Oaxaca’s Ancient Civilizations
Evidence of human occupation in the valley of Oaxaca dates back to 12,000 B.C. The region saw the height of Zapotec civilization at the monumental site of Monte Albán between 200 and 600 A.D., but many other important, smaller sites are also open to visitors.
Cerro de la campana, Santa María Atzompa, Oax., Mexico
On a hilltop adjacent to Monte Alban, just outside the city of Oaxaca, there is an archaeological site that has just recently been excavated. Atzompa was a satellite city of the great Zapotec capital of Monte Alban. The site provides breathtaking views of the valley and is fascinating in its own right. Archaeologists have uncovered three ball courts, two sumptuous residences, several temples and a large kiln here. Atzompa archaeological site dates from around 650 to 850 A.D. Since excavations are not yet complete, very few tourists make their way up here, so you can quietly enjoy the beauty of the spot.
Mitla is located in the Oaxaca Valley, just a short distance from Oaxaca City. However you get there, it’s worth the visit. It’s not a large site; an hour and a half will be more than enough time to walk around. There are so many things that set Mitla apart from other ruins in Mexico. First off, it’s neither Maya nor Aztec. Its influence comes from the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. It sits right on the desert floor, so cactus, desert scrub, and aloe plants punctuate the surrounding landscape rather than jungle. There are no pyramids to climb; the highest structure on the site probably has no more than 10 or so steps to get to the top. There are no stone sculptures or carved walls to be seen anywhere. Instead, the decoration on the buildings are beautiful geometric patterns created by inlaid and interlocked pieces of stone (grecas). Amazingly enough, no two walls have the same grecas, and on some of the walls, you can still see the original red-painted stone. Some of the walls and the cupolas of the San Pedro Church (built by the invading Spaniards) have been restored to their red-colored glory. The desert backdrop, the grecas, the pops of red color – it all adds up to a very special place!
Macedonio Alcalá s/n, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
Housed in the former Dominican convent of Santo Domingo, the museum of Oaxacan cultures offers a glimpse at the state’s history from ancient times through the colonial period, and into the modern day. The building was beautifully restored and opened to the public in 1998. You should go in even if just to see the interior of this stunning building, but the exhibits are also excellent. The highlight of this museum is the Treasure of Tomb 7, an offering that was found in a tomb at Monte Alban archaeological site. This is the greatest treasure ever found in Mesoamerica, and contains exquisitely crafted gold jewelry, as well as precious stone, intricately carved bone and more.
Av. José María Morelos 503, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
This museum is housed in a restored 18th-century mansion and contains the private collection of pre-Hispanic art of Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo. He collected these objects on his travels through Mexico, and he wanted to be sure that this heritage remained in the country and that it be on display for the general public to see and appreciate it. Tamayo selected the pieces based on their artistic, rather than archaeological, value. The exhibits are not grouped in chronological or geographical sequence but rather according to overarching themes. The collection contains around one thousand pieces, all of them interesting, but a few of them are exquisite, such as a ceramic model of the Mesoamerican ball game.
Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oax., Mexico
Lambityeco rose to prominence around the time of the decline the great Zapotec capital Monte Alban, roughly 700 A.D. The site was originally excavated in the 1960s, although some restoration work has been done since that time. Among the buildings to visit there are two important palaces, some temples and a patio, as well as a temazcal steam bath. This is just a small part of what was a much larger city. Evidently, Lambityeco was a salt production center (obtained through distillation of saline groundwater) and was an important stop in the Prehispanic trade route. This site has some examples of elaborate stucco work that are not common in ancient sites in Oaxaca. Besides the figure of Cocijo, the Zapotec rain god, pictured, there are also depictions of Zapotec rulers. This small archaeological site is often overlooked, but it is easy to visit. It is located right by the side of the highway, in the eastern valley of Oaxaca, just before Tlacolula.
Carretera a Tlacolula 190 Km 17, San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, Oax., Mexico
This small archaeological site is situated on a hillside about 12 miles east of Oaxaca city. The name “Dainzú" means “hill of the organ cactus” in Zapotec, although that most certainly was not the original name. The site was occupied in very early times, but its apogee was roughly at the same time as Monte Alban (200 B.C.E. to 350 C.E.). It was excavated in 1965 by Mexican archaeologist Ignacio Bernal. This is one of Oaxaca’s less visited sites, so you’re likely to have the place to yourself. It is quite a nice site, however, and worth a visit for a few special features. The site has a ball court, as well as a gallery of bas-reliefs depicting ball players, so undoubtedly the game was very important to the inhabitants. Another must-see is a tomb that has a jaguar carved into the entrance; the face is carved in the lintel, and the animal’s forearms are on either side.
Allende, San Jose El Mogote, 68256 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
Prior to the founding of Monte Alban, the large hill-top capital, the main center of the Zapotec civilization was in the Etla valley, west of where Oaxaca city is now. The site has several pyramid-platforms, a main square and a ball court. Excavations were carried out in the 1960s, but the site was never re-constructed to the extent of other sites in the Oaxaca valley, so a lot of it is difficult to make out, but it makes for an interesting stop on a day tour to Etla. You shouldn’t miss the community museum, which has a few striking pieces from the site, including the “diablo enchilado,” a brazier that is painted red, and the carved slab known as Monument 3, which is similar in style to the depictions known as “Los Danzantes” of Monte Alban. The museum is often locked, but if you ask someone in the community they will find the custodian who will come and open it for you.