Monte Albán




Monte Albán

Site Information

Country: Mexico
State: Oaxaca
Location: 17° 2' 35" N - 96° 46' 7" W
Field Documentation Date(s): October 6th, 2008
Project Release Date(s): June 25th, 2009
Time Range: 500 BCE - 800 CE
Era: Late Preclassic to Postclassic
Culture: Zapotec
Site Authority: INAH
Heritage Listing: UNESCO World Heritage Site
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Photo-textured 3D model of System IV, created from point cloud data

Site Description

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The great hilltop acropolis of Monte Albán is located atop a steep, artificially-flattened ridge four hundred meters above Oaxaca Valley in modern-day Mexico. Continuously inhabited for over twelve hundred years, the ruins of Monte Albán were once the ancient capital of the Zapotec culture and one of the oldest-known urban cities in Mesoamerica. Protected by an arid climate and its isolated location, the well-preserved city is centered around a plaza measuring approximately 25,000 meters squared, and most of the city's great monumental structures are built in its vicinity.

The northern and southern ends of the rectangular Main Plaza are dominated by two large, pyramid-topped, four-sided platform structures with great staircases leading down to the plaza floor. Four smaller buildings (including the architecturally-distinct Building J) extend along the central spine of this plaza floor, while the perimeter is flanked to the east and west by additional four-sided platforms. One of the most prominent of these is the System IV, a temple-patio-altar complex to the west which embodies the architecture typically found at Monte Albán.

Built around 450 CE atop earlier constructions, the archaeological remains of System IV contain an enclosed courtyard which may have served as an amphitheater for observers to see the rites conducted on its stepped pyramid. Several of its facades feature a talud-tablero (slope-panel) architectural style similar to those found in Teotihuacán; uniquely, many of the facades are also decorated by double-scapular (doble escapulario) moldings which are highly geometric and thought to symbolize the sky. The important, stone monolith known as Stela 18, erected just outside of the complex, is extensively carved with glyphic inscriptions in the undeciphered Zapotec script.

Located across the plaza to the east is an immense I-shaped Ball Court which was used in the distant past for playing the still somewhat poorly-understood Mesoamerican Ballgame. Immediately outside of the Main Plaza, but considered to be part of Monte Albán's civic core, are over two thousand artificial terraces built into the hillside for additional construction and agricultural practices, as well as two other flattened ridge tops with their own plaza groups.

Found near the Main Plaza structure known as "Temple of the Danzantes" are more than forty of three hundred stelae carved with figures of naked men in distorted poses; during the 19th century these were believed to have represented dancers (thus their popular name), but recent archaeological investigation has more accurately interpreted them as depictions of disemboweled, sacrificed war captives.

This surviving material culture has led to interpretations of Monte Albán as an imperial capital of the Zapotec during its peak. In fact, while it is located on an arid mountainside, this dense site is strategically located at the center of three, fertile valleys, and once traded with and depended on the diverse agricultural communities below.

While the site eventually fell into neglect, reconstruction efforts took place in the late 19th and 20th centuries and involved the clearance, consolidation and restoration of the major structures along this ridge. Today, the ruins of Monte Albán are a Mexican national park, and the site retains its powerful symbolic value as a place of great pride for the peoples of Oaxaca.
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History

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The Valley of Oaxaca, located in the southern highlands of Mexico, is actually composed of three distinct valleys (the Etla, Tlacolula, and Ocotlán) that converge together in a giant Y-shape. Settled farming communities have been present in Oaxaca for over 5000 years, and archaeological evidence found in the large Etla Valley suggests great economic and sociopolitical development in the region; the settlement of San Jose Mogote is believed to have had a population of at least 1200-1500 people at its peak around 600 BCE. These large and fertile valleys were one of the primary crucibles of agriculture in the Americas; the earliest known archaeo-botanical evidence of domesticated Maize cobs comes from Guila Naquitz cave in Oaxaca, which date to approximately 6200 years ago. With over 80 small communities spread around the three valleys by 600 BCE, Oaxaca was capable of supporting substantial, but limited, population growth on the strength of its own resources.

Sometime between 600 BCE and 500 BCE, however, everything began to change. Profound social, political, and economic changes were beginning to occur across the Mesoamerican region, as increasingly complex urbanized societies developed from smaller agricultural populations. Long-distance trade routes, used most prominently a few centuries earlier by the Gulf Coast Olmecs, began to see increasing traffic from emerging power centers in the Valley of Mexico, the Pacific Coast, and the Maya highlands of modern-day Guatemala. The Valley of Oaxaca, not only a probable crux of major agricultural innovation but also positioned along the most important of these trade routes, rapidly grew into one Mesoamerica's most important centers of civilization.

A Oaxacan logo-syllabic written script (a script that is meant to replicate spoken language with a combination of entire-word symbols and individual syllables) was developed around this time. It was likely originated from a proto-Zapotecan language dating to circa 600 BCE. Though we understand some of the basic elements, particularly place names, most of the Zapotec writing system remains undecipherable to modern scholars. Archaeologist Javier Urcid believes the early writings were concerned with the promotion of group identity and stability in a time when great socio-political change was occurring. They were written by speakers of the central Oaxacan Zapotec language, a ruling elite that were becoming more regionally powerful, politically centralized, and ensconced in urban centers within the valley.

By 500 BCE, the Zapotecs became the dominant culture of the Oaxaca valley and their unquestioned capital was the newly-established fortress-city of Monte Albán. Precipitously perched 400 meters above the valley floor (and 1940 meters above sea level), Monte Albán was built on a series of artificially-flattened ridge tops and surrounding terraces that had few water sources, little arable land, and no evidence of previous human settlement. However, Monte Albán was located in a highly defensible position at the convergence point of all three of the valleys of Oaxaca.

Though populations were increasing across the Valley of Oaxaca in general, the urban density of Monte Albán exploded. By 300 BCE, Monte Albán's population is estimated to have been around 5200 people, by 100 BCE it hovered somewhere around 17,000, making it one of the most densely populated cities in Mesoamerica. Simultaneously, nearby centers of the Etla Valley that were long-established, such as San Jose Mogote, experienced a corresponding decline in population density, as many people moved up the hill towards the terraces and urban plazas of Monte Albán.

The ruling elite of Monte Albán established strong relationships with emergent Mesoamerican urban centers such as Teotihuacán, 400km away, and Zapotecan artworks and written language became widely dispersed among other great regional powers. Indeed, these relationships would have been immensely helpful in Monte Albán's climb to regional dominance; this time period is marked by expanding populations, increased warfare, and centralization of power all around Mesoamerica as trade for highly useful goods (e.g., obsidian) greatly increased. The new military power of the Monte Albán state is most vividly depicted on the carved stone monuments known as the Danzantes, found in the Main Plaza and dating to the city’s early development period, which depict brutally disemboweled/sacrificed war captives in distorted poses.

Though evidence points to limited cooperation or even resistance by some smaller settlements in the Valley of Oaxaca, it is clear that the Zapotecs of Monte Albán retained their position as the primary spiritual, trade, and military center of Oaxaca for around 1000 years. Many of the most important, and largest, structures were built during the Classic Period from approximately 200 CE to 600 CE as social complexity increased. Written records from this time (inscribed on monuments and pottery) indicate that the ruling elite grew increasingly concerned with sustainable levels of agricultural production and the retention of noble blood within already-established lineages. Construction projects continued to occur on the geographically-constricted site along ridgetops and on over 2000 terraces. At the city’s peak in the 6th century CE, it is estimated that approximately 30,000 people lived within a 6.5 square-kilometer radius of this center.

It was around this time that Teotihuacán collapsed. New power centers in Oaxaca, such as Mitla (in the Valley's Tlacolula arm), were beginning to assert themselves and make alliances with emergent powers from Mexico that were rising in the wake of Teotihuacán's fall - such as the Nahuatl-speaking people that would later be identified as the nexus of the Toltec and Aztec empires. Additionally, the growing populations of both Monte Albán and the Valley of Oaxaca itself began to reach levels that were unsustainable for its agricultural capacity, and hunger and social unrest occurred.

Sometime between 700 and 800 CE, the ruling Zapotec lineage at Monte Albán collapsed and the city fell into decline. Major construction in the city core came to a halt and the city was depopulated by the end of the 8th century. A diaspora of the people made their way down from the hills and back to the valley floor, and possibly to more distant locales as well. The newly-emergent power centers of Oaxaca, however, had a delicate relationship with the ruins of Monte Albán, which was still widely considered a source of political and spiritual legitimacy; the Zapotec script continued to be used in elite Oaxacan contexts until around 900 CE. However, the Zapotec script began to be replaced by the simpler writing system known as Mixteca-Puebla, a system that would continue to be used all the way up through the Spanish conquest.

This reverence continued through the Post-Classic (around 1000-1500 CE) and well into the early Spanish Colonial period (post-1500), as elites from the Mixtec language-speakers at Mitla and other Oaxacan power centers used Monte Albán as a pilgrimage site and prestige burial ground for some of their most-revered leaders. Today, the site remains a source of great pride for the peoples of Oaxaca, particularly the Zapotec-speakers that still farm the fields on the Valley floor below.



*A note on chronology:
The archaeological time designations for the Valley of Oaxaca and Monte Albán are based on their own numeric system of Periods I through V, devised by archaeologist Dr. Alfonso Caso during his excavations of the site from1930-1958. This system parallels the standard Mesoamerican chronological periods of Preclassic through Postclassic; we generally will use the Monte Albán-specific periods here, though when the topic takes a subject arc wider than the Valley of Oaxaca we will refer to the broader Mesoamerican time chronology to provide context. Here is a quick guide, standardized as per Blanton, Feinman, et al. 1999:

Monte Albán chronology: Period I (early) 500 BCE - 300 BCE; Period II (late) 300 BCE - 100 BCE; Period II 100 BCE - 300 CE; Period IIIa 300 CE- 500 CE; Period IIIb 500 CE - 700 CE; Period IV 700 CE - 1100 CE; Period V 1100 CE - 1500 CE

Broader Mesoamerican chronology: Middle Preclassic (Formative) 1000 BCE - 400 BCE; Late Preclassic (Formative) 400 BCE - 200 CE; Early Classic 200 CE - 600 CE; Late Classic 600 CE - 900 CE (varies by region); Terminal Classic 800 CE - 1000 CE (varies by region); Postclassic 900 CE - 1519 CE (varies by region)
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Perspective of System IV, created from laser scan data

Project Narrative

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In October 2008 a team of specialists, Liz Lee of CyArk, Frank Collazo of Leica-Geosystems, and Adrian Lopez of SYSTOP, spent two days laser scanning an area known as “System IV” with the Leica 3000 and 6000 whilst conducting digital panoramic photography throughout the Monte Albán archaeological park to supplement the 3D data. This digital record was used as a sample to exhibit to a team of archaeologists from Monte Albán and a group of CyArk supporters how digital preservation could be beneficial to this site, showing the field process as well as the immediate deliverables. System IV was selected as the exemplar for digital preservation at Monte Albán because it represents a combination of the ‘typical’ structural forms found within the park, including a sunken courtyard and underground tunnels.

The case study within the park was a great success and after the initial viewing by the site experts and project supporters, the scan team was asked to apply this high-definition technology to digitally record a more precariously located site; the team then macheted their way to an undisclosed location (the site is unregistered for protective purposes) where they free-climbed into a cave, lowering the equipment with ropes to a narrow ledge, and scanned the interior of a cave site as another data sample for the review of the archaeologists and supporters.
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Photograph looking northwest to the Altar located near Building P in the Main Plaza

Preservation

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The ruins of Monte Albán, owing to their isolation on a hillside within a relatively arid climate, were decently preserved when encountered for the first time by non-Oaxacans. The massive volume and construction style of the site's ancient buildings were designed to survive earthquakes in this seismically-active region. However, an enormously destructive 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 1999 damaged a number of subterranean elite tombs in the vicinity of the North Platform. One destructive factor the site's planners could not have taken into account was the toll modern social and political processes would have.

Like the great Peruvian hilltop acropolis of Machu Picchu, Monte Albán is suffering from excessive tourism and economic pressures. Under the archaeologists Alfonso Caso and Jorge Acosta, many of the early twentieth-century monumental reconstructions at the site were undertaken in an effort to restore the buildings to their original state. However, later reconstructions in the post-WWII era were subject to pressures from authorities eager to increase tourism. By providing a more scenic experience for visitors, the reconstruction work disregarded the accuracy and meticulous research by specialists in earlier excavations.

Some of the more measurable risks are visible as several of the most important structures are in danger of severe erosion from the foot traffic of over 8000 visitors a day during peak tourism seasons, while preservation and conservation efforts are often underfunded.

Adding to these dangers is the fact that only about 15% of the main site of Monte Albán has been archaeologically excavated. Connecting monumental areas of the urban zone such as Cerro El Gallo, Mogollito, and Monte Albán Chico are little-protected against vandalism, looting, and continued degradation from the elements. Efforts to document and restore more of these areas surrounding the main plaza have run into strong resistance from local pastoralists, subsistence farmers, and squatter communities who rely on portions of the arid slopes for survival due to a shortage of unused land on the densely-populated valley floor below (including the nearby modern city of Oaxaca). Hence, land-use issues have led to tense confrontations between local agriculturalists on appropriated land and the archaeologists who wish to keep this land within a conservation zone.

These challenges facing the ancient city of Monte Albán are not, however, insurmountable. High definition documentation, such as CyArk has done here, holds great promise as a tool for site managers to measure and plan repairs for damaged and at-risk structures, as well as establishing a greater understanding of how the construction technologies of the past compare to the archaeological restoration technologies employed over the past hundred years. It also can raise public awareness, helping people both within the valley and in the rest of the world to understand the universal value of sites such as Monte Albán and why they should be kept intact for generations to come.
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Area Descriptions

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Building X
Main Plaza
Altar
Building G
Building H
Building I
Building J
East Group
Ball Court
Building II
Building P
Building Q
Palace
West Group
Danzantes Wall
System IV
Building IV
Building N
Stela 18
System M
Building M
Building O
Temple of the Danzantes
Museum
North Platform
Building 1
Building A
Building B
Building D
Building E
Building VG
Sunken Patio
Temple of Two Columns
South Platform
Mound III
Southeast Mound
Tomb 103
Tomb 104
Tomb 105

Building X

Building X Description:

Building X was built in two major phases. The top platform had a small ruined temple and dates to Period IIIb-IV (500-800 CE). This temple was removed by archaeologists to reveal a subsurface temple structure to the northeast of the North Platform, dating to Period II-IIIa (100 BCE - 500 CE). An internal patio in this subsurface temple, with intact columns, surrounds a central basin in the floor. One of Temple X's surviving facades is known as the Bazan Slab, and features a large relief carving with strong Teotihuacáno stylistic elements.


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Main Plaza

Main Plaza Description:

Measuring a bit more than 300 by 200 meters in size, Monte Albán's Main Plaza served as the city's urban core and cosmological center. Most of the standing architecture in it today dates to late Period IIIa-IIIb from 300-700 CE, with evidence of some building as late as 900 CE and a great deal of sub-construction (relatively intact earlier structures underneath later ones) that dates to the Period I origins of the city. Centuries of continuous building made the Main Plaza progressively more enclosed over time, until the area reached a point where entry was restricted to a small number of highly defensible entrances; it is also thought that a network of subterranean tunnels under the plaza and its surrounding buildings played a role in controlling access. It is also believed these tunnels could have been used by priests to divinely enter and exit the main ritual spaces during ceremonies.

Monte Albán's builders designed the Main Plaza according to the surrounding landscape of Oaxaca Valley; the profile of its surrounding buildings (particularly the West Group) reflect an almost exact scale replica of the mountains looming behind them as seen from the plaza floor. Most of the constructions in and around Monte Albán's monumental core display three primary architectural conventions associated with the site: earthquake-resistant talud-tablero (slope/panel) architecture similar in design to the Classic Period metropolis of Teotihuacán, large staircases lined with thin beams called alfardas, and upper walls framed by doble escapulario (double-scapular) linear moldings.


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Altar

Altar Description:

Located directly in front of Building P is a square depression with a central altar (adoratorio) built up to plaza level. Similar in form to the altar found in the North Platform, this construction dates to Period II-IIIa (100-500 CE); it was later also altered by the Mixtec people who used Monte Albán as a ceremonial site in the centuries following its decline as a city. A jade bat-god mask was taken from this altar during early excavations of the city, and now resides in the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia y Historia in Mexico City.


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Building G

Building G Description:

Building G is the northernmost construction of the temple complex (which also includes Building H and I) located in the center of the Main Plaza, and dates primarily to Period IIIa-IIIb. Its north face has a staircase that leads to the temple's top. The summit contains the ruins of a hallway as well as a widened chamber.


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Building H

Building H Description:

Building H is the central construction of the temple complex (which also includes Building G and I) located in the center of the Main Plaza. It dates to Period IIIa-IIIb and presently reaches around 9.5 meters in height at the tallest point, which is an upper temple structure. This structure, accessed by a steep staircase along the building's eastern face, is all that remains of a double-recessed columned chamber consisting of two wide halls that measure around 14 meters in width from north to south. As Buildings G, H, and I were likely considered to have been one temple, this edifice's central positioning and size (this complex taken together is the largest building in the city) would have given it a central role in ceremonial and religious displays for a large public gathering in the Main Plaza.


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Building I

Building I Description:

Building I is the southernmost temple of the temple complex (which also includes Building G and H) located in the center of the Main Plaza, and dates primarily to Period IIIa-IIIb. Its south face has a staircase that leads to the temple's top, which has the ruins of a hallway and widened chamber.


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Building J

Building J Description:

This extraordinary structure, shaped roughly like an arrowhead, dates to Period I (between 500 BCE and 200 BCE) and has no analog elsewhere at Monte Albán or in the ancient Mesoamerican world. Viewed in plan, there are no right angles in its overall shape, and its southwestern orientation differs from the north-south orientation of the other major monumental buildings on-site; archaeologists believe this orientation was designed for the observance of a particular astronomical phenomena. Building J's exterior walls are covered in over 40 carved slabs, most of which depict what seem to be place names, upside-down severed heads, and glyphic writing; these writings are thought to document early conquests of neighboring polities by the increasingly-powerful city-state of Monte Albán in the late Preclassic.


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East Group

East Group Description:

This is the archaeological term for the group of monuments on the eastern side of the Main Plaza, including the Ball Court, Building II, Building P, Building Q, and the Palace. Most of these buildings are thought to have been used for ceremonial, rather than residential, purposes. They were oriented in such a manner as to have the sun rising from behind them when viewed from the Main Plaza.


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Ball Court

Ball Court Description:

The raised platform for Monte Alban's I-shaped primary Ball Court measures approximately 42 meters long by 23 meters wide, very similar in size and design to the ball court at the Preclassic Zapotec capital of San Jose Mogote in the Valley of Oaxaca below. This court is significantly larger than ball courts found at contemporary cities such as the Maya metropolis of Tikal, though it is nowhere near as large as the later Great Ball Court at Chichén Itzá. It is one of two ball courts known to have existed in Monte Albán's central urbanized zone, and one of five at the entire site. This court was constructed during Period II (approx. 100 CE) and features a circular marker stone. Unusually, a niche is carved into each of the court's four interior corners. This type of I-shaped court was particular to the Oaxacan region during the Classic, though the design spread to central Mexico during the Postclassic.


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Building II

Building II Description:

Topped with the ruins of a columned temple, this small temple (25 by 30 meters per side) is located to the south of the Ball Court. Building II dates to Period IIIa (circa 400 CE) and features talud-tablero (slope-panel) facades with Teotihuacáno-style carvings, a west-facing staircase, and a connecting structure to Building P.


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Building P

Building P Description:

The rectangular structure known as Building P, also known as El Piramide, dates to the Period IIIa (circa 400 CE) and is quite wide and tall compared to its surrounding structures (approx. 25 by 35 meters per side and 11 meters in height at its tallest current point). Its staircase directly faces the central ceremonial structure Building H, and these two buildings were thought to have been used together in important ceremonies. Building P has a vertical shaft cut into the middle of the stairway, leading down into a chamber designed to not cast a shadow on the two annual solar zenith dates. Additionally, a hidden tunnel leads from the inner stairway up to the central altar atop the temple in a small columned chamber.


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Building Q

Building Q Description:

Located south of the Palace, Building Q's initial construction dates to early Period IIIb (circa 500 CE), and the building underwent alterations up through the end of IIIb and early IV (circa 750 CE). A small columned temple room was originally atop it. Building Q is largely unexcavated.


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Palace

Palace Description:

Initially constructed during Period IIIa (350 CE) and expanded up through Period IIIb-IV (800 CE), the Palace (Palacio) is one of the few structures in the East Group thought to have functioned at least partially as an elite residence. The interior area contains a patio with a small altar and four main surrounding rooms as well as nine additional small rooms. It conforms to the general layout of elite residences found elsewhere at Monte Alban but was more opulent. A cross-shaped tomb was excavated from under the patio during the 1970s, likely dating to early Period IV. The Palace's outer walls are around a meter thick, and extend approximately 22 meters east-west by 25 meters north-south. Underneath the Palace is a tunnel, largely unexcavated, running under the Main Plaza.


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West Group

West Group Description:

This is the archaeological term for the group of monuments on the western side of the Main Plaza, including The Temple of the Danzantes, System M, and System IV. Most of these buildings are thought to have been used for ceremonial, rather than residential, purposes. They were oriented in such a manner as to have the sun set behind them when viewed from the Main Plaza.


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Danzantes Wall

Danzantes Wall Description:

Located north of the Temple of the Danzantes, this wall is likely part of the original Temple of the Danzantes dating from Period I (500 BCE-100 BCE). Both horizontal and vertical bas-relief sculptural figures are depicted in stone slabs set into the wall and free-standing on the plaza floor. Though much of this wall and the temple were dismantled during later periods and the slabs scattered about the Main Plaza, the original assemblage was likely arranged as a sequential text, replete with glyphs and numerals, that recorded some of the conquest events that defined this portion of Monte Albán's history.

During the 19th century these slabs (over 300 have been found) were believed to have represented dancers (thus their popular name), but recent archaeological investigation has more accurately interpreted them as depictions of disemboweled, sacrificed war captives. The figures are mostly about life-size, all male, and display what art historians consider to be traits of the Gulf coast Olmec sculptural style. Part of the Danzantes Wall projects outward to form a roof over a number of these reliefs.


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System IV

System IV Description:

Built during Period IIIa-IIIb around 450-500 CE atop earlier constructions, System IV is a temple-patio-altar complex (like System M), with a central altar, enclosed courtyard, stepped pyramid and east-west orientation. System IV's courtyard patio may have served as an amphitheater for observers to see rites conducted on the main pyramid. Centuries of continuous building made System IV more enclosed over time, until the area reached a point where entry was restricted to a small number of highly defensible entrances. Two tunnels extend under the surface of the complex and are believed to been used by priests to divinely enter and exit the main ritual spaces during ceremonies.

System IV also features the talud-tablero (slope-panel) architectural style similar to those found in Teotihuacán, as well "double-scapular" (doble escapulario) horizontal moldings which are highly geometric and thought to symbolize the sky.

Some of System IV's earlier construction elements that remain intact include a six meter-tall sloping wall dating to Period I (500-100 BCE) and a temple in the northwest corner that dates to Period II (circa 200 CE).


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Building IV

Building IV Description:

Building IV is the westernmost structure of System IV, reaching a rectangular 36 meters east-west, 33.5 meters north-south. As a stepped pyramid, it is the tallest temple structure of System IV, rising 10.3 meters in height in its current state. A one-room square temple stood atop Building IV, with two interior support columns and four immediately in front of the structure. These pillars were made of stone and mortar, and often were carved with images. These pillars would have supported flat stone or wooden roofs. Its frontal staircase faces the patio, altar, and Building N to the east.


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Building N

Building N Description:

Building N is the easternmost structure of System IV, a three-tiered platform mound measuring a rectangular 21 meters east-west, 33 meters north-south, and just under four meters in height at its tallest point. Stairs on both sides of the platform extend into the Main Plaza (to the east) and System IV's inner patio (to the west).


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Stela 18

Stela 18 Description:

Standing just north of System IV, at 5.8 meters in height this stela is the tallest and one of the oldest standing stones of its type known at Monte Albán. Stela 18 was built during Period II (100 BCE-300 CE), and is generally thought to have been used for astronomical and timekeeping functions; primarily the verification of midday and the dates of the solstices. It was originally covered in Zapotec inscriptions, now severely eroded; some of the identifiable ones that remain are calendar dates (5 cane/9 monkey) and a glyph that is associated with water.


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System M

System M Description:

Built during 450-500 CE atop earlier constructions, System M is a temple-patio-altar complex (like System IV), with a central altar, enclosed courtyard, stepped pyramid and east-west orientation. System M's courtyard patio may have served as an amphitheater for observers to see rites conducted on the main pyramid. System M features the talud-tablero (slope-panel) architectural style similar to those found in Teotihuacán, as well "double-scapular" (doble escapulario) horizontal moldings which are highly geometric and thought to symbolize the sky.


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Building M

Building M Description:

Building M is the westernmost structure of System M, reaching a rectangular 36 meters east-west, 33.5 meters north-south. As a step pyramid, it is also the tallest feature reaching 10.3 meters in its current state. A one-room square temple stood atop Building M, with two interior support columns and four immediately in front of the structure. Its frontal staircase faces the patio, altar, and Building O to the east.


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Building O

Building O Description:

Building O is the easternmost structure of System M, a three-tiered platform mound measuring a rectangular 21 meters east-west, 33 meters north-south, and just under four meters in height at its tallest point. Stairs on both sides of the platform extend into the Main Plaza (to the east) and System M's inner patio (to the west).


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Temple of the Danzantes

Temple of the Danzantes Description:

Building L, also known as the Temple of the Danzantes, is an amalgamation of two major construction periods. The earlier Period I (500-100 BCE) building was originally decorated on its facade by many of the famous Danzantes slabs, likely celebrating the early military exploits of Monte Albán. During later Period II (sometime around 200 CE) this original temple was largely covered up and partially dismantled by the construction of Building L; many of the Danzantes slabs were cut from the temple's facade and either erected upright in front of the remaining temple area now known as the Danzantes Wall, scattered about the site, or used as building materials for other new construction in Monte Albán.


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Museum

Museum Description:

A small museum sits near the entrance to the Main Plaza. It holds several Danzantes sculptures and other artifacts excavated from the site. The ground it is built atop is rumored to be archaeologically rich. Located a short distance north of the museum is the site of Tomb 7, which contained both Zapotec and Mixtec burials and one of the richest archaeological deposits of funerary ceramics, gold, and silver in the Americas.


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North Platform

North Platform Description:

Resting upon a natural rise in the bedrock, the North Platform measures a rectangular 265 meters north-south by 194 meters east-west; it is nearly as large as the Main Plaza and likely served as an elite residential group for high-ranking nobles. The North Platform is ringed by temples and residential platforms and is centered around the three meter-deep Sunken Patio, or Patio Hundido, which contains an large altar in its center. The steps that extend from the Main Plaza into the North Platform are around 41 meters wide and lead to a portico once supported by twelve columns that are each almost two meters thick.


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Building 1

Building 1 Description:

Located directly to the west of the Temple of Two Columns, Building I has a complex stratigraphy (archaeological layering) going all the way from early Period II (circa 100 BCE) through Period IIIb-IV (500-800 CE). It was not excavated by the Alfonso Caso's archaeological expedition in the 1930s, and little was known about it until the extensive Bernal/Acosta excavations of Monte Albán during the 1960s and 1970s.


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Building A

Building A Description:

Located to the east of the Sunken Patio, Building A dates to Period IIIb (circa 500 CE), and is known as the "Jewelled Building" due to the large amounts of Mica and Obsidian excavated from it. Recently restored, Building A is a pyramidal temple platform around 7.5 meters in height and possesses a decorated staircase in the Teotihuacáno architectural style that is not found elsewhere in Monte Albán. It is thought to have perhaps been a Teotihuacáno temple or elite residence.


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Building B

Building B Description:

Located on the western border of the Sunken Patio, this building is poorly-preserved and dates to the post-abandonment Period IV-V (after 850 CE) at Monte Albán during Mixtec control of the ruined city. It is possibly the most recently-constructed building on the site. It rests atop the remains of an earlier Zapotec construction from Period II.


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Building D

Building D Description:

The temple platforms of the VG Complex are Building D to the north, VG to the east, E to the south, and the Temple of Two Columns to the west. They were all built primarily between 500-800 CE, during Period IIIb-IV. Buildings D, VG, and E all originally supported adobe-walled temples on their summits. The VG title stems from the Geodesic Vertex (Vertice Geodesico) positioned atop the east mound, a datum (topographic measuring point) from which accurate surveys of the site are conducted.


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Building E

Building E Description:

During the later portion of Period IIIb-IV, 680-800 CE, Building E was enlarged to the south. Additionally, a new staircase was built to the summit temple on Building E's south face. Near the top of the staircase is a remarkably-well preserved stela (dating to circa 800 CE) that depicts a spiritual power transference between generations of noblewomen. The temple platforms of the VG Complex are Building D to the north, VG to the east, E to the south, and the Temple of Two Columns to the east. Buildings D, VG, and E all originally supported adobe-walled temples on their summits. The VG title stems from the Geodesic Vertex (Vertice Geodesico) positioned atop the east mound, a datum (topographic measuring point) from which accurate surveys of the site are conducted.


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Building VG

Building VG Description:

Building VG is the largest temple platform in the VG Temple Complex. It contained the remains of a rich burial of noblewomen inside, interred with greenstone, pearls, and shells. The temple platforms of the VG Complex are Building D to the north, VG to the east, E to the south, and the Temple of Two Columns to the west. They were all built primarily between 500-800 CE, during Period IIIb-IV. Buildings D, VG, and E all originally supported adobe-walled temples on their summits. The VG title stems from the Geodesic Vertex (Vertice Geodesico) positioned atop the east mound, a datum (topographic measuring point) from which accurate surveys of the site are conducted.


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Sunken Patio

Sunken Patio Description:

The North Platform's Sunken Patio (or Patio Hundido) is the second-largest plaza space in Monte Albán's urban core. It is located in a three meter-deep depression north of a colonnaded portico, south of the VG Complex, and between Buildings A and B on the east and west. The Sunken Patio is roughly square in plan at around 50 meters to a side, with a large altar in the center measuring about 12 meters per side. As the entire plaza was largely hidden from view within the North Platform, highly exclusive ceremonial rites were likely conducted here by the city's elite. While the initial construction of this space likely dates back to the city's early history, remodeling continued through the final years of Zapotec construction in the city (Period IIIb and Period IV, 500-800 CE).


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Temple of Two Columns

Temple of Two Columns Description:

Part of the VG plaza complex, the short platform known as the Temple of Two Columns features prominent bas-relief carvings of the Zapotec "Wide-Beaked Bird" deity, thought by archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery to be representative of a bird of prey and associated with war. The temple's columns were made of nonlocal stone, originally supported a roof, and were built primarily between 500-800 CE during Period IIIb-IV.


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South Platform

South Platform Description:

The massive structure known as the South Platform is located at the far southern terminus of the Main Plaza. An enormous staircase, 40 meters in width, ascends 15 meters in height to the platform itself, which measures approximately 140 meters north-south by 108 meters east-west. Built primarily between the end of Period III and into early Period IV (around 500-800 CE), the South Platform contains two pyramidal temples with ruined structures atop them. A defensive wall, severely limiting access to the structure from the Main Plaza, was built on the edge of the platform sometime shortly after 800 CE; a few relocated Danzantes made their way into this wall's facade. The northeast and southeast corners of the South Platform contain carved stelae depicting zoomorphs (mythical human-animal hybrids) and seemingly important personages, replete with largely-undeciphered glyphic and numerical data.


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Mound III

Mound III Description:

Mound III is the larger temple pyramid found atop the South Platform. It is oriented in a north-south axis with a east-facing staircase. It rises around 9 meters above the surface of the platform, and measures forty meters square per side. Teotihuacano-styled motifs are carved on portions of this building's facade.


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Southeast Mound

Southeast Mound Description:

The Southeast Mound is the smaller temple found in the southeastern corner of the South Platform. It rises around 6 meters above the surface of the platform, and measures 20 meters square per side. Teotihuacano-styled motifs are carved on portions of this building's facade.


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Tomb 103

Tomb 103 Description:

Located to the west of Tomb 104, Tomb 103 is a four-chambered tomb that was likely a crypt for an elite lineage/family. It dates to Period IIIb-IV (500-800 CE) and was painted in a polychrome style atop a layer of stucco, with an emphasis on red pigment in the style of Teotihuacán. Tomb 103 was located underneath a residential building, with entrances at each cardinal point (Tomb 103's entrance faces west) and groups of rooms with their own patios. One of the most brilliant pieces of art recovered from Monte Albán, a funerary urn decorated with images of a royal personage and the lightning-tongued rain deity Cocijo, was interred here.


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Tomb 104

Tomb 104 Description:

Tomb 104 dates to Period IIIa (100-500 CE), and was excavated in 1937 by archaeologist Alfonso Caso. The chamber entry door is framed with a standard Monte Albán "double scapular" molding, and above it is a ceramic figure of the maize deity Pitao Corobi outfitted in a Cocijo (rain god) headdress/mask. The single occupant of the tomb was positioned with feet at the chamber door, surrounded by small clay urns, plates, and incense burners. Carvings of important personages and gods, as well as numerous associated glyphs and calendar dates, adorn the walls and molded objects. Tomb 104's facades were covered in a thin layer of stucco, which was then richly painted with an emphasis on blue and yellow hues.


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Tomb 105

Tomb 105 Description:

Tomb 105 dates to the Monte Albán IIIb phase (500-800 CE); it is richly decorated and painted with an emphasis on red pigment in the style of Teotihuacán. Images of nine male-female couples, probably ancestral figures accompanied by name glyphs, line the side and rear walls. Some of these figures wear Teotihuacáno-styled headdresses, perhaps a nod to dominant elite styles of the past as Teotihuacán had collapsed as a polity by 600 CE. A single calendar date adorns the front wall of the tomb, possibly indicating the date of death of its occupant.


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References:

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  1. Blanton, et al. Ancient Oaxaca : the Monte Albán state. Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1999
  2. Blomster, Jeffrey P., 2008. "Changing cloud formations : the sociopolitics of Oaxaca in late classic/postclassic Mesoamerica", ed. Blomster. After Monte Albán : transformation and negotiation in Oaxaca, Mexico. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado
  3. Fagan, Brian M. Kingdoms of gold, kingdoms of jade : the Americas before Columbus . London : Thames and Hudson, 1991
  4. Fahmel Beyer, Bernd Walter Federico. La Arquitectura de Monte Albán. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, 1991
  5. Instituto Nacional de Antroplogía e Historia (INAH). Informational signs posted onsite and in site museum.
  6. Joyce, Arthur A. 2008. "Domination, negotiation, and collapse: a history of centralized authority on the Oaxaca coast before the late postclassic", ed. Blomster. After Monte Albán : transformation and negotiation in Oaxaca, Mexico. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado
  7. Miller, Mary Ellen. The art of Mesoamerica : from Olmec to Aztec (3rd ed.). London : Thames and Hudson, 2001
  8. Robles, Nancy M. The Management of Archaeological Resources in Mexico: Oaxaca as a Case Study. SAA Website (www.saa.org), 2000
  9. Schele, Linda & Mary E. Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and
    Ritual in Maya Art
    . London: Thames and Hudson, 1986

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