After a week of travelling around Mexico, from Yucatan and Chiapas State, and through Tabasco to Oaxaca, I experienced a special magic and a variety of cultures of the country, felt by Mexicans and foreigners alike.
Around 4000 recorded archaeological sites …
The state of Oaxaca is a mountainous area broken by wide fertile valleys and it represents one of the bastions of indigenous cultures having been developed for thousand of years in Mesoamerica. Apart from the country’s most energetic and colourful festivals, various arts, well-developed crafts, delicious cuisine and vibrant colonial architecture of the capital, the region also boasts a number of pre-Columbian sites and artefacts left behind by mysterious peoples.
There are around 4000 recorded archaeological sites in Oaxaca, mostly known as settlements of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, occupied up until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The all sites differ in time and characteristics, however, all include a mystery: Lambityeco and Zaachila have got interesting tombs, Dainzú and Yagul – important ball game courts, and San José el Mogote is said to be one of the most ancient settlements in Oaxaca. Among all, though, Monte Álban and Mitla were two of the most important.
‘Place of the Rest’
Mitla is located about an hour drive from Oaxaca City and it was presumably the main religious center of the region. The name Mitla itself comes from the word Mictlan, the name for the ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico, as much as its bright red painted walls. We stopped there on our way to Oaxaca City, driving along the range of Sierra Madre mountains. It was around 3 PM and a blast of hot air struck me full when I was getting off the air conditioned car.
The site looked amazing with geometrically designed upper parts of the buildings, covered in intricate mortar-less mosaics. My attention was also caught by walls painted bright red. Once Mitla was inhabited by the people, called by the neighbouring Aztecs in Nahuatl – the Zapotecs. Yet they called themselves differently, either simply The People in their own language or more mysteriously – the Cloud People.
Just in in the heart of Oaxaca state, along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is at once a mountainous and hard-to-reach area, the Zapotec culture probably began to take shape around the third century AD. Some scholars assume that the Zapotecs had already appeared when the Olmec civilization was on the verge of decline, that is presumably around 400 BC. and existed in the region till 1500 AD. Anyway, any exact dating is uncertain here; the Zapotecs probably came to modern Oaxaca areas in the period before Christ, yet it took several centuries for them to develop their characteristic cultural features, which were initially composed of mixed elements of various origins, from Teotihuacan and the Olmec to the Maya cultures. At the Zapotecs’ height, the population in the Valley of Oaxaca peaked at around one hundred thousand.
The ruins of Mitla are the quintessence of the Zapotec architecture. Yet, the city also witnessed the Zapotec-Mixtec symbiosis, which had been visible in the culture of this region since the fourteenth century AD. Its traces can be seen especially in Mitla, whose geometric motifs of mosaic fretwork cut in stone slabs are usually ascribed to the Mixtecs. Yet, another theory says the ornaments were made my the Zapotecs and then adopted and embellished by the Mixtecs. Such patterns are called grecas in Spanish; meanders, diamonds, zigzags and various braids cover not only the outer walls of significant buildings, but also their interiors, usually with three horizontal stripes of frieze, each with a different type of ornament.
It has been calculated that over eighty thousand polished stone slabs were used to adorn the walls in such geometric friezes. The [stones] are [all] fitted together without mortar; [all the] pieces were set against a stucco background painted red [and] are held in place by the weight of the stones [surrounding] them. […] None of the fretwork designs is repeated exactly anywhere in the complex [or elsewhere] in Mesoamerica” (Mitla” 2021). In the wall painting, frescoes and sgraffito made on red stucco, depicting deities and mythological animals, there are also many Mixtec motifs, which are younger than sculpted decorations.
As in the case of the Zapotecs, little is known about the Mixtecs; they are primarily famous as great craftsmen and artists. The Mixtec contributed to the culture of the region, especially in the field of goldsmithing; they were excellent at processing gold, copper and silver, they mastered lost-wax technique, they could solder and pull delicate wires. They knew the inlay and covered the wood or bone with small tiles of jade or turquoise, mother of pearl and rock crystal. The Mixtecs were also the authors of famous painted codices, mainly of historical content. Those were pictorial stories written or actually painted on long strips of wood-fiber or leather paper, created before the Spanish invasion, and also after it. Most of them, however, were unfortunately destroyed by the invaders.
The labyrinth of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs
The Zapotecs were called the ‘nation of builders’, however, if alternative researchers’ opinion is taken into consideration, most of the buildings of another famous city, Monte Alban (the original name of the city is unknown), and some structures of the nearby Mitla would rather be the product of older civilizations with great skills of shaping architectural space. Such structures, adopted or overbuilt by the Zapotecs would have originally provided a proper background for religious ceremonies or for other purposes, most likely related to astronomy.
In Mitla, there are three groups of buildings situated at low platforms and concentrated around a ceremonial courtyard, to which extensive stairs still lead. One of the most impressive constructions of Mitla is a ‘palace’ dating from the twelfth to the thirteenth century; it has three square, interconnecting courtyards, rebuilt with buildings standing on low platforms. In the ‘residential’ part of the city, there is a very small courtyard surrounded by four shallow buildings. The inner galleries must have been exceptionally dark, covered with low wooden roofs.
The rooms around the second courtyard may have served official functions. They gained their size thanks to the alignment of monolithic columns supporting the ceiling beams. Under the rooms of the third complex, which was probably used for religious ceremonies, there are cross-shaped crypts. These crypts are a continuation of the development of the Zapotec tombs, initiated in Monte Alban, where the niches had already been shaped like a cross. The walls and floors of the crypts were covered with a thick layer of white plaster, on the smooth surface of which cult scenes were painted. Such decorations are later than architecture and were probably made by artists of the Mixtecs who lived in Mitla after the Zapotecs left. Endless halls, corridors and underground crypts criss-cross beneath the central plaza, giving the impression of a labyrinth whose architectural character resembles the so-called palace of Knossos in Crete. Possibly, hence, the city’s name standing for the underworld.
The residence of the high priest in Mitla was the largest covered structure not only in Mitla but also in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The unpreserved ceilings, probably wooden, were supported by massive monolithic pillars weighing up to twenty-three tons. The decoration of walls with strongly marked horizontal divisions is primarily made of the mentioned above geometric ornament.
Missing stone anomaly
We were standing in the middle of a great courtyard when an old man with a walking stick approached us. He looked a little tired with the heat but his face expression was revealing his passion for the site and his happiness to share it with us. He was an experienced archaeologist working in Mitla for years and he seemed to know every excavated corner of it.
He spoke only in Spanish to us gesticulating energetically with hands, surely to express his ideas more clearly. Soon, we started following him up and down the stairs leading to Mitla’s constructions one after the other, to take a closer look on elaborate patterns of the mosaics. Despite our guide’s difficulties with walking, he and his staff were much quicker than us in climbing the steep and narrow steps.
‘Oh, you see … each course of stones is composed of a certain number of stone elements’, he said once on top, while counting every element protruding from the wall and composing a particular pattern of the mosaic.
‘Here, they made a mistake!’, he noticed, eager to show us his discovery.
At once, all started counting other stones in hope, they would find another anomaly as well.
Who was there first … ?
I left my friends at this stage of competition and went exploring the site on my own. I noticed a few tall basalt columns between two to three metres high as well as the size of giant cut blocks on top of the walls, forming the so-called lintels, weighing from six to eighteen tons, whereas elsewhere within the same construction there was relatively crude work composed of much smaller irregular stones of different shapes with big amount of mortar used. When we compare both, the latter looked like common rubble.
I got an impression that different parts of constructions had been here reassembled. Accordingly, there are differences in construction style: here and there very large, regular tight-fitting stone slabs at the base, and massive header blocks made of basalt, now and then perfectly positioned down at the foundation with quite crude and rough work in between. The same feature is typical of many megalithic sites not only in Mexico but also in different parts of the world I have visited. After some alternative researchers, such as Brien Foerster (2018), Mitla had been constructed first with megaliths, and then it was uncovered by the Zapotecs, who adopted the older structures and overbuilt the site using their own but much simpler techniques within their building possibilities. The same author suggests that it might have been the result of some sort of a cataclysm that destroyed the original buildings of high technology a long time ago before the Zapotecs occupied it, followed then by the Mixtecs. To go further, the basalt of Mitla had been quarried from the place which is over three kilometres away (with no trees to be used as log rollers).
In the depths of the complex of Mitla, red domes of the Baroque Catholic church of San Pedro are visible; its walls seem triumphant over the Pre-Columbian ruins, but perfectly integrated into the whole ancient landscape. The church was built in the colonial era by Spanish invaders surely to show their victory over the pagan cultures of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the building was partially composed of the already cut stones that were found by the Spanish locally, and reused for its construction.
Eventually, I did not share my thoughts about previous lost builders with others. Such assumptions may have been too controversial for academics’ ears and I was sure what their response would be like. Anyway, all these building anomalies can be seen very easily, still only if one does not turn a blind eye to the architectural facts.
Featured image: Pre-Columbian city of Mitla is one of the most important archaeological sites in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico (apart from Monte Alban), and the most important of the Zapotec culture. In the picture, the Hall of the Columns within the palace or the residence of the Zapotecs’ high priest. Late Post-Classic Period, 1300-1500 CE. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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