Alert: This is last years offering which I’m adding to. I’ve rejoined the British Museum so I’m back in the members’ room to write and edit photos. So happy to be back in my second home which is more condusive to work-like endeavours. They also have an eclectic library so I’ve just managed to cross reference information on the Zapotec, Mixtec and Mayan with some art photos which are lovely because old and I don’t recognise them so probably they are hidden away in some basement these days. Enjoy
JULY 2021 OAXACA MEXICO.
OR, A MOUNTAINTOP ZAPOTEC CITY LINKED CLOSELY TO Teotihuacán and mitla
It’s huge, it’s Zapotec and it’s completely different to what I expected. I hadn’t researched at all so it was a huge learning curve from my usual Mayan sites.
A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE ZAPOTEC AND MIXTEC.
In parallel with the rise of Teotihuacan, Zapotec civilisation encompassed much of the southern highlands. In the course of the first millennium BC, early chiefdoms of the Oaxaca Valley coalesced into a militaristic Zapotec state centred on the commanding hill-top capital Monte Albán. Zapotec scribes invented one of the four independent Mesoamerican writing systems (the others being Maya, Mixtec and Aztec) and refined their own variant of the 260-day ritual calendar which was in widespread use throughout Mesoamerica.
From about AD 1200, Mixtec peoples began to assume control of key Zapotec sites through conquest and political alliances. Knowledge of metallurgy, which had been introduced a few centuries earlier from South and Central America, was employed in the production of copper and gold objects to reflect rank and status. During the fifteenth century AD, the Mixtec resisted the Aztec imperial advance, but the consummate stoneworking and metalworking skills of many Mixtec artisans were redeployed to serve the Aztec kings.
The Zapotecs were a sedentary culture living in villages and towns, in houses constructed with stone and mortar. They recorded the principal events in their history by means of hieroglyphics, and in warfare they made use of cotton armour. The well-known ruins of Mitla have been attributed to them.
(I will write another post about the fabulous jade and gold discoveries, that are housed in Oaxaca Palace Museum. This is closed at the moment but I’ll be able to dig up some photos from before. I really need to write a bit more about the amazing Zapotecs)
CLOSED PLACES AND CHANGED PLANS
I had got up ready to go to the archaeological museum but it has been closed. No signs on the door except the opening hours, and through the peephole a man informed me that they didn’t know when they’d open again to which I replied rather hotly I must confess well put a sign on the door then and change the bloody Google details. He said that’s a good idea I’ll put a sign on the door as if he’d just thought of it. Yes, some people have travelled thousands of miles to see these artefacts I whined. His beady eyes perused me as if I was mad. And sort it out on Google and your site this is the second time I’ve come here. He was making me cross and I felt as if he might just let me in if I kept banging on about it.
Top Tip: With the distraction of what was open or not, and jumping on buses every five minutes as places decided to close some, or all of their historical sites and museums, or basically anything of any interest whatsoever, I learned some bitter lessons. When in times of crisis don’t trust any info gleaned by Google et al. You need to speak to proper locals or call tour guides of the area that you are planning to go to. Nobody bothered to change their details online while I was there so I was disappointed many times. So due diligence is essential, don’t just assume they will tell you any changes especially in casual places like Mexico. Make the calls before you get on that bus, or drag over to the other side of town for that special gallery because they will close when they feel like it!
Fucking furious. I had visited a gallery while waiting for the museum to open so my day had not been wasted thus far. What to do? As usual, when travelling alone you have to think on your feet. I had expected to while away a whole day at the museum so now I was stuck. I hadn’t planned how to get to Monte Alban so asked a woman in the street about cabs and she told me to just get the pink bus to Bella Plaza. The stop was just on the other side of the road and the bus was coming. I’d get a cab from there.
In fact, it was a tuk-tuk that drove me up the mountain to my totally unresearched archaeological site and I was immediately enthralled. The views are absolutely magnificent and I regretted not having been more prepared and brought a picnic. The butterflies were all over again and the huge diversity of plants and flowers there makes it a rather splendid botanical garden Indeed if you fancy a hike there is an external route for that too.
Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The nearby city of Oaxaca, which is built on a grid pattern, is a good example of Spanish colonial town planning. The solidity and volume of the city’s buildings show that they were adapted to the earthquake-prone region in which these architectural gems were constructed.
So saith UNESCO
Monte Alban is the most important archaeological site of the Valley of Oaxaca. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The grand Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began. The archaeological site is known for its unique dimensions which exhibit the basic chronology and artistic style of the region and for the remains of magnificent temples, ball-court, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions.
As you first walk in there is a temple which finally exemplified for me this building over building thing that all these Mesoamerican temples are keen on doing. I understand it now, they don’t just randomly jealously slaver a whole load of stone and stucco over the top, they respectfully leave a gap around the older original presumably to be able to access it too. The reason I’m referring to this is that in some places it has been done seven times over which shows a huge respect for the ancestors. You can rarely see this so when you can take note that this onion skin effect proves much earlier histories than we give credit. Have a good look because some places are finding some very ancient bits beneath temples and pyramids all over the world. Be keenly aware that there are tunnels and deep levels under the more significant edifices that archaeologists jealously hide from you as it upsets their human timeline.
As I have said before history is being rewritten all over the world, when you travel you must have an open mind and come to your own conclusions if something seems off to you!
From then on I staggered around bemused it was indeed a huge city originally inhabited by a mere 5000. Around every corner and down every path another building of one type or other. It would seem it was a very orderly city planner for most of the buildings have a similar format. That is until you get to the grand plaza, then just as you’re getting casual about this huge achievement you come to the building of the dancers.
BUILDING OF THE DANCERS (AND SWIMMERS)
This corner holds the copies of the originals that are housed in the now-closed museum. As I will say further on the ‘Danzantes’ was a group name for the people, often crudely, carved in this wall of slabs, they are often very distorted and the genitalia often mutilated. They are still a mystery but I found a paper in case you’re interested linked below. There’s much talk of them being captives or indeed priest novices with tattoos and freshly castrated for their vocation.
In its time this was a very smart place the buildings are made to a certain design (apart from the observatory and the wall of the dancers.
For a change, I didn’t have to go red in the face with fury. It’s perfectly acceptable to have good facsimiles and clearly placed out for you to admire. Tricky to work out which of these mainly castrated chaps were the swimmers but they didn’t have any swimmers that’s for sure ho ho ho.
These slabs lined up for your perusal are a little mysterious, for layers of vertical then horizontal slabs were laid. There are more than 300 of them and they are still a bit of a mystery as they are removable. These ‘Danzante’ sculptures all seem to have different studies some even showing disembowelled forms. The eyes are closed, mouths open, teeth are sometimes prominent the figures wear varying costume elements. Follow the link if you’re interested because nobody seems to agree with what they actually portray but the distorted figures and strange genitalia on many of them certainly poses interesting questions. Less dancing, and more mutation and degradation?
From this corner of the courtyard you see the only other building which is completely different to the other more duplicated buildings, the ‘Observatory’. Now, this was only for the use of the highly educated ‘priests’ and shows the importance of stargazing by these people.
My wanderings continued but the heat of the day was getting to me, so I sat on a shaded bench and gazed over the beautiful panorama while finishing my squashed chocolate croissant and water. It was time to see how hard it would be to get back from here, always at the back of your mind when travelling solo.
Wandering to the exit, past a ball court and a strange residential place with a grave in its living room in a bizarre way, (and yes I did climb into it for a quick look!), I found a posh collectivo that took me straight back to the town centre for just 50 pesos. I then trudged wearily through what is now the rather unpleasant town centre to my lovely barrio of Jalatlaco, an area you should stay should you come here. Its peace and beautiful cobbled streets and small cafes and art shops make for a great welcome home after a long day of history.
Off to a cool courtyard for an icy cerveza now and to ponder lifes wonders and digest a very different aspect of Mexican history.