The settlement of Monte Albán covers an area of 40sq.km/16sq.mi. It once extended across several mountains and served various peoples for almost 2500 years as a place of worship. The centre of the ruins, rising on a man-made platform 400 m (1313 ft) above the subtropical valley of Oaxaca, is possibly Meso-America"s most impressive pre-Columbian site.
By about 6000 BC there had already been sporadic settlements in the Oaxaca valley. After the decline of San José Mogote, which had until then been the valley's most important place, Monte Albán was probably founded in the sixth century BC. In its heyday some 35,000 people inhabited the heartland which covered an area of 6.5sq.km/2.5sq.mi.
The first calendar signs, mainly day-symbols from the 260-day calendar (tzolkin) hewn in stone, were probably earlier. Whether the first settlers and builders of the place of worship were Zapotecs remains unknown. The Monte Albán I period (600-200 BC) is in any case characterised by Olmec artistic features. Between 500 and 400 BC a town-like settlement evolved, from which simple tombs containing ceramics have survived as have hewn stone blocks with bas-reliefs of human figures and 260-day calendars.
In the Monte Albán II period (200 BC - AD 100) the pre-Classical influence of the Maya from the south became evident. Better-quality ceramics, a completion of the calendar and large Cyclopean buildings became the style.
Going into decline at the same time as the Zapotecs emerged, the ensuing phases, called Monte Albán III a (until about AD 400) and Monte Albán III b (until about AD 800), are seen as a cultural heyday. This epoch was characterised by the construction of the most important buildings in the Talud Tablero style (vertical panels alternating with sloping walls) and elaborate burial chambers with beautiful frescos and clay funeral urns in a wealth of forms. In the first half of this period stylistic elements of the advanced civilisation of Teotihuacán, which radiated from the central plateau, became apparent. Towards the end of this period the cultural influence of the Mixtecs can be detected.
The decline began with the onset of the Monte Albán IV phase (AD 800-1200). No new buildings were constructed; the magnificent site began to decay, while towns such as Lambityeco, Yagul, Mitla and Zaachila were founded or extended. Monte Albán appears to have continued only to serve as a burial site for the Zapotecs and later primarily for the Mixtecs. The artistic form of ceramics and the shape and furnishing of burial chambers became simpler.
The Monte Albán V phase, the last before the Spanish conquest (AD 1200-1521), was essentially determined by the Mixtecs, who built numerous tombs or cleaned out existing ones and used them again.
The Aztecs, who built a military base in 1486 on the site of the present-day town of Oaxaca, influenced the development of Monte Albán little more than the Spanish who arrived in 1521. Serious studies of Monte Albán did not take place until the 19th c. and were mainly carried out by Desiré Charnay, Eduard Seler and W.H. Holmes. During the 20th c. the Mexican archaeologists Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal were at the forefront of pioneering work achieved here. They were followed by Ernesto Gonzáles Licón and Marcus Winter, among others. Monte Albán was also declared a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO.
How to get there
By bus from Oaxaca about 0.5 hour; by car from Oaxaca approximately 10km/6mi in a south-westerly direction.
Building of the Dancers
A path leads north-west to Tumba 104 (Tomb 104), the most magnificent of those discovered in Monte Albán. It dates from about AD 500. Above the elaborate façade of the entrance is a niche containing a clay urn shaped like a seated person with the headdress of the rain god Cocijo. The door between the tomb and the ante-room consists of a huge stone slab covered with hieroglyphs. All three sides of the burial chamber are decorated with coloured frescos. On the right-hand side can be recognised the figure of Titao Cazobi, the Zapotecs' corn god, who is wearing a large headdress composed of a serpent and feathers. The central picture above a niche on the back wall depicts the head of an unknown red deity with an arched headdress, the "5 turquoise" glyph and the opening of heaven. On the left-hand wall can be seen a figure with features of an old man holding a copal sack and decorated on the waist, neck and head. This is probably meant to be the god Xipe Tótec, who for the Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs was the god of renewal, of jewellers and of the maltreated. In the burial chamber were found the remains of an adult male with a large urn depicting the same deity as that portrayed on the back wall; four smaller urns were found next to this.
Tomb 172 lies beneath the mound of Tomb 104. The skeleton and the objects buried in this tomb can be seen here in the condition in which they were found.