Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

Amy spent winter break 2007-08 in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she and other SMU students explored culture, art and anthropology – visiting villages, churches and museums; participating in festivals; and working alongside the indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Amy is a junior from Austin majoring in studio art with minors in art history and women’s studies.

Read more from Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

Monte Alban

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Monte Alban, occupying most of a mountain near the valley of Oaxaca, represents a “profound social and cultural transformation result[ing] in the region’s first state.”

Monte Alban “represented a form of government far more complex than any that had developed in the region before.” The foundation of Monte Alban triggered a process of economic and politic integration, but above all, a great demographic concentration. …

Another side note: Monte Alban is the colonial-period name for the highest ridge of complex hills where the ancient Oaxacan capital was located. The site’s aboriginal name is not known with certainty, but the hilltops that make up Monte Alban were given names in Miztec and Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) on a pictoral map … Monte Alban has been referred to as the “hill of the lord” or “hill of the feathered head.”

Located around Monte Alban are terraces that radiate out from the center. Located on these terraces are clusters of apartments and living quarters. The terraces also served as fortifications, which blocked access to the main center. A distinct feature that punctuates this idea is the existence of a wall, which cuts across the terraces and blocks what would have been the easiest route to the main center.

Gullies also ran through the terraces, and at certain points, areas were enlarged to create cisterns, which trapped and held water. The architecture of Monte Alban was very formal and public. The city is arranged running north to south, with two large platforms at either end of the great plaza. On these platforms is found an intricate arrangement of pyramid-temples, palaces, patios, as well as tombs. The east side of the plaza is lined with six residential buildings and a ball court.

In the center of the plaza are three buildings placed closely together. In front of the (I think south) platform is a round structure believed to have been an observatory, which stands alone in its placement. On the other side of the plaza are three structures that balance out the “city” layout.

The architectural style found at Monte Alban appears to be regional. It is characterized by a technique called a doble escapulario, or double recess. It appears that the buildings were covered in plaster, and it is possible that it may even have been brightly and intricately painted and detailed with sculptured stucco. Another feature of Monte Alban is the fact that over 100 formal tombs have been found in the city, all of which have a similar characteristic form. The tombs have been found underneath the courtyard floors, some underneath the great plaza, and mostly under the patio floors of the apartment houses located along the slope of the ridge.

It is obvious that Monte Alban was an important public and ceremonial city. The architecture indicates that the social and religious beliefs were the driving force of the people. The rich religious history of the city is indicated by the fact that each temple is built on top of a previous temple, and everywhere is the image of gods.

It is also apparent from the tombs that a form of ancestor worship was also very active in Monte Alban, with some ancestors apparently becoming semi-deified themselves. You add this to the fact that the apartments appear to house people based on lineages, and what emerges is a city built by the people for the people.

Monte Alban was a pure urban center that existed in the early development of highland civilization. The greatness of this accomplishment influenced the idea of state and urban structures for future generations.


Sitting on the steps of Monte Alban – thinking of the rituals, the spiritual elements embedded in the space and the silence – reminded me of a piece written by Adrienne Rich, called Cartographies of Silence:

The technology of silence
The rituals, etiquette

the blurring of terms
silence not absence

of words or music or even
raw sounds

Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed

the blueprint of a life

It is a presence
it has a history a form

Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

Share this story:

    About Sarah Hanan

    EA-PubAffairs(Periodicals)
    This entry was posted in Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.