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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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