to the right of the other picture.

Looking back up the Western side of the plaza, you'll see Monticulo M and Sistema IV, probably the best-preserved buildings on the site. Both consist of a rectangular platform reached by a stairway from the plaza.

Looking South along the site over Monticulo J and Edificios G, H and I towards the Plataforma Norte and the view along the Eastern side of the Great Plaza with Oaxaca in the distance.

Monticulo M and Sistema IV from the plaza.

Between Monticulo M and Sistema IV, the gallery and building of Los Danzantes (the Dancers), are the most interesting features of Monte Albán. A low wall extending from Monticulo M to the base of the Danzantes building forms the gallery, originally faced all along with blocks carved in relief of Olmec or African-featured "dancers". Among the oldest (dating from around 500 BC) and most puzzling features of the site, only a few of these danzantes remain in situ. The significance of the nude male figures is disputed: many of them seem to have been cut open and may represent sacrificial victims or prisoners another suggestion is that the entire wall was a sort of medical textbook, or that the figures really are dancers, ball-players or acrobats. Whatever the truth, they show clear Olmec influence, and many of them have been pressed into use in later buildings throughout the site. There is also a row on display.

Several lesser buildings surround the main plaza, and although they're not particularly interesting, many contain tombs in which rich treasures were discovered (as indeed did some of the main structures themselves). Tumba 104, reached by a small path behind the Plataforma Norte or from the car park area, is the best preserved of these, with polychrome frescoes vividly revealing the mystical symbolism of the Zapotec gods. One of several in the immediate vicinity, this vaulted burial chamber still preserves excellent remains of murals. Above the entrance is a ceramic urn in the form of a figure seated in a jaguar throne. An image of Cocijo, the Zapotec rain god is in the centre of the headdress. When the tomb was opened in 1937 a vaulted burial chamber containing a single skeleton, surrounded by urns, perfuming pots, and other offerings, was discovered. Tumba 7, where the important collection of Mixtec jewellery now in the Oaxaca Museum was found, lies a few hundred metres down the main road from the site entrance. Built underneath a small temple, it was originally constructed by the Zapotecs towards the end of Monte Albán's heyday, but was later emptied by the Mixtecs, who buried one of their own chiefs here along with his magnificent burial trove.

Mitla, some 45km from Oaxaca, just off Highway 190 as it heads East towards Guatemala, involves a slightly longer excursion. It's easy enough to do, though: buses leave from the second-class terminal every thirty minutes or so throughout the day. On the way out here are several of the more easily accessible native villages, some of which have community museums. Check with the tourist office for which one has a market on the day you're going - there will be more buses and much more of interest once you get there. Also en route are a couple of smaller, lonelier ancient sites. If you rent a car in Oaxaca, you can take in all of this in a single day. If you want to explore the valley further, it's a good idea to stay in one of the villages, some of which have self-catering Tourist Yú'ù facilities, which are as comfortable as many of Oaxaca's budget hotels.

At Santa María del Tule, 13km East on Highway 190 as you head out of Oaxaca, you pass the famous Árbol del Tule in a churchyard by the road. This mighty tree, said to be at least 2000 years old (some say 3000), is a good 58m round, slightly fatter than it is tall (42m), with a diameter of just over 14m and weighs in around 636 tonnes. It has a volume of 817m³. A notice board gives all the vital statistics: suffice to say that it must be one of the oldest living (and flourishing) objects on earth, and it's a species of cypress (Taxodium mucrunatum) that has been virtually extinct since the colonial era. Sadly, the tree has recently come under threat from industry and housing projects sapping its water supply. Local environmentalists are petitioning for UNESCO status in order that an integrated programme of ecological protection, including reforestation of the surrounding area, could be applied.

A tacky souvenir market takes advantage of the passing trade, and there are various food and drink stalls. If you want to avoid the tourist hype, sit on the left-hand side of the bus (heading to Mitla) and you may get a glimpse of the tree as you pass. A close-up look provides a better view the tree is mightily impressive.

A little further East, the 16th century church of San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya was constructed as part of a Dominican monastery. It was decorated by Zapotec artisans and has an ornate bellows organ.

Seven kilometres further on Highway 190 from the marked turn-off for Abasolo, Dainzú, the first significant archeological site, lies about 1km South of the main road. A Zapotec centre broadly contemporary with Monte Albán, around 600 BC, Dainzú stands only partially excavated in a harsh landscape of cactus-covered hills. The carvings are reminiscent in style, rather than scale, of Los Danzantes at Monte Albán, most notably Edificio A, a tomb adorned with a magnificently carved jaguar head it's the first structure you come across when you enter the site, a large and rambling construction set around a courtyard and with elements from several epochs. Nearby is the ball-court, only one side of which has been reconstructed, and higher up the hill Edificio B is the best-preserved part of the site. Along the far side of its base a series of dancer figures can be made out, similar to the Monte Albán dancers except that these clearly represent ball-players. Barely unearthed, the main allure of Dainzú resides in its raw appeal, with few tourists or imposing facilities to detract from soulful contemplation.

Less than a thirty-minute drive Northeast from Oaxaca, just before the small Zapotec archeological site of Lambityeco, a road leads 4km to Teotitlán del Valle, the most famous weaving town in Oaxaca and oldest town in the Tlacolula Valley. All over the village you see bold-patterned and brightly coloured Zapotec rugs and sarapes, some following traditional designs from Mitla, others imitating twentieth-century designs, among them those of Escher. Century-old recipes are still used in the production of dyes, namely indigo, pomegranate and cochineal. The cochineal beetle secretes a substance that, when dried, creates an inimitable blood-red colour. Rugs are mainly the product of cottage industry: even if you're not buying, poke your head into the compounds with rugs hanging outside. Most weavers will be more than happy to provide a demonstration of pre-Hispanic weaving techniques. When dropped off the bus, you'll probably be pointed along a street to the left, which leads to the mercado de artesanías. You'll see the widest range here - ask to rummage in the back and you'll find some especially nice deals - and prices are generally cheaper than in Oaxaca. Be sure to check the quality, as some rugs are wool blends and machine-woven.

The village has an interesting community museum with displays on pre-Hispanic artefacts and information about carpet-weaving and life in the area. Inside the local church, whose walls are studded with bits of Zapotec temple, worship is a syncretic fusion of Catholic and indigenous ritual.

The small Zapotec site of Lambityeco was settled around A.D. 700 after the decline of Monte Albán. The site has well preserved stucco and stone carvings, and several tombs.

Benito Juárez and the Pueblos Mancomunados

Perched on a ridge overlooking the Oaxaca valleys and surrounded by pine trees, the little village of Benito Juárez is known for its spectacular sunsets - in clear weather you can see all the way, around 230km to the North, to Mexico's highest mountain, Pico Orizaba, from the mirador. The village is also the starting point for more than a hundred kilometres of signposted rural foothpaths and country roads through the Pueblos Mancomunados (literally "joint villages") of the Sierra Norte towards Ixtlan de Juárez, suitable for hikers and mountain bikers of all abilities. All in all it's a relaxing place to spend a few days, enjoying nature and getting firsthand experience of rural Oaxacan life.

The paths have been used for centuries by local people accustomed to sharing resources with surrounding communities. The villages are an impressive example of social organisation in Mexico, with eight small towns perched on common land. The landscape is spectacular - some sections of the pine forest have been classified by the World Wildlife Foundation as being the richest and most varied on earth. The biodiversity is also phenomenal, with birdlife, butterflies and mammals, including ocelot, puma and jaguar. Locals can take you on horse or donkey rides (ask at the tourist office), and there's a river where you can fish for trout. The high-altitude footpath between the villages of Latuvi and San Miguel Amatlan, which passes though mystical cloud forest, is believed to be part of a larger pre-Columbian route that connected the Zapotec cities in the Central Valleys with the Gulf of Mexico - you can still see the remains of an old road along the trail.

Don't expect one afternoon to be enough time to really see this area a visit requires forward planning and at least a couple of days in order to be worthwhile. The most efficient way to go is through one of the tour operators in Oaxaca. If you prefer to travel independently, the small but extremely helpful tourist information office in Benito Juárez, next to the town square, has excellent maps which show the varying demands of each trek, and rents out reliable mountain bikes, but only with a Spanish-speaking guide.

Ixtlan, a pretty village near San Pablo Guelatao (the birthplace of Benito Juárez), is in an area of great natural beauty, and its cloud forests and pine and oak woodlands are claimed to be home to five hundred bird varieties and six thousand species of plants. As such, the place is dedicated to ecotourism, and on the main plaza you'll find the Museo de la Bioversidad, which has information on the local environment and related ecoprojects, as well as examples of butterflies and animals, including ten local species of rat.

Tlacolula and Santa Ana del Valle

In the valley below Benito Juárez, just a few kilometres beyond Teotitlán del Valle, Tlacolula de Matamoros is a scruffy and dirty village, but worth a stop to see its sixteenth-century church, about 1km to the South of the main road. The interior here is as ornate as Oaxaca's Santo Domingo, though less skilfully crafted. In the adjoining chapel, some gory carvings of martyrs include a decapitated St Paul. The best day to go is Sunday, when there's also the area's main market which sells pottery, woven goods, foodstuffs, and the local speciality, mezcal.

A road leading North from the junction at Tlacolula goes to Santa Ana del Valle, smaller than Teotitlán but with a fine selection of locally produced rugs. Lucio Aquino Cruz and his younger brother Primo, at Morelos 2, make some of the most exquisite floor coverings in Mexico - it's worth visiting their house just to see them, even if they are beyond your price range. Alternatively, place orders with Lucio for your own designs - and you can see the production from beginning to end. One side of the small central square is devoted to the Shan-Dany Community Museum. Its name is Zapotec for "foot of the hill", and it marks the exact spot where a couple of tombs were discovered in the 1950s, though excavated more recently. Probably contemporary with Dainzú and Monte Albán, the Zapotec site here boasts some fine glyphs. Excavations have also been carried out beneath what are now basketball courts outside, enough pots and stones being recovered to fill the small but impressive co-operatively run museum. The local weaving industry is also covered and, though panels are all in Spanish, the gist is clear enough. There's a tranquil Tourist Yú'ù in Santa Ana if you want to stay. The local baker makes delicious bread, and there's a shop where you can buy basic provisions. Buses leave every ten minutes from Tlacolula.

One of the least visited archaeological sites in the region, Yagul lies just to the North of the highway at about the 35-kilometre mark - just a couple of kilometres uphill from where the bus from Oaxaca stops. Its location, atop a large, cactus-dotted plateau overlooking the spectacular Tlacolula valley, is its major draw. The large site spreads expansively across a superb defensive position, and although occupied by the Zapotecs from a fairly early date, about 500 B.C., its main features are from later on (around 900-1200 AD, when it gained real religious and political influence in the region after the fall of Monte Albán) and demonstrate Mixtec influence. It was finally abandoned after the arrival of the Spanish. On the lowest level, called the Acropolis, is the Patio de la Triple Tumba, where the remains of four temples surround an altar and the entry to the Triple Tomb, whose three funereal chambers show characteristically Mixtec decoration. Immediately above the patio, you'll see a large and elegantly simple ball-court, and a level above this, the maze-like Palacio de los Seis Patios. Probably a residential complex, this features six small courtyards surrounded by rooms and narrow passages. Climbing still higher towards the crest of the hill and the fortress, you pass several lesser remains and more than 30 tombs, while from the fortress itself, surrounded by a strong defensive wall, there are stunning views, and a frightening rock bridge to a natural watchtower.

Overview from the fortress looking in the hazy distance towards Oaxaca and the Palacio de los Seis Patios from the structure just above.

The ball-court is the largest known after Chichén Itzá.

The entrance to one of the tombs (right) and inside a different tomb (below).

The town of Mitla ("Place of the Dead"), where the bus from Oaxaca finally drops you, is some 4km off the main road and just ten minutes' walk from the site of the famous ruins. It's a dusty little place where you'll be harassed by would-be guides and handicraft vendors (there's also a distinctly second-rate crafts market by the ruins).

Housed in a typical Oaxacan building, the Museo de la Filatelia allows a closer look at all things postal, from stamps to post office furniture.

A few minutes by local bus from Mitla you'll find the small town of Matatlan, mostly dedicated to mescal, where you can visit the ateliers in which the drink is produced, enjoy free samples from the town stores, and eat the maguey plant itself. Be warned that a few samples of home-made mescal can wreak havoc with your senses.

Mitla reached its apogee during the post-Classic period, when Monte Albán was in decline. Construction at the site continued up until the late fifteenth century, at which point it was finally conquered by the Aztecs. It was home to 10,000 people at its height. The abstract designs on the buildings seem to echo patterns on surviving Mixtec manuscripts, and have long been viewed as purely Mixtec in style. But more recent opinion is that the buildings were built by Zapotecs and that the city was a ceremonial centre occupied by the most important Zapotec high priest. This Uija-Tao, or "great seer", was described by Alonso Canesco, a fifteenth-century Spaniard, as being "rather like our Pope", and his presence here would have made Mitla a kind of Vatican City.

While the site itself may not have the grandiose scale and setting of Monte Albán, Mitla impresses with its superlative bas-reliefs and geometric designs. You'll see it at its best if you arrive towards closing time, when the low sun throws the patterns into sharp, shadowed relief, and the bulk of the visitors have left.

There are four main palace complexes here, each magnificently decorated with elaborate stone mosaics that are considered peerless throughout Mexico. Each frieze is made of up to 100,000 separate pieces of cut stone. The Grupo de las Columnas is the best preserved and most impressive of these, and the obvious place to head for from the entrance. The only other sites that the long, low buildings recall in any way are the two post-Classic sites of El Tajín and Uxmal, which, along with other evidence, suggests that there may have been some contact between these most influential groups.

The first large courtyard in the Grupo de las Columnas is flanked by constructions on three sides - its central Templo de las Columnas is magnificent, precision-engineered and quite overpowering in effect. The outside Western wall and inside the first courtyard.

Climbing the broad stairway and through one of three entrances in its great facade, you come to the Salón de las Columnas, named after the six monolithic, tapered columns of volcanic stone that supported its roof.

A low, narrow passageway leads from here into the small inner patio (Patio de las Grecas) (below), lined with some of the most intricately assembled of the geometric mosaics each of the fourteen different designs here are considered representative of the universe and the gods.

Four dark rooms that open off the patio continue the mosaic theme. It is in these rooms that the Uija-Tao would have lived. If the latest theory is correct, the Zapotec architects converted the inner room of the traditional Mesoamerican temple, in which priests usually lived, into a kind of exquisitely decorated "papal flat" arranged around a private courtyard.

The second courtyard of the Columns group, known as the Patio de las Tumbas, adjoining the Southwestern corner of the first, is similar in design though less impressive in execution.

The Patio de las Tumbas contain two cross-shaped tombs, long since plundered by grave-robbers. In one, the roof is supported by the Columna de la Muerte legend has it that if you embrace this, the gap left between your hands tells you how long you have left to live: hand-widths translate into years remaining. At the time of writing, the column could no longer be embraced officials at the site could not say if this is a permanent arrangement. Access to and inside the other tomb.

The Grupo de la Iglesia, a short distance North, is so called because the Spanish built a church over, and from, much of it in 1590: the Templo de San Pablo Apóstol.

Two of its three original courtyards survive, however, and in the smaller one the mosaic decoration bears traces of the original paint, indicating that the patterns were once picked out in white from a dark-red background.

Three other groups of buildings, which have weathered the years less well, complete the site. All of them are now right in the modern town, fenced off from the surrounding houses: the Grupo de los Adobes can be found where you see a chapel atop a pyramid the Grupo del Arroyo is near Los Adobes and the Grupo del Sur lies right beside the road to the main site. This is just a pile of stones but at least there is a view looking back over the church and the main group.

Before the environmental degradation worsens, you should visit Hierve el Agua. Some 25km East of Mitla, down a side road that leads to San Lorenzo Albarradas (Hierve el Agua lies just beyond), it's the site of the spectacular limestone waterfalls that you'll see in photographs all over Oaxaca city. The mineral concentration causes the water to bubble out of the ground and become petrified over the vertiginous cliff-tops, forming a stunning stalactite it is a beautiful sight and the panoramas from above the pools, where there several stalls serving tacos and other snacks, are breathtaking.

However a path leads down below the formations for the best views.

At night, the stars are also awe-inspiring - there's no electricity and the hills shield the glow from Oaxaca's populated valleys. Sadly, tourism here threatens to be more environmentally destructive than in the rest of the valley: the town can barely support the volume of visitors it receives.

The valleys South of Oaxaca

The two roads that run almost due South of Oaxaca don't have the same concentration of interesting villages and sites as the Mitla road, but poking through the communities or admiring the beauty of the valley by bike could easily occupy a day or so. Again, you can travel around the area by public transport on market days - by far the best time to go - but cycling on rented bikes from Oaxaca isn't as arduous as it might sound, especially if you are careful about the midday heat.

Thirteen kilometres South of Oaxaca on the main highway to Puerto ángel lies San Bartolo Coyotepec, as unprepossessing a town as you could imagine. It is famed for its shiny black pottery, barro negro brillante, which can be found in crafts shops all around Oaxaca state, but is only made here. From the bus stop, a road, one side awash with pottery vendors, leads to the workshop where, in 1934, one Doña Rosa developed the manufacturing technique. The pottery may now be too weak to carry mescal to market on the back of a mule, as it did for centuries, but Doña Rosa's invention has yielded a new, purely ornamental vocation that now draws thousands of tourists every year. Although Doña Rosa died in the 1980s, her family still runs the sole operation, which is very tourist-oriented, with pieces ranging from beautifully simple amphorae to ghastly clocks, at Juárez 24. Prices are supposed to be fixed, and at the factory they probably are, but places down the road will haggle just remember your piece has to get home and the stuff is fragile.

San Martín Tilcajete and Santo Tomás Jalieza

Continuing South you pass San Martín Tilcajete, a sleepy town whose main street is lined with workshops carving, painting and polishing bright copal wood figurines known as alejibres, which come in all manner of designs - from Day of the Dead skeletons to whimsical creatures. Although not as famous as those in Arrazola, there are still some nice examples. It's easy to wander through the shops and observe the process.

To the East of the highway is Santo Tomás Jalieza, where women specialise in weaving cotton on backstrap looms. An all-women's co-operative market in the centre of town sells thick cotton tablecloths and placemats, backpacks, clothing and belts at fixed (though generally reasonable) prices.

The ride ends forty minutes from Oaxaca at Ocotlán, chiefly noted for the red clay figures crafted here by the Aguilar sisters. On the approach into town, look out on the right for the adjacent workshops of Guillermina, Josefina and Irene, each of whom produces slightly different items, in the distinctive Aguilar style originated by their mother. Again, you can find examples in Oaxaca, but a trip out here allows you to see the full range, including figures of animals, men and buxom women at work and play, and even Nativity scenes (apparently no subject matter is off-limits), all often gaudily decorated in polka dots or geometric patterns. Prices here also tend to be much cheaper. Try to make it on a Friday when the weekly market takes place not far from the Parroquia de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, with its newly restored facade and multiple domes richly painted with saints. Ocotlán is also the birthplace of famous Oaxacan artist Rodolfo Morales (1925-2001), who set up the Fundación Cultural Rodolfo Morales here, at Morelos 108. The foundation has provided the town with its first ambulance and computer centre, as well as establishing conservation and land-restoration projects. The former jail, for example, has been turned into an art museum, featuring Morales's work in addition to sombre sacred art from the Santo Domingo church, and a restaurant.

Arrazola, Cuilapan and Zaachila

The other major region of interest in this area is along, or beside, the road to Zaachila that runs Southwest from Oaxaca past the foot of Monte Albán. San Antonio Arrazola, an easy five-kilometre cycle ride off to the right from this road, is the home of the local woodcarvers and painters who produce many of the delightful boldly patterned animals made from copal wood that you'll see for sale in Oaxaca and all over Mexico. The man responsible for transforming this local craft into an art form is octogenarian Manuel Jiménez, the village's poster child. Following on the heels of his success, entrepreneurial townspeople have turned their skills to carving, creating a thriving cottage industry that produces a fantastical profusion of spiky figures and polka-dot, hooped or expressionist styles. Carvers from other villages are catching on to the popularity but few, if any, are better than in Arrazola.

The village of Cuilapan de Guerrero, 14km Southeast from Oaxaca (frequent buses from the second-class bus station), seems insignificant beneath the immense sixteenth-century hulk of the Dominican Ex-Convento de Santiago Apóstol, which, though badly damaged, is still an impressive place to wander around, with a Renaissance twin-aisled nave and largely intact vaulting. The church was established on the site of a Zapotec pyramid in 1550 but never finished. It was abandoned two centuries later, but today still retains some impressive architectural features and murals. The chapel has a Renaissance facade, an elegant columned nave, and thick earthquake proof walls. The original roof still remains on one section of the church, and Mass is said here amid the clangs and echoes of ongoing restoration work. The real interest, however, lies around the back in the cloister, which features a few faded frescoes on the wall. Look out for the sign pointing to the back wall, where Vicente Guerrero, hero of the War of Independence, was executed by firing squad on Valentine's Day, 1831, after spending his captivity here. A monument to his memory stands at the convent.

Buses from Oaxaca to Cuilapan continue 5km to Zaachila, which has a Thursday livestock market that makes for a very interesting spectacle. Come here then and you've got the best chance of being able to get into the zona arqueológica, up behind the multi-domed church on the zócalo. There's not a great deal to see of the last Zapotec capital, but there is a pyramid and you can step down into the two opened tombs - of what is probably a much larger site - and, when your eyes become accustomed to the gloom, pick out detailed bas-relief geometric figures on the lintel and owls guarding the entrance. Two marvellous glyphs show who was interred here: Señor 9-Flower, probably a priest, depicted carrying a bag of copal for producing incense. The revered gentleman was found buried with lavish jewels that are now on displayed in the archeological museum in Mexico City photographs are exhibited which reveal the treasures that have even been compared to those discovered in Tomb 7 at Monte Albán.

The two areas of Oaxaca's Mixteca region - the barren hills of the Mixteca Baja and the mountainous, pine-clad Mixteca Alta - are not obvious tourist destinations: the pre-Hispanic sites here are far less spectacular than those in the Central Valleys and there are no artisan centres to compare with Teotitlán or Arrazola. However, the colonial buildings are widely regarded as some of the country's most important, and the low number of visitors means that you are likely to have vast crumbling monasteries and Mixtec ruins to yourself. With restoration work under way since the 1990s, it appears that tourist traffic here is set to increase ironically, the main appeal of the monasteries is their aching, faded glory and the spine-tingling sense that you're witnessing a scene that has remained relatively unchanged since before Cortés.

Public transport through the region is fairly easy. Highway 135, one of the country's best roads, cuts through the Baja's deforested hillsides, eventually reaching Mexico City. Highway 125 leads off Highway 135 to the South, traversing the steeper slopes of the Mixteca Alta, eventually arriving at Puerto Escondido via a long and circuitous route. There are frequent buses and camionetas from Oaxaca heading out to the monasteries and the major towns.

The Baja: Yanhuitlán, Teposcolula and Coixtlahuaca

Among the Mixteca Baja's highlights are three Dominican monasteries - Yanhuitlán, Teposcolula and Coixtlahuaca - imposing relics of Mexico's imperial past. Once centres of mass conversion, they are now eerily deserted and in various stages of decay. Although restoration projects are under way, it will be years before they are repaired to anything resembling their former glory. All three can easily be visited as a day trip from Oaxaca if you have your own transport less easy if you're relying on public transport, though it's possible. If you want to stay, there are plenty of basic hotels on the route from Oaxaca.

Head out Northwest out of Oaxaca on Highway 190 for about 120km to reach the first monastery, at Yanhuitlán, the permanent seat of the vicarage of the Mixteca during the sixteenth century. The church is massive, built on an enormous pre-Hispanic platform overlooking the village, no doubt intended to remind the Mixtecs of the supremacy of the new religion. The vaulted ceiling is a soaring 27m tall. Inside are many original paintings and sculptures - the principal altarpiece, dating to 1570, is the work of the Spanish artist Andrés de la Concha. Teposcolula, South of here on Highway 125 in the village of the same name, has one of the finest capillas abiertas in the Americas. These graceful open-air chapels were used for mass preaching and conversion, and are only found in the New World. The Ex-Convent of San Juan Bautista, at Coixtlahuaca, a couple of kilometres off Highway 135, dates from 1576 and is one of the best preserved of the region's colonial structures. Some unusual sculptures on the facade depict grand rosettes, symbols of the Passion and John the Baptist, flanked by saints Peter and James. Red slivers of paint hint at the polychrome finish that would have glorified the sombre building during its heyday. There's an impressive churrigueresque altarpiece within the convent.

About 98km North from Oaxaca, reached by following Highway 190 to the town of Nochixtlán, and then heading North on an unpaved road, is the rural village of Santiago Apoala, tucked in a beautiful high valley. Here you'll find the Picturas Repuestas, 5000-year-old glyphs considered to be the oldest example of Mixtec drawing. It's a wild place, ideally located for hiking, biking and various other outdoor activities involving the nearby rivers, lagoons and falls one rewarding hike is to follow the trail alongside the Apoala River to the sixty-metre Cola de Serpiente waterfall. Many of the trails are badly marked and it is advisable to take a guide with you.

The Alta: Tlaxiaco and around

Highway 125 climbs into the Mixteca Alta after Teposcolula, entering some beautiful pine forest as it gets closer to Tlaxiaco. On the way, about 50km after Teposcolula, lies Huamelulpan, 2km up a side road. This tiny mountain village has an extensive and mostly unexplored Mixtec archeological site, with two large plazas cut out of a hill, a ball-court and some temple complexes. Some of the sculptures found here have been embedded in the walls of the eighteenth-century colonial church. Other artefacts from the ruins are displayed in the small community museum, which also has information about indigenous medicines - these are still used by traditional healers in the local community. The surrounding countryside is picturesque, with deer and coyotes in the woodland, and a variety of interesting plants.

Tlaxiaco, a fifteen-minute bus ride beyond Huamelulpan, is famed for its pulque, the lightly fermented drink made from cactus. The city once served as the economic heart of the Mixteca, and consequently its important Saturday market attracts indigenous people from across the region - many people here still wear traditional dress. An attractive town square and nearby good-value hotels could serve as a base for exploring the countryside and the Mixtec and Triqui villages nearby.

On the route down to the coast from Oaxaca via Highway 175, perched on the side of a pine-tree-clad mountain, enveloped in plumes of cloud, you'll find San José del Pacífico renowned for its hallucinogenic mushrooms. Around three hours' drive South from Oaxaca, it's the best place to break the journey, or to stay for a day or two if you want to enjoy the forest trails and cool mountain air before descending to the tropical lowlands of the coast. Many people make the short trip from nearby Zipolite, just two hours away for a lovely overnight stay.


12-12-2017 om 20:00 geschreven door peter

A huge object that flew past Earth might be an alien spacecraft, scientists have said.

Scientists had originally thought that the cigar-shaped object was a very strange passing asteroid. But a number of things have led scientists engaged in the search for alien life to wonder whether it might actually be an "artifact" from an alien civilisation.

Researchers involved in the Seti &ndash Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence &ndash project are now preparing to point a powerful telescope at the bizarre object and find where it came from.

The mysterious object, which has been named Oumuamua, is our first visitor from another part of the galaxy to make it into our solar system. It flew past in October when it was spotted by astronomers from the University of Hawaii.

Scientists initially presumed that it was an asteroid. But a number of strange characteristics have led them to wonder whether it might have been intentionally formed.


Mesoamerican Plazas: Arenas of Community and Power

Until now, archaeological and historical studies of Mesoamerican plazas have been scarce compared to studies of the surrounding monumental architecture such as pyramidal temples and palaces. Many scholars have assumed that ancient Mesoamericans invested their labor, wealth, and symbolic value in pyramids and other prominent buildings, viewing plazas as by-products of these buildings. Even when researchers have recognized the potential significance of plazas, they have thought that plazas as vacant spaces could offer few clues about their cultural and political roles. Mesoamerican Plazas challenges both of these assumptions.

The primary question that has motivated the contributors is how Mesoamerican plazas became arenas for the creation and negotiation of social relations and values in a community. The thirteen contributions stress the significance of interplay between power relations and embodied practices set in specific historical and material settings, as outlined by practice theory and performance theory. This approach allows the contributors to explore broader anthropological issues, such as the negotiation of power relations, community making, and the constitution of political authorities.

Overall, the contributions establish that physical interactions among people in communal events were not the outcomes of political machinations held behind the scenes, but were the actual political processes through which people created, negotiated, and subverted social realities. If so, spacious plazas that were arguably designed for interactions among a large number of individuals must have also provided critical arenas for the constitution and transformation of society.


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Gleanings of the Week Ending February 27, 2021

The items below were ‘the cream’ of the articles and websites I found this past week. Click on the light green text to look at the article.

The unseen 'slow violence' that affects millions - BBC Future – The harms that happen so slowly that we don’t notice in the moment. It happens over months and years and decades (maybe even centuries). We notice as we use our ‘big data’ to see hot spots of ill-health, where the environmental degradation is at it’s worst, and populations that can’t seem to escape their dire situation. And the issue very quickly becomes – how does our culture respond to the awareness of that ‘slow violence.’

Carbon: Getting to net zero -- and even net negative -- is surprisingly feasible, and affordable -- ScienceDaily – A detailed model of the entire US energy and industrial system….showing how to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050…with particular emphasis on what needs to happen in the next 10 years.

The country rejecting throwaway culture - BBC Future – France has introduced an index of ‘repairability’ rating for appliances…hoping to increase the electronics repair rate to 60% within 5 years. I’m glad I opted to repair my clothes drier rather than replace it….although the repair (replacing of the failed heating element) produced some trash it was a lot less than the whole appliance! Things like phones and laptops and monitors are harder.

Carolina Wrens Will Nest in Just About Anything and Why Carolina Wrens Have Moved into Your Neighborhood – We had a Carolina Wren make a nest in a gas grill we hadn’t used in along time. It surprised me when I opened the lid and the bird – startled and then panicked – flew out onto the deck railing. There is usually a pair nesting somewhere around our yard we see them when they come to the feeder and hear them even more frequently. The forest behind our house and the brush pile at the edge of the forest are good places for them.

Federal Funding Obtained to Replace Zion National Park's Shuttle Fleet – And they’ll be electric! What a great way to keep the air smelling like nature rather than combustion fumes!

Rare Yellow Penguin Photographed for the First Time | Smart News Science | Smithsonian Magazine – What an unusual looking bird! It’s a king penguin on South Georgia Island with leucism, a condition where melanin is only partially lost and some parts of the body retain color. In this case…the ability to produce the usual black pigment is missing.

New River Gorge is America's Newest National Park - News | Planetizen – This park is within ‘road trip’ distance from where we live….maybe a destination post-pandemic.

How we turned a golf course into a haven for rare newts, frogs and toads – Hopefully US golf courses are doing things like this too. I usually think of them as using a lot of chemicals and would not want to live near a golf course….but if they consciously made places for amphibians….it would mean that other creatures could survive in the space too. There is an Audubon International Certification program for golf courses but they don’t publish a list of course that are certified.

List of site sources >>>


Watch the video: Monte Alban Archaeological Zone, Oaxaca, Mexico. Vibe Adventures (January 2022).