Jan 18

Panorama of Monte Alban

Spectacularly located on an artificially leveled mountain top, Monte Albán (White Mountain) is located in the present state of Oaxaca, Mexico, just outside of Oaxaca City. Monte Alban emerged as the center of political authority in the Valley of Oaxaca around 400 B.C., because it commanded the best terrain in the valley for agriculture and dense settlement.


Monte Albán was founded around 700BC, when population growth in the area was sufficient to support a religious élite. It became the most important center in the area, and by 300AD had a population of about 50,000 - more than any European city at the time. Residential areas were built on terraces down the hillside, and all water supplies had to be carried up from the valleys.

Many early structures were razed or built over, one of the earliest structures known today is the "Monumento de los Danzantes", featuring the first examples of writing found in the region. Intensive construction at the site continued until around 900AD, when the city began to lose political influence to other powers, such as Mitla. The Mixtecs began to dominate the Zapotecs, and Monte Albán, almost deserted by 700AD, became more of a religious site - the Mixtecs buried their leaders in elaborate tombs here.

Later invaders were the Aztecs and then the Spanish, who gave the city its current name.

The Ruins

The hilltop ruins of Monte Alban are the second largest ceremonial site in Mesoamerica, only exceeded in size by Teotihuacan near Mexico City. DanzantesOne ancient name of the site was Sahandevui, meaning, ‘at the foot of heaven.’ The ruins are extremely old. Elaborate yet currently undeciphered hieroglyphs found here are among the most ancient writings in all of Mesoamerica. Equally mysterious are the strange rock carvings known as danzantes, which depict humanoid figures with Negroid facial features. Similar to carvings found at Olmec sites in other parts of Mexico, these decidedly non-Mexican figures and the hieroglyphic writings seem to indicate the possibility of contact and influence by cultures far distant from the western hemisphere.

The first known buildings were constructed between 1000 - 800 BC but most of these are now destroyed or buried beneath later Zapotec structures. The Zapotec occupation of the site dates from 100BC and most of the enormous structures standing today date from the Classic phase of 300-900 AD when Monte Alban had become the principal ceremonial site of the Zapotec empire. The complex contains great plazas, numerous pyramids, a ball game court, underground passageways, and over 170 tombs. The site was abandoned as a functioning ceremonial center during the 10th century though it continued to be used as a burial place by the Mixtecs.

Mound J Observatory

Mound J, illustrated in the photograph, has been shown to be a highly refined and complex astronomical observatory. A curiously shaped arrowhead structure, situated at an angle of 45 degrees to the main axis of Monte Alban, Mound J was aligned with the cardinal points and is thought to have been used for astronomy, hence its name 'The Observatory'. In its construction, about 40 carved slabs from the Monumento de los Danzantes were used. There are depictions of rulers above glyphs representing place names, presumably a list of conquered towns.


Most of the structures surround a vast plaza, orientated north-south. There are large platforms to the north and south, and if you enter at the north-east corner you will see on your left the ball-court. Zapotec ball-courts differ from those of the Maya in several ways; there are no stone rings and the court is shaped like a capital I. The sides of the court were sloping, but experts think that these walls were used in the game and were not for spectators. There is no evidence of human sacrifices related to the ball game in the Zapotec culture. However, the game seems to have involved moving the ball using elbows and hips similar to the method of play used by the Maya.

Ballcourt Stepped platform

The Northern platform was probably the major structure on the plaza, though much of it is in ruins now and it's difficult to imagine its original glory. There are several broad stairways offering great views of the valley. On the west side are two almost identical structures, with steps up to a platform and a walled enclosure at the base. There are remains of a four-tiered pyramid that would have been crowned by a temple.

Monumento de los Danzantes

Between these two buildings is the Monumento de los Danzantes (the Dancers). The sloping faces are carved with naked human figures in strange positions, originally thought to be dancers. Their real significance is unknown, but the most popular theory is that they depict some sort of medical textbook - maybe this was a kind of hospital. Various deformities can be made out, and one figure is clearly a woman in childbirth. Date glyphs near the carvings are from about 600BC.

In the center of the plaza are two constructions, the largest (in three sections) was a temple system that included tunnels to other temples on the site - presumably so that the priest could make sudden and magical appearances. The second building is the "Observatory" mentioned above.

The southern platform houses the tallest structure, an unrestored pyramid. This is the best place to take photographs and view the site as a whole.

Before you leave, visit the tombs just north of the main plaza, where the Mixtecs buried their rulers. Important collections of jewelry were found here, most notably in Tomb 7 whose contents are on display in the museum at Oaxaca.


The Ruins of Monte Alban                                                                                          

  • Monte Alban Period 1 (650 BC to 200 BC) is known to have had stone buildings, permanent temples, priests, and an organized religion.
  • Monte Alban Period 2 (200 BC to 1 AD) is characterized by an influx of a group of people from Chiapas or Guatemala who were smaller in numbers, but introduced changes as they merged with the resident population.
  • Between Monte Alban Period 2 (200 BC to 1 AD) and 3A (100 AD to 400 AD) there is evidence of influence from and trade with Teotihuacan to the North.
  • Between Monte Alban Period 3A (100 AD to 400 AD) and 3B (400 AD To 700 AD) the vast majority of the city was reconstructed.
  • Monte Alban Period 4 (800 AD To Spaniards) is the beginning of the decline of Monte Alban as a major power base in the area.
  • Monte Alban Period 5 reflects the influence of the Mixtec occupation.

Monte Alban Map

1. South Platform
2. Building "M"
3. The Danzantes
4. Building IV
5. North Platform
6. Ball Court
7. Building II
8. The Palace
9 . Building "J"
10. Tomb 107
11. Tomb 104
12. Stela
13. Sunken Patio
14. Building 1
15. The VG Complex
16. Jewelled Building
A . Building "A"
B. Building "B"
G. Building "G"
H. Building "H"
I. Building "I"
P. Building "P"
Q. Building "Q"
X. Building "X"

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