Archaeological Oaxaca: Monte Albán, Mitlá, Yagul
The state of Oaxaca has plenty of Pre-Hispanic ruins, museums and typical stores. And overall, the people are fascinating. From Oaxaca, you can visit several archaeological sites, particularly Monte Albán (the « white mountain »), Mitlá and Yagul, the most interesting ones.
Where to stay ?
- El Diablo y La Sandía: A quaint hotel that has a different, fun feel to it. Our guests enter and lounge just as they would at home, made easy by our personalized attention and warm environment. We enjoy spoiling you with a morning breakfast, hearty and healthy, as well as providing an orientation upon your arrival to this wonderful town.
The central valleys of the state of Oaxaca, with a mild climate, are comprised of numerous archaeological sites and colonial treasures on a small area. This is one of the richest artistic regions of Mexico. Only twenty of the eight hundred archaeological sites have been excavated until now. Monte Albán, Mitlá and Yagul are among the most important ones. Monte Albán is located at an altitude of 2 000 m (6562 feet), 9 km (5 miles) from Oaxaca.
The builders of Monte Albán chose the site because of its strategic position and also because of universal religious significance: closer to the sky and closer to the Gods. It was a titans’ work: they leveled several acres on the top of a hill. The priests, the princes and the Gods shared this terrace.
Later, when Monte Albán and the other Mexican cities suddenly vanished without any reason, the Mixtecs used this site abandoned by the Zapotecs as their royal cemetery turning the once Holy City into a City of the Dead.
The first construction dates from 500 B.C, and the city reached its peak from 250 to 800 A.D. with 50,000 inhabitants spread over a 6 km2 (2482 acres) area. Other centers such as Mitlá and Yagul were built in the area at the same time. From 800 A.D., the big cities started to decline with an outburst of the central power in many small states as a consequence.
The ardor of the Zapotecs left many temples behind, carefully lined up and oriented. There are truncated pyramids with porticos and columns, a big innovation in Mexico. There are also palaces linked to the temples with an imbroglio of underpasses and numerous tombs and a ball court monument. Everything is carefully urbanized and oriented according to the sun and the cardinal points.
On the top of the mountain, the main place of 300 m by 265 (1000ft by 875ft) forms an ensemble that had been remodeled for 15 years. It is not specific details that will attract you but the whole ensemble because of the simplicity of the lines. The rocky mulls, which couldn’t be leveled, have been included into the construction: this explains some changes of orientation as well as the deviation of some stairs. The surfaces were covered with painted stucco and frescoes. The decorative elements of the facades and the horizontal lines that characterize the construction are better seen at sunset.
The Ball Court is the first monument to visit. The track, H shaped, is bordered by a terrace and a slope where the steps once were and where the spectators watched the ritual game. This ancient track doesn’t have the rings (tlachtli) that appeared at the Toltec time. There once were temples on the top of the slopes but now only the bases remain. The following constructions (edifices G, H and I) have large stairs typical of the Zapotec architecture. The first of the 3 pyramids has an inner stairway from the base to the top. An underpass linked it to the construction of the center of the place. The last platform supported a house with a courtyard surrounded by rooms.
Inside the ensemble located in the center of the court is a small construction with an irregular shape (edifice J), oriented to the southwest with an inner way, which looks like it once was an astronomic observatory. About twenty carved slabs show inscriptions made of three signs: one represents a hill in a Zapotec style (city), another one is a glyph and the third one is an upside down head. The ensemble probably represents the names of the captured cities. Unlike the other vestiges of the site, oriented according to the four cardinal points, this arrow shaped structure looks 35° towards the southwest.
This is one of the most important tourist places in the state of Oaxaca and even Mexico. Thousands of Mexican and foreign tourists visit Oaxaca and Monte Albán every year. It is the most important religious center of the Zapotec culture. Located 9 km (5 Miles) from the city of Oaxaca, it was built by the inhabitants of the villages of the valley of Oaxaca. Then, the Mixtecs occupied it until the arrival of the Spanish. It is located on a huge plateau where spread out are temples, courtyards, pyramids and about 170 tombs.
The south platform has not been restored except the stairs leading to a temple. At the base of the platform stood steles (the original are in the museum) telling the story of the victories.
The west side of the place is bordered by three separated constructions, among them the edifice L. The first building is the base of a temple with only 4 columns of the facade and a grand stairway with levels remaining.
The central building is called temple of the Dancers. Inside, the monument has been covered by another construction. It is part of the most ancient monuments of Monte Albán. It was comprised of a platform with sides covered with carved slabs. The personages depicted there are called « dancers », maybe because of their contorted positions. In reality, they are probably the human victims of a cruel rite of mutilation. It could also be symbolic representations of captured cities meaning, in esoteric language, that they would have lost their virility. Other slabs of the same kind were reused later as elements of construction. The glyphs by the side of the personages have never been decrypted but they prove the existence of a writing at least five centuries before our era. The actual platform supported two small lateral temples and a house.
The last construction on the south west side has been only partially excavated.
The north ensemble is comprised of a vast platform with central stairs. The many tombs found at the base held representations of personages and the most important ensemble of glyphs. At the top, a big vestibule supported by columns, allowed the access to a court with a stele in the center. The stele was carved with hieroglyphs. Two more recent constructions stand on each side of the court. Behind, other ensembles of constructions with their remaining of columns and murals are just starting to be excavated. They found an under-structure, called “the jewel Edifice « , named after the disc shaped decorations which are reminiscent of the Teotihuacán style. At the highest point of the site, at the north east of Patio Hundido (sunk patio), stands the edificio del Vértice Geodésico (geodesic summit).
Since the beginning, Monte Albán has also been a necropolis. They found numerous tombs of various sizes and offerings. Even after the city was abandoned, important personages were buried there. Among the most interesting tombs, #104 presents a facade adorned with a central niche holding an urn representing the God of Corn, Pitao Cozobi. The old gate, made of a stone slab covered with glyphs, is now in the anteroom. Inside are many well-preserved murals.
The Tomb #172, dating from the late period (Monte Albán IV), still holds the skeleton and offerings as it was found. Among the few 150 Mixtec tombs found on the site, the Tomb #7, the most famous, has been reused by the Mixtecs after the city was abandoned. Along with the dead and the two servants, they lay down many jewel and golden ornaments incrusted with jade, obsidian, onyx or rock crystal. These objects are now shown at the state Museum of Oaxaca. The most beautiful tomb is surely # 105, with very well preserved paintings representing the most important ritual and religious ensemble.
Many tombs have been looted and many other ones have yet to be excavated. Only a few constructions of the central place are restored but the visit leaves a moving impression of majesty and splendor. The shop and bookstore are well stocked and the restaurant offers an excellent view of the valley.
Located about 46 km (28 miles) from Oaxaca, Mitlá is one of the sites known since the Conquest. It is described in documents dating from the sixteenth century, when the Zapotecs occupied the well-preserved ensemble. Contrasting with Monte Albán, the austere and grandiose City of Dead, Mitlá is more human and more welcoming with big white palaces and dark patios. The excursion to Mitlá is worthwhile for two reasons: first the site and then, on your way, you can stop and see the venerable cypress of Santa Maria del Tule. It is 40m (132 feet) high and has a 58m (291 feet) circumference, meaning it is 2,000 years old, it was planted at the time when the Zapotecs built the temple of the Dancers probably with the help of some Olmecs. It means that it “heard” the clamors of the spectators watching the Ball games. It is said that Cortés had lunch in its shadow during his great expedition for the conquest of Central America.
Mitlá, the royal city, is maybe the only Pre-Hispanic site in Mexico still alive nowadays. The pyramids close to Mexico City, Tula and Teotihuacán for example, were abandoned before the Aztecs arrived. The jungle had invaded the magnificent Maya cities of Yucatán for centuries when Cortès landed. Tenochtitlán and Mitlá were the only ones still radiant when the conquistadors arrived. Miltá probably existed at the time of the Zapotecs but it reached its peak with the Mixtecs. There are only five ensembles remaining from the old city: the church Group, named after the church built by the Spanish in the middle of the palaces during the sixteenth century; the Columns Group, the best decorated and preserved; the Adobe Group, located across the creek; the Creek Group, by the side of the previous one and the South Group, across the Mitlá Creek.
The Columns Group is comprised of two groups of edifices each one made of four platforms surrounding a patio. Every face of the palace of the Columns Group is adorned with stone mosaics designing lozenges, meanders and Greek frets. At the north of the main patio, there is a 50m (181 feet) long building with three windows. A huge stairway leads to the Salón de las Columnas. There, six 4m (13 feet) high monolithic columns, slightly conical, once supported a roof. From there, a corridor leads to an inner patio, the Patio de las Grecas, entirely covered with a mosaic. The second patio, at the south, the Patio de las Tumbas, houses two underground tombs. One of them holds the Columna de la Vida. They probably hold the remains of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs lords.
Visit also the Church Group (in the middle of the palaces), named after the baroque colonial church which was built by the Spanish with stones from the previous construction. Mitlá, short for Mictlan, means « the place of dead ».
The Mixtècs, who occupied a vast region spreading over the states of Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca, started to enter the central valleys of Oaxaca, a Zapotec territory, during the tenth century. They were influential during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and were then absorbed by the Zapotecs. Zaachila, among other urban centers, grew and competed against Mitlá. Monte Albán, a holy place, was used as a necropolis. When the Spanish arrived, the language spoken in the region was Zapotec.
Only the palaces of the rulers of the old Mitlá are still standing. The village, which is supposed to have been about at the same place as the actual place, couldn’t be excavated. There are remains of a fortress on the neighbor hill. It was probably a refuge against the enemy raids. The village of Mitlá is worth the visit because of the Zapotec art museum with an interesting collection of Zapotec and Mixtec objects from the valley.
Unlike Monte Albán where there is an abundance of temples, Mitlá has only great palaces. These palaces are comprised of two or three patios linked by right-angled corridors and surrounded by rooms. Some rooms, with one or three doors, had central columns supporting a roof made of wooden beams slightly leaning for conducting the water flow. The stone and clay walls were covered with cut stone mosaic making Greek frets and geometrical motifs. Some walls are covered with more than 100 000 cut, polished and adjusted elements. It is important to notice that, even if the Mixtecs only briefly occupied Mitlá, there is no other place with as many Greek frets as in Mitlá. So, it is a specific and local form of mural decoration. Most of the golden objects made in Mexico or used at the Aztec court had been made by Mixtec goldsmiths but this art would have disappeared without the discovery of the treasures of Monte Albán (Tomb #7) and Zaachila. The Mixtecs also made wonderful painted books called Codex. Ten have been found and are considered as the most beautiful objects from before the Conquest. The carved bones, the rock crystal objects and the mosaics were a specialty of Mixtèc art.
If you cross the village of Santa Maria de Tule, 10 km (6miles) from Oaxaca, stop to admire a 40m (132 feet) high cypress with a 58 m (291 feet) circumference. It is called « ahuehuete » or sabino. It has been standing in the cemetery and dominating the nice church dating from the eighteenth century for more than 2000 years.
On the way to Mitlá from Oaxaca, are the archaeological zones of Dainzú, Lambityeco and Yagul.
Built at the foot of a hill, Yagul has the same characteristics as Mitlá. Occupied since the Zapotec time, it underwent the same modifications as the other sites of the area. The Ball Court, at the entrance, looks like the one of Monte Albán. The remains of a temple are reminiscent of Zapotèc origins. The tombs, with facades adorned with geometrical motifs prove that the funeral customs were the same. In the center, a big platform, called the Acropolis, supports groups of places and temples. The access to Tumba Triple is via a patio surrounded by four edifices. Tumba Triple leads to three funeral rooms. Further, there are vestiges of stone walls belonging to the old Palacio de los Seis Patios (palace of the six patios). The southern facade of the palace is lined with the calle de las Grecas, a passageway leading to a big rectangular construction, the Sala del Consejo (Council room). The discovery of about thirty tombs confirms that it was a residential place: the inhabitants were buried under their home. The Palace of the Six Patios was probably the residence of the Zapotec lords. From the top of the hill there are the vestiges of the fortress (Fortaleza) where you have a nice view of the site and the Tlacolula Valley.
Like in Mitlá, the presence of objects made in other regions proves the trade business characteristic of this time; there is also a fortress on the top of a hill like in Mitlá. The palaces built in three layers cover anterior constructions. The Greek frets covering the walls, show an obvious relationship with Mitla. The palaces are decorated and the two cities might have been contemporary.
New inscription in 2010: Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca
This property lies on the northern slopes of the Tlacolula valley in subtropical central Oaxaca and consists of two pre-Hispanic archaeological complexes and a series of pre-historic caves and rock shelters. Some of these 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.
The Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the central valley of Oaxaca is an extensive cultural landscape that includes caves and shelters, one of which, the Guilá Naquitz cave has provided extraordinarily well preserved botanical evidence of bottle gourds, beans and squash and the earliest known maize cobs, and two others, Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih sites have provided evidence of Pleistocene animals and stone tools and the seasonal use of the abundant summer resources of fruit and small mammals. The gradual shift from social groups based primarily on hunting to ones that were primarily based on settled agriculture took place in multiple areas at the same time across the Mesoamerican region. The property is an exceptional reflection of the evolution from hunter-gathering to more settled communities in this area of the Oaxaca valley.
Criterion (iii): The botanical evidence from Guilá Naquitz cave related to the domestication of other plants, squash, gourds and beans, linked with the archaeological evidence from Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih, can together be seen to be an exceptional testimony to the evolution from hunter-gathering to more settled communities in this area of central America.
Within the sites of Guilá Naquitz, Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih lie all the elements necessary to sustain its Outstanding Universal Value and they are not under threat although could be vulnerable to over-grazing as a result of changes in climatic conditions.
Guilá Naquitz cave, together with Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih can be seen to convey sites, where early man in early dates is known to have domesticated certain wild plants and taken putative stapes towards semi-settled lives. For these sites, authenticity can be said to be intact, even though the evidence on which our knowledge is based is no longer physically extant in the caves and sites.
Even if the Yagul part of the property enjoys protection by presidential decrees, the remaining archaeological and landscape areas do not currently have national or municipal protection. There are ongoing specific projects to protect this part of the property. All visible archaeological evidence is recorded on record sheets for each site, together with mapping and photographs.
The principal authorities responsible for the management of the property are the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), concerned with all archaeological and cultural sites, and the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), both of which have state and local branches or departments. CONANP is responsible for the conservation of natural species and scenic spots in the Yagul area. In conjunction with INAH it establishes agreements with communities, favouring traditional land use practices. In 1999, a Management Plan was approved for the Oaxaca Valley Archaeological Corridor (CAVO), attached to the existing management plan of the Monte Alban Archaeological Zone. The management system for the property overall is adequate, although newly implemented and thus still being proved.
There is a need to put in place legal protection for the whole nominated area; an active conservation policy to ensure grazing and access are controlled, risk preparedness measures; an access strategy based on the carrying capacity of the nominated area; and to promote a research programme to consider whether in time more substantial evidence might be uncovered that could allow the wider landscape of Oaxaca to be seen as having been a focus for the domestication of plants and the transition to settled agriculture that is exceptional in the context of its geo-cultural region. End of Unesco extract.