Tag Archives: archeology

Inside the Tomb: San Pablo Villa de Mitla Archeological Site

Some of our fiesta group: Feliz Cumpleaños, Martha

Many visitors make a stop in Mitla as a side trip, along with a whirlwind shopping extravaganza to the Sunday tianguis Tlacolula Market, or a bypass on the way to Santiago Matatlan, the mezcal capital of the world, to imbibe in a tasting.

Culture juxtaposition, Zapotec and Catholic in perspective

For my friend Martha’s BIG birthday celebration, a dozen of us started out with early pre-fiesta festivities on Friday before the big Saturday party. Our destination was an archeological immersion into Mitla, once called Mictlan in Nahuatl, which means place of the dead.

Inside a chamber of the original monastery, a reconstruction

We were led by Eric Ramirez Ramos from Zapotrek. Eric is a very knowledgeable guide who is from Tlacolula and tells all the stories about mysteries and myths in the region that he heard from his grandfathers.

Eric tells us about Zapotec culture at Mitla

The Aztecs named Tlacolula, which means Land of the Twisted Branches, because of the ancient trees here. The Zapotec name for Tlacolula is Guish Baac, that means Old Town. Today, locals from nearby villages still say they are going to Baac, when they travel here, according to Eric. 

Tree with a twisted branch at Mitla archeological site

Not yet restored, fallen lintel

As we travel along the Pan American Highway, that goes from our starting point in Teotitlan del Valle (also an Aztec word), we see pre-Hispanic glyphs at Yagul, the small but important archeological site of Lambiteyco, and hills that look like mounds. Eric points out that when there is a hill covered in cactus, that is usually a sign that a ruin lies underneath. Everywhere there is a cross installed by the Spanish conquerors is a designation that this was an ancient Zapotec ritual site. 

Deep inside the tomb, second patio

Along the highway, just before coming to Mitla, lies the village of Union Zapata. In adjacent caves, fossilized corn was found, proving that maize was domesticated here 7,000 years ago. Squash seeds were dated to 10,000 years ago. I live among ancient agricultural peoples who continue to thrive. 

One arm of the “cross” in the tomb — one of the 4 directions

Detail, end of tomb chamber

At Mitla, we see Zapotec and Mixtec walls of a ceremonial burial site for the priestly class. They are carved with intricate designs, named grecas by archeologist Guillermo de Pie, who thought they looked like the Greek keys.

This tomb carving could be “lightening”

The tombs are open in the patio of the second structure and I decide to climb down the steep steps, then duck under two narrow passageways to get inside. I’m short but it still wasn’t easy! 

Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple, traces of cochineal-painted plaster

The tomb is laid out in the shape of the cross, which has a pre-Hispanic meaning for the Four Directions and the Four Elements, meaning the cycle of life and unity. When the Spanish came, this symbol made it easier for evangelization of indigenous people. In Maya territory, the cross is the symbol for the God of Wind, so it was easier there, too. 

Columns atop stairs of first plaza, perhaps roof support

Some of the other symbols carved on the walls of the temples and inside the tombs represent fire, lightening, the serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and water. We learn from Eric, too, that the pre-Hispanic dog Xoloitzcuintle was revered as a sacred animal, god of the underworld. The Xolo’s were put in the tombs to guide the spirits of the dead, the important first step on the journey to the Nine Levels  of the heavens. 

Steep stairs: bow your head in supplication

We ended the day with a tasting of pulque and then mezcal in Matatlan, and then with a fine meal prepared by Traditional Cook (cocinera tradicional) and teacher, Reyna Mendoza. A great way to celebrate your birthday, Martha.  Thank you!

Native landscape, San Pablo Villa de Mitla
Self-portrait at the pulque bar
Traditional Zapotec cook Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, Teotitlan del Valle
Mezcal accompaniment, orange slices and worm salt
REAL tostadas, hot off the comal, crunchy and fresh

Family Visit to Oaxaca: What to Do

While my sister Barbara has been to Oaxaca many times and spent her honeymoon here in the 1980’s, this is my brother Fred’s first visit. They are only here a week. Hardly enough to scratch the surface.

Here we are with mezcalero Oscar Hernandez

But a priority visit is mezcal tasting in Matatlan and one of my favorite palenques is Gracias a Dios. Thank God for mezcal.

Salud. Cheech-bayoh. L’Chayyim.

I’ve known mezcalero Oscar Hernandez since almost the very beginning of the brand. His daughter Emmy runs the retail and tour side now. Over the years they have grown, added on a bottling facility, and they just built a new big pit where they roast and smoke the agave cactus. They export to the USA and internationally, too.

We started tasting a bit after noon — medio dia. Soon, it was time for lunch!

My son Jacob likes their tepeztate and Gin mezcales. He put in an order for my brother to bring a bottle of each back to California.

Me, Emmy and Barbara — un poco borracho!

I also wanted to introduce my Zapotec family to this palenque so we did a road trip to Mitla. It ended up being an all-day event, with an added visit to the archeological site and to meet Epifanio, my favorite dealer of antiquities.

Meet Frijol, the palenque mascot
Street art in Pueblo Magico San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Mitla is a post-classical Zapotec archeological site that came into dominance after the decline of Monte Alban. Many of the buildings’ carved designs are replicated in the rugs woven in Teotitlan del Valle. On the day after Christmas, the site was packed with visitors.

Zapotec temple, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

The admission fee is 75 pesos per person and entry closes at 5 p.m. You need at least an hour to see the primary site, climb down into the tombs and climb up the steep stairways to the ceremonial patios.

Fred did the climb. Barbara and I didn’t.

It’s a good 30 minutes to get to Mitla or Matatlan from Teotitlan del Valle. If you are coming from the city of Oaxaca, plan for at least an hour on the road. Many people stop to look at rugs in Teotitlan del Valle either coming or going. If you are traveling independently (without a tour guide) consider visiting the workshop of Fe y Lola rugs. They are my host family and their work is exceptional.

Mitla (Mitclan in Nahautl) was the burial site for Zapotec royalty and priestly class. A very important precursor to Day of the Dead celebrations.

Have lunch in Mitla at a lovely little comedor, Doña Chica. We did. It is always delicious. Try the mixed grill molcajete and order your tlayuda with chicken instead of tasajo if you are so inclined.

Yagul Archeological Site: Oaxaca’s Hidden Treasure

Yagul is one of those magical places in Oaxaca that not many people visit. When I first went there in 2005, it was mostly rubble, secreted away up a hill beyond Tlacolula, on the way to Mitla. Access was (and still is) a narrow, cracked, pot-holed macadam pavement.

Stunning view of the Tlacolula valley and beyond

In those intervening years, there has been progressive archeological restoration, with good signage, uncovered tombs, and vistas of the Tlacolula valley that are unparalleled.

Over the rock wall, the valley below

I guess I love this site most because of the caves where the remnants of early corn (maize) was carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. It tells the story of human kind in Mesoamerica, the resourceful people who developed the edible kernel from teosintle.

Yagul has a ball court, too. About the same size as Monte Alban.

There are cave paintings here, but they are not open to the public. One can only enter by arrangement with INAH and go accompanied with an archeologist.

How old is this cactus? Others, the size of trees, dot hillsides.

I also love it because of the peace, tranquility, the wind on the mountain top, the open spaces with extraordinary views, the ability to walk and climb unfettered by masses of visitors piling out of tour vans, unbothered by vendors selling replicates and fake jewelry.

Judy and Gail descend from the highest platform

Climb to the top of the mountain to discover another tomb. Imagine that you are standing sentry, guarding the trade route between north and south, protecting your Zapotec territory.  Once a foot path, the road is now called the Pan-American Highway.

A recently uncovered passageway beneath a mound

Yagul is only about seven miles from where I live. I take friends there who come and visit. In June, Judy and Gail went with me. As I roamed the land, I realized that there has been more unearthed there in recent months: Two entry ways at the top of one of the mounds.

Where recent dig uncovered an entrance

There are lots of mounds in this valley. Most of them are said to be archeological sites waiting to be unearthed.  They have been covered for centuries by dirt, rocks, weeds. The Mexican federal government does not have the resources to uncover them all.

Original limestone plaster walls of Yagul

There are a handful of small sites under restoration along this route from Oaxaca to Mitla.  Near Macquixochitl is Dainzu, a significant site undergoing restoration.

Wild flowers in rock outcroppings, rainy season

Close to Tlacolula is Lambiteyco with a small museum. When I drive along the road, I see foundations of platforms that could once have been temples.

Courtyard of one of the ancient residences, Yagul

Few stop at these sites. Why? Perhaps because they are not as fully developed as Mitla or Monte Alban. Perhaps because they are not as famous or promoted as heavily. They offer tourists an opportunity to explore and imagine what lies below.

Frog sculpture near the tomb, where you can climb down and enter

Yagul is a great destination for families where most of the area is accessible to walking, hiking and climbing.  If you are so inclined, bring a picnic or a snack. Sit under the shade and think about life here centuries ago.

Cactus trunk, woody, strong enough for shelter

It’s worth it to come out here and stay a few days to explore the region — a nice contrast to the city. Stay in Teotitlan del Valle, at either Casa Elena or Las Granadas B&B. Both offer posada-style hospitality at reasonable cost. Hosts can arrange local taxi drivers to take you around to visit the archeological sites.

Taking a break under the shade

NCSU in Oaxaca: Monte Alban Archeological Site

Students and faculty from North Carolina State University Department of Horticultural Science are in Oaxaca for a study abroad course on Sustainability in Emerging Countries.

NCSU students and faculty setting out to explore Oaxaca

Here’s what a few students say about our first day at Monte Alban.

“We went to see Monte Alban first to give us background about Oaxaca and culture we are stepping into.”

Climbing the pyramids for a long view of the archeological site

“People here in Oaxaca take pride in this historic archeological site.”

Copal tree flowering and with seed pods — sap used for ritual incense

“You don’t know what people are talking about until you see the significance of this place.”

A long view of Monte Alban, with Observatory in distance

“It was a good foundation for what we would see and experience.”

Monte Alban is one of those spectacular archeological sites that grasp your attention, teach about the sophistication of Zapotec leadership and demonstrate the astronomical prowess of indigenous people.

Guide Pablo Gonzalez explains development of this major Mesoamerican site

The visit there gave students an opportunity to see native plants and understand the local plant life and landscape.

Pencil cactus becomes tree, with poisonous sap

As we climbed the temples and examined the plant life, saw the glyphs carved into the stone, and understood the ancient systems of water retention and cultivation, we gained a greater insight into the importance of Oaxaca as the source of corn that was first hybridized here almost 10,000 years ago and spread throughout the world.

At the top of the Zapotec world, 1,000 BC to 800 AD

We approached from the north side of the Monte Alban. The site is on a mountain-top between the city and the ancient ceramic making village of Santa Maria Atzompa.

Caretakers take a break in front of “Los Danzantes,” the Dancers, carved stone

The glyphs and carvings tell a story of conquest and dominance over surrounding villages, as well as the glyph language of rectangles and circles. Figures carved upside-down into the stone represented conquered leaders from local villages.

Another view of Los Danzantes

The gold treasures from Tomb 7 are on view at the Santo Domingo Cultural Center next to the church. They were wrought by Mixtecs who occupied Monte Alban in the late classical period.

Stelae carved with circles and rectangles — ancient vocabulary

Students participating are studying agriculture, horticulture, landscape design, business, and nutrition. Each day, they have an intensive discussion with their professors about food sourcing, fertilization, bio-diversity and cultural impact on climate change.

In the clouds at the top of Monte Alban

Zapotec rulers lived high above the agricultural valley below. Humans leveled the mountain where the elite lived. The Spanish named the place Monte Alban. When they arrived the mountain was covered in trees with white blooming flowers.

A videographer with the group will make a documentary about the experience

Students will write a paper and receive three-credit hours toward their degree program. We have one doctoral student with us, too.

From Mexico City: Under the Cathedral, An Aztec Empire

Far below Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest in the Americas, lies the archeological treasure trove that was once Tenochtitlan, the City of the Aztecs. It is known as Templo Mayor.

Archeological discovery continues in Mexico City under the Cathedral

First discovered and excavated in 1978, archeologists believe there are seven pyramid levels beneath what is now visible at the site next to the great Catholic church.

Only a fraction has been excavated under the Cathedral

It was the Spanish practice throughout New Spain, in Mesoamerica and South America, to destroy indigenous religious/cultural edifices and use the building materials to construct churches and administrative centers on top of the toppled.

Braziers used for sacrifice in Templo Mayor Museum

Each layer, filled in with silt by a succession of Moctezuma‘s, who built taller and grander edifices to mark their ascendency to lead the Aztec empire, now sinks into the swamp that underlies the great North American city.

Stucco and painted friezes in the Eagle Temple, Templo de las Aguilas, Tenochtitlan

Most of the buildings in the historic center of Mexico City are sinking, leaning and are at risk of toppling. The entire Zocalo area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for this reason.

Entry to Carmelite Ex-convent Santa Teresa, circa 1616, Mexico City

Next to the Templo Mayor is a contemporary art exhibition space that was once home to Carmelite Ex-Convento de Santa Teresa, built in 1616. You will pass by as you exit the archeological site onto Moneda Street that borders the Palacio Nacional.  Click here for a printable Map.

My camera is square; the floor isn’t. Extreme slant!

The Ex-Convento is leaning dramatically. Its front gates have always been closed. Over the New Years holiday weekend, when Jacob and I visited the Templo Mayor, lo and behold, the gates were open and I wanted to explore. As I stepped over the threshold, we entered a dizzying space — stepping onto a steeply tilting floor. My instincts were to grab the walls.

Sistine Chapel-esque, Ex Convento Santa Teresa ceiling

When I stay in Mexico City, I usually choose the Hotel Catedral, just two blocks from the Zocalo at Donceles 95. Nothing fancy. Good customer service, basic rooms, clean, and a delicious breakfast.

Torment of Cuauhtemoc, by David Alfaro Siquieros, at Museo Bellas Artes

There is so much to revisit, see and do, within eight square blocks. I never tire of repeating visits to the Rivera, Orozco and Siquieras murals. I never tire of eating at Azul Historico or Los Girasoles or El Mayor. I never tire of people watching.

I’ve watched this dig develop over the last two years

I always ask for a room at the back of the hotel facing the Cathedral. For the last several years, I have watched a vacant colonial house being transformed into an archeological dig from my hotel window.

On the walking street, Francisco I. Madero, Mexico City

All around the area there is transformation related to restoration and archeological discovery. Beneath Argentina Street you can see newly exposed Aztec carved stone covered by plexiglas pyramids. It gives perspective about where we walk and what came before us.

Black Christ, Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City

Mexico City is now one of the world’s most important travel destinations. It is safe and filled with amazing art, culture, food and shopping. I hope it’s on your bucket list.