Archaeologists decipher the glyphs on a 1,300-year-old frieze in Oaxaca

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Researchers discovered a 50-foot stucco frieze in the ancient archeological site of Atzompa in Monte Albán, Mexico. INAH

By Jane Recker

Jane Recker is a writer for Smithsonian.com and The Chicago Sun-Times. She is currently at Northwestern University studying journalism and opera.

The 50-foot-long limestone and stucco relief contains one of the lengthiest examples of Zapotec writing in the Oaxaca Valley.

Researchers with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have deciphered an ancient frieze adorned with one of the longest examples of Zapotec writing in the Oaxaca Valley, according to Hyperallergic’s Valentina Di Liscia. Discovered in 2018 in a complex called Casa del Sur at the ancient archeological site of Atzompa in Monte Albán, the frieze illustrates in high-relief glyphs some of the beliefs of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, two of Mexico’s largest Indigenous cultures.


The iconography on the nearly 50-foot-long limestone and stucco frieze, dating to between 650 and 850 C.E., includes a quetzal bird, monkeys, jaguars, and supernatural protective figures. The researchers discovered figurative and numerical depictions of the Mixtec calendar’s year of the lizard, as well as the quincunx—a geometric design alluding to the four directions and the center of the universe.

view of sand colored wall with stucco frieze
The frieze contains glyphs that depict the cultural beliefs of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, two of the largest Indigenous cultures in Mexico. INAH

A Google-translated statement from INAH describes the motifs as “manifestations of the cosmic world to which the construction of [Casa del Sur] responded to.” Lead researcher Nelly Robles García says, “In general, the glyphs are allusions to power in the city, to supernatural protection, and to a time without time.”

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Monte Albán was founded between the seventh and ninth centuries B.C.E. Over a period of 1,500 years, the area was inhabited by the Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs. Atzompa was built between 650 and 850 C.E. as a satellite city to Monte Albán, as the Zapotec civilization expanded in the region, according to Heritage Daily.

Atzompa is situated on a hill overlooking the nearby Valley of Etla. Evidence suggests the town served as a final way station for the quarried stone being transported for construction in Monte Albán, and that its hilltop position allowed it to serve as a defense against the nearby Mixtec.

closeup view of ancient stone frieze
A close-up view of the frieze INAH

The original frieze is estimated to have been about 100 feet long and would have decorated the main façade of the Casa del Sur, according to the Art Newspaper’s Gabriella Angeletti. It would have been visible to a busy ceremonial plaza, and, due to its location, Robles García says the glyphs impart a “message or discourse of power.”

When the Zapotecs abandoned Atzompa around 850 C.E., the frieze was partially destroyed. Researchers have found funerary urn fragments nearby that may have served as sacrificial offerings from the Zapotecs to “demystify the space.”

“Materials such as limestone and stucco require a high degree of specialization for their handling and restoration,” says Robles García in the statement. “The frieze should be considered one of the most important artifacts among the institution’s conservation priorities.”

Source: Smithsonian

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