Monte Albán

Works of Art


Exploiting the prime agricultural land around the rivers that form the three main arms of the Valley of Oaxaca, the Zapotec residents of San José Mogote constructed the first permanent structures dedicated to public rituals in about 600 B.C., when a slab carved with a reclining figure—almost certainly a slain captive—and a calendrical glyph (“1 Earthquake”) was set in the corridor of one of the buildings. It is one of the earliest examples of writing in Mesoamerica. Residents of the valley floor gradually moved to a hill where Monte Albán was established, commanding views of the entire valley. A great plaza was cleared and structures built on its periphery, with an enormous defensive wall around the northern and western sides of the hill. The center thrived for hundreds of years after its founding in 500 B.C. With a relatively small population—some 5,000 people by 300 B.C.—it dominated the Valley of Oaxaca and its surrounding areas.

Monte Albán grew in size and stature, and by 200 A.D. the Main Plaza had been cleared to its largest size. Major buildings were constructed around bedrock outcroppings that could not be leveled. Elaborate royal tombs, furnished with numerous funerary urns and painted with murals, were placed under the North Platform. The urns are among the most distinctive Zapotec ceramics from this period. Although never as large or powerful as the city of Teotihuacan, Monte Albán apparently had peaceful relations with its central Mexico neighbor. A Oaxaca barrio at Teotihuacan revealed the distinctive Zapotec ceramic forms.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001


Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Monte Albán.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)

Further Reading

Marcus, Joyce, and Kent V. Flannery. Zapotec Civilization: How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996.