Monte Albán

Monte AlbanMonte Alban

The settlement of Monte Albán covers an area of 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.

Grand Square

The Gran Plaza (Grand Square) measures 200 m (656 ft) 3 300 m (985 ft) and forms the centre of the archaeological ruins. The plateau was created partly by removal of soil and partly by incorporating rocks, which were difficult to move, into the constructions as in the north platform, the south platform and the group of buildings G, H, I. This led to these buildings not standing exactly central and the large open steps belonging to each platform not lying exactly opposite one another. To conceal this lack of symmetry the Zapotecs constructed two more small buildings during period III. They stand in front of buildings M and IV and are separated by patios. As in all pre-Columbian architecture almost all of the buildings here were built over up to six times. The walls of the buildings were also covered with multi-coloured stucco.

Ball Court

The Juego de Pelota (ball court), an area used for the ball game, can be found immediately to the left of the car park, i.e. on the east side of the Gran Plaza. Like all ball courts found in and around Oaxaca the stone rings, which would have served as "goals", were missing here. This area was last built over during phase III b.


Of all the adjoining structures built in the style typical of Monte Albán III the first pyramid is of most importance. It contains an internal flight of steps leading to the very top of the building. From here an underground tunnel passes below the Gran Plaza to the middle group (G, H, I). This enabled priests to reach the Gran Plaza unseen.


The second most important construction in this group also has a wide stairway and is called the Palacio (Palace). On its upper platform only ruins of the walls of the rooms once probably inhabited by priests remain. Below the inner courtyard was found a cruciform tomb dating from the Monte Albán IV phase. Between the Palace and the Middle Row can be seen an integral altar, within which an unusual jade mask of the bat god was found.

Middle Row

Three buildings belonging to the Middle Row (G, H, I) form a group which was probably used to house altars. The central construction H (45 m (148 ft) 3 30 m (98 ft)) has a wide flight of steps leading to a twin-sectioned temple. A little lower are two temple rooms with two columns in front of them. The pair of flanked constructions G and I are almost identical: temples rest on two platforms, the lower with vertical walls, the upper with slanted ones; the steps lead to the north and to the south.

Hill J

The fourth isolated building is called Monticulo J (Hill J). This interesting site is the only one which does not fit the symmetry of the entire complex, as it stands at an angle of 45° to the remaining buildings. The shape of the construction is also unusual; its ground plan resembles an arrowhead with the steps forming the blunt end. A vaulted tunnel, which crosses the front part, leads upwards. Such tunnels in Meso-American buildings were designed primarily to enable observation of the heavens, though strangely enough the sky is completely invisible from this tunnel. Stone slabs on the walls of the wide side show figures and hieroglyphics recording clearly successful conquests of towns. It is assumed that most of this building was erected some time before the birth of Christ, i.e. towards the end of the Monte Albán II period.

South Platform

The Plataforma del Sur (South Platform), which borders the Gran Plaza on the south side, is an enormous construction, of which only a little has been excavated. A 40 m (131 ft)-long flight of steps leads to a platform from where, particularly at sunset, there is a marvellous view of the whole complex. This is extolled as the "symphony of the steps". The remarkable Stelae 5 and 6 were found on the platform. They can now be seen in Mexico City"s National Museum of Anthropology.

Stela 1

On the north-west corner of this structure stands Stela 1, one of Monte Albán"s best-maintained and artistically most valuable. Seated on a hill to the left is a jaguar wearing the head-dress of the rain god Cocijo who is holding a decorated lance. Above and on the right-hand side can be seen rows of glyphs. Other stelae found here were taken to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Mound M

Monticulo M (Mound M) is located in the south-west corner of the Gran Plaza. A square site, it comprises two buildings separated by a patio with a small altar. A traditional central flight of steps leads via two floors with four slanting walls to the upper platform where the remains of four columns, which once formed part of the temple's façade, can be seen. The building in front was constructed during period III to correct the symmetry. On the north side of the main construction stand reproductions of stelae 12 and 13. The originals are in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. They are covered with number glyphs and are evidently associated with the adjoining Palazio de los Danzantes (Building of the Dancers).

Building of the Dancers

The Building of the Dancers (Palazio de los Danzantes) is without doubt the most interesting part of the ruins. Its altar dates from the 6th/5th c. BC which corresponds to the Monte Albán I phase. The core of the original building was built over several times. Today a two-storey construction (30 m (99 ft) 3 60 m (197 ft)) dating from the III a and III b phases can be seen.
The most important elements are the stone slabs, once used to decorate a 3 m (10 ft)-tall terrace wall, which depict reliefs of figures, the Danzantes. Today they are displayed in several groups. The features and the glyphs are very similar to those of the Olmecs (La Venta culture) from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is evident that the inhabitants of Monte Albán already used a system of script, numbers and a calendar in early days. It used to be thought that the strangely-contorted figures were surprised dancers, or perhaps tortured slaves. Experts now believe, however, that the glyphs around the figures indicate that they represent important personalities. Recently several of these stone slabs have been taken to museums and replaced by polyester reproductions. A complete exchange is planned to protect the originals from the effects of bad weather.

Complex IV

Further to the north of Palazio de los Danzantes stands Complex IV (Sistema IV) which is extremely similar to Hill M.

Stela 18

On the north side of the Sistema IV is the badly weathered Stela 18 thought to date from the Monte Albán II phase. It is the only stela still in existence from that time and may have been erected at about the same time as the original construction of System IV, which was built from heavy stone blocks in the cyclopean style of this epoch. Between the building and the north platform lies a flat site with chambers and several tombs.

North Platform

A 38 m (125 ft)-wide stairway leads to the impressive 12 m (39 ft)-high Plataforma del Norte (North Platform) which covers an area of 250 m (820 ft) 3 200 m (656 ft). Each side of the stairway was flanked by a cult chamber decorated with hieroglyphs and figures, and containing a tomb.

Stela 9

Stela 9 stood opposite the western chamber. Covered on all four sides by reliefs, it is considered the most important find of its kind and is now kept in Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology. On the platform can be seen the ruins of 2m (6.5ft)-thick columns in two rows. These once carried the weight of the enormous roof of the hall.

Sunken Courtyard

Steps lead down into the Patio Hundido (sunken courtyard) in the middle of which stands an altar. This once finely-sculpted rectangle served as a base for Stela 10, which has also been taken to Mexico City.

Building B

Edificio B (Building B) stands to the left of the North Platform. Its poorly-preserved superstructure is possibly the most recent building at Monte Albán and is attributed to the Mixtecs. To the right of the platform stands Edificio A (Building A), an earlier pyramid, of which only the wall base and the flight of stairs have survived.
Several unexcavated ruins of various types lie to the north of the main platform.

Tomb 104

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.

Tomb 7

The famous Tumba 7 (Tomb 7), discovered in 1932 by Alfonso Caso, lies north-east of the Gran Plaza but somewhat away from the real cult centre to the right of the approach road. The discovery of the tomb was an archaeological sensation: this burial chamber, built by the Zapotecs during the III period, held the largest treasure trove hitherto found in Meso-America. The ante-room contained Zapotec receptacles and burial urns; the Mixtecs buried the mortal remains of nobles here later, probably around the middle of the 14th c. Almost 500 elaborately-worked gold, silver, jade, turquoise, rock crystal and alabaster objects buried by the Mixtecs were discovered. They are now kept in the Oaxaca Regional Museum (Santo Domingo monastery).

Tomb 105

Tomb 105 should also be seen. Situated on Plumaje Hill it has a magnificent entrance door and interesting murals.

Monte Albán Ruins Museum

It is worth visiting the small museum near the car park. The exhibits include original stelae with bas-relief sculptures, ceramic figures, jewellery and documentation about the excavation work. There is also an associated bookshop.
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