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 Monte Alban and Mitla as Themes in the Fields of Archaeology and Restoration Minimize

These are the two most important archaeological sites in the state of Oaxaca for two reasons. First…as mentioned previously…they are the reference points for key phases in Oaxacan archaeology and as such have served as the basis for defining cultural sequences (Caso 1932, 1938, 1939, 1967; Paddock 1966; Blanton 1978). Second, they are representative of cultural resources of the region. For these reasons they are considered by archaeologists as the two sites representative of the Classic and Postclassic periods in the Valley of Oaxaca.

Both sites stirred interest because of the monumental character of their architecture. Mitla was the focus of the first effort at restoration and exploration on the American continent, undertaken between 1897 and 1902 by Leopoldo Batres, who was the official archeologist of the long dictatorial regime of Porfirio Diaz. In terms of restoration Batres dedicated himself to reconstruct, with license, the most impressive monumental sites, among them Mitla, Teotihuacan, and Xochicalco. His exploration style made use of excessive and brutal methods as tools of "archaeological excavation" (Schavelson 1990: 64). The objectives of Batres—consistent with the politics of the time—were to justify the exploitation of the indigenous population by showing the monuments as a requiem for dead, long-past cultures lacking connections to the present. Even so we need to recognize that with him is born the practice of restoration of archaeological monuments in Mexico and on the continent (Schavelson 1990: 48), a practice by all means novel, with the merit of having opened the field of the discipline in the context of Mexican science during this period.

Equally important was the exploration and restoration of Monte Alban carried out between 1930 and 1958 by Alfonso Caso. This defines the second grand moment in Mexican archaeology and restoration known as the "Golden Age", to which I have referred previously. This period is known for the careful weighing of archaeological data collected in a systematic manner, a practice which permitted Caso to propose a fine chronology for Monte Alban which continues in use to this day (Caso 1967). At the level of restoration the practice of monumental reconstruction continued, but now with more of a socialist vision which implied returning the pre-Columbian past to the community for its educational benefit. In this sense Caso and his team put a lot of emphasis in leaving clearly differentiated the original finds and the reconstructed segments, an effort which today permits us to "read" correctly the architecture of the buildings.

Description of Monte Alban

This is the most important archaeological zone in Oaxaca and represents the central focus in the interpretation and development of the ancient Oaxacans. In brief, Monte Alban is a pre-Columbian city which was built and occupied from about 500 B.C. to approximately 750 A.D. It has been described as an urban-ceremonial complex dispersed across in clusters across the tops of hills; the Main Plaza, Atzompa, El Gallo, Little Monte Alban and Mogollito (Blanton 1978: 3). This description is based on the extensive field survey Blanton coordinated in 1971 to define with greater precision the size of the site, documenting that around the areas mentioned there are a series of residential and cultivation terraces, and these are interpreted as the basis of the economy and food production for the population. Blanton and his team located 2073 terraces in an area of 6.5 square kilometers (Blanton 1987: 7).

The areas of monumental construction of palaces and terraces which form Monte Alban are located at the tops of the hills, while the terraces represent areas of daily peasant and artisan life. Monte Alban is the obligatory reference point when discussing ceremonial centers in Oaxaca, as it is related directly in period, form, and style with the ceremonial center at Teotihuacan. This site has been interpreted as the center of religious, political, and economic power for the Oaxacan region, in which there existed a firmly established social differentiation (Acosta 1965; Bernal 1965; Caso and Bernal 1965; Blanton 1978; Flannery and Marcus 1976; Paddock 1966). Its principal academic importance resides in the fact that its long history of human occupation permitted the establishment of a ceramic sequence in five periods classified as I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IV, and V (Caso 1965), the same which to the present day structures the chronological studies of the area. Winter (1989) defines Monte Alban as the first ceremonial center and eventually the largest in Oaxaca.

The first archaeological research projects at Monte Alban were carried out by Alfonso Caso as of 1931, concentrating on the main plaza. These early explorations defined the area and facilitated the reconstruction of temples and palaces for purposes narrated earlier. Its impressive monumental character has made the main plaza the object of admiration of generations of scholars and ordinary visitors. Various travelers in the 19th century left descriptions of the appearance of the monuments in this part of the site but little comment about the rest, which as the less striking were always treated as having a secondary status. This fact has had its consequences to the present, especially when attempting to conserve the site with a modern integrated perspective.

In contrast, the most recent criterion for determining the boundaries of the Monte Alban site was that developed by the Blanton team on the basis of the obvious presence of residential and farming terraces, including a band several hundred meters wide surveyed to determine the presence of archaeological materials (Blanton 1978: 15) (Figure 3). This version of the site's area served as the basis both for its official boundary-setting (SRPMZA) and for its inclusion in the World Heritage List (UNESCO 1987). While the focus of the research and the reconstruction of the monumental character of the main plaza is obvious to the visitor or local resident, the questions asked and the techniques used by Blanton are far less so. As we will see, the same qualities which link the observations of early visitors and more recent generations of research archaeologists, i.e, the monumentality of the main plaza, make it more difficult to appreciate the contributions and significance of new approaches to site assessment.

Description of Mitla

Although its location in the Tlacolula Valley shows human habitation since the prehistoric period (Flannery 1983), this pre-Columbian community is the representative site of Monte Alban V in the chronology of the Oaxaca Valley (Caso 1967; Blanton et al 1982). The orginal configuration of the city during this later period has been described in a number of the works mentioned earlier. The five monumental groups of Mitla constitute tangible evidence of a central urban core which we know, based on recent research (Kowaleski et al 1989; Robles and Moreira 1990; Robles 1994), was a part of a large city with well-defined areas of activity. The pre-Columbian residential areas were located south of the monumental clusters, along both sides of the river. Today what were once major zones of human habitation and daily life are completely covered by the modern houses of contemporary Zapotec residents.

Beyond this urban center one finds the fortresses, or the defensive walls which crown some of the hills surrounding the city. To date three of these have been documented (Robles 1989). Another significant activity in the area outside the city were the quarries and workshops for stone used in construction. To date eight such sites have been located, some several miles from where the stone was later used. We now need to see pre-Columbian Mitla as a fortified city located on the edge of the Oaxaca Valley, with a strong commercial and political influence over the surrounding area and even to more distant points (Robles 1994: 7). Thus recent findings alter in a definitive way the earlier view of the monumental core of Mitla as its sole focus. This now must give way to a more complex and complete version of a pre-Columbian city (Figures 4 and 5).

The other reality of Mitla as a human settlement stems from the vestiges of the colonial period. This historical period has been amply described in recent works by authors such as Robles, et al, 1987; Magadan 1984; and Robles and Moreira, 1990, whose discussions have been based on the analysis of historic documents and physical evidence compiled through observation and archaeological techniques. This research shows us the nature of the colonial period in Mitla as of the 16th century, with the Conquest imposed on a living community cruelly subjugated by Spanish rule. It was forced to destroy its religious buildings to give legitimacy, space, and importance to new construction by the Catholic religion (Robles and Moreira 1990: 54). The physical result of this imposition is demonstrated by buildings such as the church of San Pablo, which was constructed on a pre-Columbian palace of the North Group, and the Chapel of the Calvary, erected on the summit of the principal platform of the Adobe Group.

The historical experience is clearly evident in the urban fabric of the modern community, where pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary architecture create a complex challenge for interpretation. Confronted by this overlapping of different historical periods, the boundary-setting for the archaeological zone used as its criterion the delimitation of monumental areas by following the layout of current urban streets, an issue to be addressed in the next chapter (SRPMZA 1993).