On the summit and shoulders of a very high, very steep hill in the middle of the semiarid Valley of Oaxaca, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, lies one of the most well-studied archaeological sites in the Americas. Known as Monte Albán, the site was the capital of the Zapotec culture from 500 BC to AD 700, reaching a peak population of over 16,500 between AD 300-500.
The earliest Zapotec city was San Jose el Mogote, also in the Oaxaca Valley and founded about 1600-1400 BC; it was abandoned about 500 BC, when the capital city of Monte Albán was founded at the beginning of the Zapotec heyday. The Zapotecs built their new capital city in the middle of the valley of Oaxaca, between three populous valley arms and at the top of this steep hill. Building a city away from major population centers is called 'disembedded capital' by some archaeologists, and Monte Alban is one of very few disembedded capitals known in the ancient world.
Monumental Architecture at Monte Alban
The site of Monte Albán has several memorable extant architectural features, including pyramids, thousands of terraces, and long deep stone staircases. Also still to be seen today are Los Danzantes, over 300 stone monuments carved between 350-200 BC, carved with life-sized figures which appear to be portraits of slain war captives. Building J, interpreted by some scholars as an astronomical observatory, is a very odd structure indeed, with no right angles on the exterior--perhaps intended to represent an arrow--and a maze of narrow tunnels in the interior.
The Zapotecs were farmers, and made distinctive pottery vessels; they traded with other civilizations in Mesoamerica included Teotihuacan and the Mixtec culture. They had a market system, for the distribution of goods into the cities, and like many Mesoamerican civilizations, built ball courts for playing ritual games wtih rubber balls.
Monte Albán's Excavators and Visitors
Excavations at Monte Albán have been conducted by Jorge Acosta, Alfonso Caso, and Ignacio Bernal, supplemented by surveys of the Valley of Oaxaca by Americans Kent Flannery, Richard Blanton, Stephen Kowalewski, Gary Feinman, Laura Finsten, and Linda Nicholas. Together these studies illuminate this strange yet familiar society.
Today the site awes visitors, with its enormous rectangular green grassed plaza with pyramid platforms on the east and west sides. Massive pyramid structures mark the north and south sides of the plaza, and the mysterious Building J lies near the center.