map gives you an idea of how large and complete the city
various structures of Monte Albán center on the Gran
Plaza or Great Plaza, a large open space created by
flattening the mountaintop. From this plaza, aligned
north to south, there is a great view of the Oaxaca
Valley below. There are many buildings to explore – over
170 tombs, numerous ceremonial altars, stelae, pyramids,
and palaces. To the south of these center buildings is
the Observatory which is the only building at Monte Albán not
aligned with the north-south axis. It was
probably aligned with the stars instead.
the eastern side of the Great Plaza is an I-shaped
ball court (Juego de Pelota). The ball court game was a
ritual practice common to pre-Columbian Mesoamericans.
It took place in their every day lives as well as in
religious celebrations. Apparently, it enabled people to
resolve conflicts of different types such as those
regarding land disputes, tribute and trade controls.
Support and protection by the gods was the
prize bestowed upon the winner of the game.
Up to this time, there are no discoveries in Monte Albán
which would suggest that human sacrifice was practiced
in association with the ball court, although in other
parts of Mesoamerica (like
Chich'en Itza), this has been found to be the
case. In Monte Albán, 5 ball courts were constructed
which confirms the importance of this activity at a
regional level. This one was constructed at
approximately 100 B.C.
about 450 years, this was a high platform topped with a
temple and rectangular columns. There was also a
tunnel connecting to the altar in the Gran Plaza.
Hilltops as well as hillsides were modified by the
residents of Monte Albán. Elevated areas were cut and
leveled in order to construct the most important
buildings, while terraces were formed on the hillsides
to build houses for the majority of the areas
Stone, lime and adobe were obtained for the construction
of buildings as well as clay for the production of
ceramics. Many stones as well as seashells which are not
indigenous to the area have also been found in this
ancient city and presumably
were transported here by trade or through tribute to the
leaders in residence here.
We had remarkably clear weather
to explore these extensive ruins, spending about 3 hours walking around and climbing the ancient
stone steps. This site by far, was the most massive set
of ancient ruins we have visited.
This wide staircase leads to a side platform.
Several materials were used for the construction of this
great city and one of the most frequently used
was stone. It can be found in the foundations of the
houses, temples and tombs.
Adobe was also used for the
construction of the walls of houses and temples and
buildings were plastered with stucco, a mixture composed
of lime and sand.
Zapotecs dismantled these walls years after they were
built and the different bas-reliefs were scattered
throughout the site. As a conservation strategy, copies
were made of the various sculptures and bas-reliefs with
the originals moved to the on-site museum.
wide open view of the area where the streets and avenues
might have existed.
astronomical observation enabled the pre-hispanic society
of Monte Albán to calculate agricultural cycles, to
predict seasonal changes, to determine when the rainy season
would begin as well as the best time to collect
medicinal plants. Also as a result of these
observations, prophesies were made, and constructions,
streets, avenues and plazas were oriented toward the
North-South cardinal points.
small group of educated men - among the class of priests
who received a disciplined religious education since
childhood - practiced this astronomical observation.
abundant and precise knowledge was a valuable factor in
the development of state power.
Within the Great Plaza which you see again here, the two
buildings that are in the foreground,
served as astronomical observatories. These are the only two buildings
on the whole site not aligned to the
Animals played an important role in the lives of these
people. For instance, jaguars and
serpents were considered gods. Other animals and certain birds
like eagles and hummingbirds were considered to
possess magic powers and these sacred animal bones were used to predict the future.
Animals not considered sacred as well as grasshoppers, worms, ants and other
insects provided food for the residents of Monte Albán. Skins, bones and feathers were used to create
clothing, adornment and to make
tools such as needles.
Here's another full view of the Gran Plaza. You
can see how small the people look in comparison to the
buildings. This photo is taken from the important South
cardinal point. There are tunnels that run underground
connecting particular buildings so that those in power
could 'appear as if by magic' in ceremonies. There are
also underground pipe ways that directed water flow from
patios and plazas during the rainy season into storage
areas for the town's
view of the villages below which are still inhabited to
this day. Vendors from these villages come to Monte Albán
to sell 'original artifacts' from the ruins.
Looking from south to north. Billy stands at the top of the 40
meter wide stairway
at the South Plaza pointing to the ruins below. You can
truly see how massive they are!
Pre-hispanic peoples handed down vast knowledge regarding
the use of herbs or traditional medicine which takes
advantage of the healing properties or ‘magic’ of
plants. Some had healing qualities for the body, some
were used to cleanse the soul. The plants were regarded
as the link between earth and heaven.
In some of these cultures, it was believed that man
descended or sprouted from a pochotle tree. Wise priests
or healers were able to communicate with the gods by
ingesting fermented juices of plants which included
mescal agave, tobacco, mushrooms, peyote and marijuana.
Plants additionally provided the residents with fibers
used to make textiles or utensils for every day use.
Carved stones may be seen with scenes of conquests of
leaders from neighboring villages and towns that Monte
Albáns conquered in the early years of this
Billy is joking here, these nude males were captured,
castrated and offered as sacrifices to the gods or used
in fertility rituals. Many of these stone statues
are copies, with the originals in the on-site museum for
close up view of the very common rectangular design used
on many of the buildings at Monte Albán.
stela is the highest (5.80 meters) and one of the oldest
that has been found on Monte Albán. It was erected
during 100 B.C. to 300 A.D.
Similar to those obelisks found in other civilizations
it seems to have served as an astronomical instrument to
verify midday. Midday was one of the 4 pre-hispanic
subdivisions in a day.
In addition to serving the function of finding midday,
annually the shadow of
this stela extends to its maximum to the north during
the winter solstice and decreases to the south during
the summer solstice. This stela established a system
of measurement for time and space and thereby
structured their calendar as well.
On the western side is a sequence of signs of the old
Zapotec calendar which are read as part of a particular
date with the month and the day, “5 Cane,” “9 Monkey".
you can see, the
views were stunning and all encompassing.
this ancient time, stone was also used in the construction of tools
and utensils such as hatchets, grinding stones, molcajetes (mortars of stone) drill bits, chisels, polishing instruments and
Some stones such as jade, turquoise, and rock crystal were considered precious or semi-precious. Gold,
silver or copper were used to manufacture adornments
much later on in the culture, between 800 A.D. and the arrival of the Spanish.
order to construct the great city of Monte Albán, the Zapotecs had to rely on a very important resource:
water. This resource was obtained from the Atoyac River
which runs 4 kilometers, about 2.5 miles, northeast of the central plaza.
During the rainy season, water was also obtained from
the hillside runoff.
we are with our friends, Martha and Dennis. We were all
very impressed with how this ancient culture built this
Rainwater storage deposits were constructed in Monte Albán and
can be found in the main plaza. At one time the storage
area was fed by two drains which
can still be found at the east and the west ends.
another stela below in the center of the photo.
Since the stelae told the time of day, we thought maybe this one
was the secondhand?, just kidding... The tallest one of the complex is in the center
and to the
right in this photo.
the upper left of this photo is the South Cardinal Point
with another pyramid structure.
order to transport necessary water from the river to the
city, the work of many slaves or persons paying tribute
to the leaders
was used. In the patios of houses, the ball court, and
the ceremonial complexes, small drains were discovered
which were connected to other larger drains. Some of
these measure up to 2 meters in height and 60
centimeters in width. Their function was to collect
rainwater and channel it out of the city or to the storage
Water was such an important resource that Cocijo, the
water god, is one of the most important Zapotec gods. He
is represented in the stelae, mural paintings and
ceramic objects such as funeral urns and vases.
a monumental task it was to supply this city with water!
Think about it, all those people living high on this
flattened mountaintop and on the hillsides, all needing water for
their daily lives.
structure was just as fascinating as the next.
After all the centuries that have passed, these
buildings have been kept remarkably intact. If you look
to the upper right in this photo, you will see hillside
dirt covering the back of the pyramid-like structure.
All the buildings and structures must have been covered
in this same level of dirt and plant growth before
you see one
of the vendors from the villages below hoping to sell
his 'original artifacts' to the tourists visiting Monte Albán.
visit Monte Albán, catch a bus from central Oaxaca for
38 Pesos per person. You will arrive about 30 minutes
later at the site of the ruins. Entrance is 48 Pesos per
is definitely worth visiting.