We were travelling in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, moving along the mountain range of Sierra Madre. The mountains climb there from 500 to 3 250 m above sea level, bringing low temperatures with frequent frost in their higher parts. For some, it does not even sound like Mexico … especially in February.
Shivering from the cold and … excitement
When the alarm rang it was 5 am. That morning was really chilly. I forcefully shivered when my feet touched the icy cold stone floor. The unpleasant feeling made me literary jumped into my shoes. Then I quickly switched on a small electric heater. The red diode came on together with a characteristic loud noise. Finally I felt a gentle blast of warm air. Still shivering I grabbed my clothes and went to the bathroom, of course, dragging the buzzing heater behind me.
With a cup of hot coffee warming up my hands, and wrapped up in my balmy cardigan, I felt much better when we finally arrived at Monte Alban. Outside it was still cold but just a thought alone about the site filled with mystery, myth and legend recharged my battery and I was ready to give up my warm seat in the car.
Like an eagle perched high-up
Monte Alban looks like an eagle perched high-up in its nest; it is located around 1 940 m above sea level and 400 m above the altiplano of the Oaxaca Valley, which offered us breath-taking panoramic (360°) views of the horizon and so of the huge area surrounding the site (Wikipedia 2019; Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Precisely, Monte Alban occupies the meeting point of three arms of the Valley, known as the Etla, Tlocolula and the Valle Grand (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Before the fifth century BC, they were inhabited by various tribes, of which the most important was the community of San Jose Mogote in the Etla branch (Ibid.). That population is believed to have initiated the city of Monte Alban and effectively unified local tribes under their control, either by means of a peaceful alliance or by force (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
It is thought that Monte Alban had played a very important role in Mesoamerican history since its rapid development around the third century BC. Its importance ceased only in the eighth century AD, when the site was suddenly abandoned for unknown reasons (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Archaeologically, the history of the city is divided into several successive stages, such as “Monte Alban Early I”, “Monte Alban Late I”, “Monte Alban II”,“III” and “IV”, etc., which all correspond to certain periods of time, from the fifth century BC to the beginning of the fifteenth century AD (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Strom 2019). The first phases (the Zapotec dominance) correspond to the city’s cultural growth, where it had played the role of a religious centre till the eighth century AD, whereas during the last two phases the gradual fall of the city was followed by its final abandonment (Mixtec and other cultures) (Strom 2019). Only during the latter phases, the city became surrounded by fortifications (Strom 2019; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
Origins shrouded in mystery
The matter of the city’s origins itself is strongly debated (Heyworth 2013). Apparently, the very first settlement appeared on the site already before the fifth century BC but with a limited population till the time when the Zapotecs grew in number and became more powerful mainly due to the mentioned centralization (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Generally, Monte Alban is believed to have been the capital of the Zapotec empire, where approximately 20 000 people had lived at its heyday (Ibid.). Between the first century BC and the second century AD, Monte Alban developed to an influential political metropolis, being in lead within the Oaxaca region and possibly beyond it (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). We can even assume that the city owed its pivotal role not only to its central role in the Valley but also for that it was built at the crossroads of trade routes between the highlands of Teotihuacán to the west and the Mayan lowlands to the east (Ibid.).
Real architects of the city
Although it was the centralization process that eventually gave the beginning of the dominant Zapotec civilization, it does not mean that the people of San Jose Mogote were the real architects of the city (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In fact, none of the tribes in the Valley, including the initiators of the Zapotecs, had built anything that would be even slightly similar to the style of the sophisticated architecture found at Monte Alban (Ibid.). They had also been far from using such advanced engineering and building techniques as those employed in the city (Ibid.). What is even more thought-provoking is that among the construction phases of Monte Alban, the earliest ones are the most innovative (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
One of the most puzzling features of the city is the fact that it was actually built atop an artificially flattened hilltop (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Such a position could obviously provide a sense of security and make a city a fortified stronghold (Ibid.). But was it the case? In truth, a gradual development of a rather ceremonial space and the use of principles of sacred topography suggest that Monte Alban was built for quite different purposes than to play just a defensive function (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Strom 2019). Besides, as discussed above, “the city’s [fortifications] were added several hundred years after the city had risen to power” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
Successive phases of construction
Officially, it is assumed that monumental architecture had appeared on the site since the third century BC, however, other theories say it may have happened even earlier (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Irrespective of the real time of its initiation, the city was built in successive phases (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Firstly, the hilltop must have been artificially levelled, primarily in the areas of the Main Plaza and the North Platform with the Sunken Patio (Ibid.). Then there emerged its first constructions, such as the System IV, Monticle M and J (the so-called Observatory) (Ibid.).
Monticle J aka the Observatory
Particularly the latter seizes viewers’ attention (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), especially while being observed from the bird’s eye view. Although the Monticle J was one of the first building constructed at the site, its peculiar shape (Ibid.) and “juxtaposition to the rest of the Main Plaza and its temples” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014) make it unfit to the overall plan of the city (Ibid.). The building’s “odd pentagonal shape points, literally, like an arrow to the south-west and it is believed it was deliberately designed to align with the star Capella on its heliacal rising” (Ibid.). It is supported by the fact that the Observatory’s shape itself reproduces on earth the position of five dominant stars of Auriga Constellation, in which Capella is the brightest one (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013).
In turn, “the understanding of heliacal phenomena is important to the growing studies of archaeoastronomy and the history of science [in general]” (Schaefer 1987:S19) What is it all about?
Bradley E. Schaefer (1987:S19) explains that “celestial
bodies undergo periods of invisibility, when the Sun is nearby. These periods
of invisibility are bounded by the dates of the star’s heliacal rising and
setting. The star is first glimpsed during morning twilight on the date of
heliacal rising”, when it re-emerges at sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory”
2013). “The apparition […] of the star ends on the date of heliacal setting
when the Sun approaches too close to the object” (Schaefer 1987:S19), that is
to say, when the star rises after the sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013).
Aveni (1978) claims that “the heliacal rise of Capella from Monte Alban
occurred on the day of the first solar zenith passagein
the year 275 B.C” (Schaefer 1987:S31), which is actually the theoretical date
of the construction of the Observatory (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). In
order to capture that event, the building was provided with the so-called zenith
tube (Ibid.) – a narrow horizontal passageway or shaft (Heyworth
“The Observatory” 2013; Strom 2019) “which only allows light to shine directly through
it on a specific day, when the sun reaches a precise position in the sky” (Heyworth
“The Observatory” 2013). That phenomenon takes place on 2nd May (Strom
 [the Sun at the highest point in the sky, 90 degrees from the horizon] (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Barnhart, Powell 2010-11).
As much as the Building J proves the importance of astronomy to the inhabitants of Monte Alban, their real feat of high level engineering was achieved by the artificial flattening of the hill (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), or as we should rather say – by the cutting off the top of it in order to build the city. “The Main Plaza alone stretches for 300m from north to south and 200m from east to west” (Ibid.). Additionally, to the north of the Main Plaza, there is also the so-called Sunken Patio (Patio Hundido), which was hewed further down into the rock (Ibid.) and so “scientifically designed to reflect sound and amplify it” (Ibid.). Actually, a much easier way to achieve the same effect would be a construction of walls around the perimeter (Ibid.). Yet, for some reasons, the city architects had chosen a gargantuan task of “[digging] down into the hilltop to carve the space out” (Ibid.).
Actually, I am getting used to this ancient phenomenon of making things far more complicated than necessary. Here we can ask the question usually posed by alternative archaeologists: ‘Was it then a difficult task to them at all?’
To make the thing even more intriguing, “the Patio Hundido is replicated twice at Monte Alban with smaller scale versions known as System IV and [Monticle] M” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Furthermore, all these three patio groups are aligned in such a way to reflect not only celestial events but also to show their mutual geometric relations with other compounds of the city (Ibid.). That fact, in turn, makes the whole city “an observatory or [even a complex] celestial timepiece” (Ibid.).
Gathered evidence shows that the inhabitants of Monte Alban were able to understand and predict such celestial events “as the passing of comets, eclipses, helical risings, equinoxes and solstices” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In these terms, Monte Alban may not have been originally designed as a fortified stronghold whose function would be narrowed to controlling the region (Ibid.) “but rather [as] a sacred sanctuary dedicated to reading the celestial objects of the skies” (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, “the astronomy may have been the real reason for building on the craggy impractical hilltop – for Monte Alban is one of the few cities in the world that enjoys incredible 360° views of the horizon” (Ibid.).
Who were the Danzantes?
A vast sophistication of the engineering methods applied, along with the large-scale astronomy built in the city’s layout, indicate that Monte Alban must have been constructed by equally advanced civilisation (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Who were they and where did they come from? Some clues are provided by other mysterious elements found at Monte Alban – the Danzantes (Ibid.). These “are a series of  iconic reliefs featuring strange, morbid, rubbery [and naked] characters that appear to be diseased [or] deformed. Their message, and purpose, is a complete mystery and they are one of the many encrypted messages scattered around the city” (Ibid.). Still their style, along with the physical appearance of depicted characters seem analogous to representations left by the foremost civilisation of Mesoamerica, called the Proto-Mayans or the Olmecs (Ibid.).
The Olmecs and Monte Alban
Mysterious on their own, the Olmecs had inhabited the lowlands of south-central Mexico (the present-day coastline of Veracruz and Tabasco states) as early as in 2000 BC and left their homeland roughly around 500 BC, that is around the time of Monte Alban’s beginnings on the stage of Mesoamerican history.
Is it just a coincidence?
Actually, it is theorised that the Olmecs migrated south (for unknown reasons) and established their new city in the Oaxaca Valley (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Moreover, yet before Monte Alban was constructed, the Olmecs and the people of San Jose Mogote were involved in mutual trade, by means of which, the farming community developed later into the Zapotec civilisation who later became credited with monumental architecture, used calendrics and the first known form of writing (Ibid.). One slab in Danzantes‘ style was actually found paved in the corridor at San Jose Magote (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). The building where it was found is dated to between 750 BC and 500 BC, when the community of San Jose Magote was about to disappear (Ibid.). The anthropomorphic representation is accompanied there by two glyphs depicted between its legs, meaning Earth (or Motion) and One (in relation to the first day of a 20-day cycle) (Ibid.).
Artistic representations of the Olmecs, and the Danzantes from Monte Alban share, among all, one striking characteristic; they all depict figures of multiple races, namely Negroid, Asian and Caucasian (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilisation to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to [the] Negroid features [of the basalt colossal heads], many artefacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented – how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. […] Who are these people? Where they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land?”(Childress 2007:14)
The stelae’s representations would accordingly indicate both: solid evidence of an Olmec artistic influence depicted in the stelae of Monte Alban and so an international character of the Olmec civilisation (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
The slabs were either carved at Monte Alban (conceivably not by the Zapotecs) or brought there from the outside (probably by the Olmecs themselves) (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Such an assumption comes from the fact that, except for the single example of a similar piece of art found at San Jose Magote, such representations remain unknown in the Oaxaca Valley.
Slain captives or epidemic victims?
The Danzantes means in Spanish dancers in reference to the figures’ poses as they look as if caught in a dancing movement (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
After the most prominent theory, the slabs symbolise death of slain captives (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Their closed eyes would actually indicate that they represent the human corpses, however, other characteristics, such as their nakedness, deformation of limps, positions displaying possibly an agonising death or the presence of female characters stay against that theory (Ibid.). Robin Heyworth (“Are the Danzantes …” 2014) points out that “with more than 300 anonymous gravestones of sickly looking humans, it would make more sense if they [represent] an epidemic.” Maybe the Olmecs were actually forced to leave their homeland around 500 BC due to some kind of epidemic spreading out and they deliberately abandoned their land for the isolated hilltop, just in the same way as other tribes in the Oaxaca Valley did (San Jose Magote also deserted in around 500 BC) (Ibid.).
Plague and Cloud People
If the Olmecs had been the authors of Monte Alban, they must have chosen that exact site on purpose. Did they look for a shelter against the epidemic, which evidence would be the stelae commemorating people smashed by the disease? (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). In this context the stela from San Jose Magote may have been a warning of the spreading epidemic and the call for evacuation to the hilltop (Ibid.).
Or would Monte Alban be rather an answer to the celestial obsession of its builders and inhabitants? (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). The Olmecs may have been the architects of Monte Alban. However, as discussed above, they passed on their knowledge to the Zapotecs and also strongly influenced their culture. The latter referred to themselves as the Cloud People as they believed that their ancestors (?) descended from the sky and hence they may have used the city to communicate with them through celestial appearances (Ibid.).
Or maybe two of those factors overlapped and eventually resulted in establishing the city.
Here comes the Teotihuacan Culture!
On the other side, there are also theories on strong relations of Monte Alban with the enigmatic Teotihuacan city, especially in the span of the fourth century AD (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). For instance, it is believed that there was a small community of Zapotecs who inhabited Teotihuacan. On the other side, some later structures of Monte Alban may have been influenced by Teotihuacán architecture or even have been dedicated to that city (Ibid.).
Interesting is also the fact that both cities simultaneously held their pivotal role in their regions until their dramatic downfall around the eight century AD (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Since the origins of people who lived in Teotihuacán are shrouded in mystery (they are just called the Teotihuacan Culture), some authors again recognise the Olmecs as the founders of the city or at least that it was strongly influenced by their culture and architecture (Owen 2000; Childress 2007:74; Delsol, 2010).
One mystery leads to another
We had already been wandering around the ancient city for two hours, taking notes. The cold had gone away. Now I felt a delicate warmth of sunshine but filled with streams of fresh air. Having climbed down another pyramidal construction, I sat on one of the crumbling blocks of stone. Then I took off my cardigan and put my face out to the sun. ‘What a great feeling to take part in the mystery, yet being so far away from it in time’, I thought.
Today we do not even know how the city was originally called by its architects. Hmm! We do not even know who they actually were: the Olmecs, Zapotecs, aka the Cloud People, the Teotihuacan Culture … ? Moreover, the origins of each of those civilizations themselves still remain unclear! One mystery leads to another …
Nevertheless, the legacy of Monte Alban cannot be overestimated. Actually, “much of what we associate with Mesoamerica [today] appears to come from this ancient hilltop sanctuary […] in central Oaxaca” (Strom 2019).
Featured image: Monte Alban. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
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