Featured Site: Monte Alban

During the Preclassic period, a settlement was formed on the top of a platform rising near the center of the Valley of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. This valley is formed in the shape of a “Y” and at the center, where the three branches meet, we find the ruins of Monte Alban. 

Monte Alban, Oaxaca. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monte Alban was a great defensive city during the Late Preclassic and Classic periods, finally waning around 900 AD. The main administrative and holy buildings, as well as elite households, are set on the top of the platform, while residential terraces cut into the slopes of the hills as they move further down. The location of the city made it very easy for leaders to see when an attacking force was coming against the city. Once a threat was identified, people could be gathered on top of the platform to defend the territory. 

However, Monte Alban’s importance for us today lies in more than its defensive build. It is also recognized for its gruesome Danzante sculptures, its elite tombs, and testament to exchange during the Classic period. 

During the excavation of one of the Classic-period buildings at Monte Alban, the structure of a Preclassic-period temple was uncovered. Built into the wall of this building were slabs of stone, with images of human figures sculpted into them. These figures were given the name “Danzantes” (Dancers), due to the odd angles of their limbs and their strange, contorted body positions. However, further research confirmed that these were not dancers, but rather sacrificial victims. The gruesome positions of the victims were due to the way they were killed, and they were often depicted with blood spurting out of their chest or groin area. These sculptures hint at a time of violence in Monte Alban’s history that might have been associated with sacrifices for rain. 

Danzantes sculptures as seen in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City. Image property of Mesoamerican Studies Online.

Elites living at Monte Alban were interred on the top of the platform upon which the city was built. These tombs have provided us with inside knowledge into the lives and culture of the people living there. Painted murals, precious materials and the remains of those buried there paint a detailed story of the Monte Alban people. Linguistic work suggests that the people likely spoke Zapotec, a language that is still alive in Oaxaca today. The tombs confirm this, as they show evidence of Zapotec writing, a still undeciphered Mesoamerican script. They also tell us about the rain god of the Oaxacan region, Cocijo, who we find on many censers and urns in these burials. The murals also help to reconstruct the genealogy of the leaders there, furthering our knowledge of kingship at Monte Alban.

What is most interesting about these elite tombs is the amount of Teotihuacan influence seen in the art of these tombs. Many of the figures portrayed wear Teotihuacan-style headdresses and regalia. Evidence of Oaxacan presence at Teotihuacan has already been confirmed: Archaeologists have found what is called a “Oaxacan barrio” at Teotihuacan where burials excavated are done in the Zapotec style, very different from the Teotihuacan practice of cremation. These elite tombs seen to suggest that the relationship might have been closer than originally thought, and that Teotihuacan– or at least its artistic style and warrior uniform– was an active player at Monte Alban. . 

The site of Monte Alban has a long history that is still being uncovered. However, from what we have seen already, we are able to create an awe-inspiring narrative about kings, defensive cities, and exchange with other powerful places in the Mesoamerican landscape.

For more information, check out the books below:

Mexico, by Michael D. Coe

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec, by Mary Ellen Miller

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