Monday, June 22, 2009

Monte Alban

May 9th 2009

Just 9kms West of the city of Oaxaca lies one of the largest pre Columbian ruins found today in all of Meso America - Monte Alban. Those 9kms involve climbing 400m up the sheer side of a hill that dominates the valley floor below. Being a strategic location, the Zapotecs began levelling a flat terrace by literally shearing off the hilltop. All this was done around 500BC using hand tools and without the use of the wheel! It's an incredible achievement when you see the scale of the place with the central plaza covering a huge 300 by 200 metres.....


Rock was quarried from nearby hills and dragged without the aid of animals to the site to begin this enormous building project. Mante Alban rapidly became one of the largest cities in the region with an estimated population of 5000 by around 300BC. It's power and influence continued to grow until around 100AD when roughly 20,000 people lived here making it one of the largest cities in all Meso America. It's zenith was around 500AD with about 40,000 people. Shells and pottery artifacts hint at trade with distant tribes hundreds of miles away in coastal regions. After about 500AD this great city began it's slow decline and was finally abandoned in 1000AD. No one is really sure why.

The city is dominated by the North and South platform. A massive stone staircase can be seen in the distance leading to the top of the South platform....


It gets more impressive close up....


Little is really known about the purpose of many of the building, nor the reality of daily life. Much of the research has been sporadic and many discoveries only date back a couple of decades. One area of controversy centres around carvings of strange contorted figures that are strewn round the site. Bent and twisted in bizarre poses they were originally believed to be "Danzantes" meaning dancers. However, all figures are male and many depict dancers with mutiliated genitalia! Another explanation which I think more likely is that the carvings depict torture victims and are a warning to other tribes. The region was at the centre of a giant war zone when it was built and rival tribes were all vying for supremecy at the time Monte Alban was prospering....


Another contovertial area is the sport that took place in this ball court....


Again the rules of the game and it's purpose are debated, but there are stone hoops set in the four corners and the object was probably to get a ball through the hoops in teams of 3. Carvings seem to suggest the prize for victory was to be beheaded after your body had been disembowelled! Not sure what the loser got....

It was traditional for the bodies of ancestors to be buried under the floorboards of the house in which you lived. Sounds like a plot for a Brookside episode. Skeletons discovered in the foundations are on display - Anna provides scale for a race of little people....


Looks like this one met with a violent end....


Ironically for a race of people with little understanding of the use of animals, nor knowledge of the wheel, they had great knowledge of astronomy. This is the ruins of an observatory and one of the buildings is designed with such precision to allow a shaft sunlight to fall within the building only on the summer and winter solstice....


It's an impressive site, and in common with many of the ruins in Mexico it's secrets are tantalisingly hidden and are only being revealed slowly as funds become available for new research. It's both fascinating and frustrating to visit such places, especially for a European who is used to the history of archeological sites being more complete.
Or maybe the guides in Europe just have a more polished story to tell.

The view from the South Platform with fellow ciclistas Anna and Ali riding from Alaska to Southern Argentina....



1 comment:

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