Mexican archaeologists decipher an ancient frieze

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have interpreted glyphs from an ancient frieze discovered in Oaxaca that offers significant insight into the cultural norms of the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures.

The limestone and stucco frieze was discovered in 2018 in the Atzompa area of ​​the Monte Albán Archaeological Region, a Unesco World Heritage Site built in the 6th century BC, inhabited successively by the Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples before the Spanish conquest.

The glyphs primarily allude to themes relating to superstition and social hierarchies, including figurines of monkeys, jaguars and supernatural protective figures, and depictions of the quincunx, a geometric design that alludes to the four directions and center of the universe, and the bird quetzal, Mayan and Aztec symbol of nobility or wealth.

The 15 m long frieze, dated between 650 CE and 850 CE, is thought to have originally been about 30 m long. It adorned the main facade of a structure – most likely a residence – known as the House of Sur (Maison du Sud), where it would have been visible from a bustling ceremonial square, communicating political or economic eminence.

National Institute of Anthropology and History

Archaeologists believe the frieze was partially destroyed by the Zapotecs who had left space, based on the discovery of fragments of burial urns at the site. According to Nelly Robles García, national coordinator of archeology at the cultural heritage institution, the effigies would have been sacrificial offerings “perhaps made with the intention of demystifying the space”.

She adds: “Materials such as limestone and stucco require a high degree of specialization in their handling and restoration. The frieze should be considered one of the most important artifacts among the institution’s conservation priorities.

Monte Albán contains vast plazas and truncated pyramids influenced by the architectural style of Teotihuacán, as well as intricate underground passages, a tlachtli ball court and nearly 200 elaborate lineage graves. It was inhabited by the Mixtecs during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century. Archaeological research in the area is ongoing.

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