Telling your Mixtecs from your Zapotecs
It’s our last couple of weeks at the Getty – and we took four mad days off to go to Mexico. The argument was that once you’re this close, it’s even madder not to go. The daughter – who came too – had chosen Oaxaca, in the south, as the best place for our first visit, for good reasons.
It is sufficiently “foreign”. It has some great pieces of Spanish colonial architecture. It is surrounded by highspots of meso-American archaeology. It currently is suffering a tourist dearth, largely because of some terrible violent riots last year in which a number of people, including a US journalist, were killed. And there is an extremely good hotel on the edge of town, where you can luxuriate for about half what it would cost in the UK.
The centre of Oaxaca is a colonial-style jewel. And, despite being a UNESCO World heritage site, and having had a major campaign of street pedestrianization, it remains firmly this side of twee. No Body Shop yet, so far as we could see. All the same, we determinedly got out of town to look at the meso-American sites, at Monte Alban and Mitla.
I have to confess that I am the kind of person who finds it hard to tell her Mixtecs from her Zapotecs. And, though I had intended to give myself some quick tutorials in the archaeology of Mexico before I went, I never quite found the time. The result was that I was a virgin tourist, armed only with a couple of guide books and whatever information the sites themselves offered.
In fact, even this badly prepared, I found lessons here for the wandering classicist – and for lovers of Damien Hirst.
Monte Alban is (as I have learned) a Zapotec site, on a hill top a few miles outside Oaxaca – founded in about 500 BCE, and lasting until 900 CE or so. It’s also a UNESCO World heritage site, and is very carefully tended, right down to a solar powered disabled lift (yes, honest). First impressions were a bit humbling, and a salutary challenge to my own Greco-Roman bias. The site is vast, with huge, stepped stone structures around a central plaza. Frankly, it made the Roman Forum look like a bit of a minnow and even gave the Athenian Acropolis (about the same date) a run for its money.
Second impressions added a different slant. So far as I could tell from my guidebooks, no-one really knows what this site IS. No doubt, there is some much more hard core work being done on this material. But the virgin tourist is confronted with a range of almost identikit buildings, claimed as palaces by one guide, temples or “administrative centres” by another. And no one seems very sure whether the whole thing is a splendid but slightly eery ritual complex (for the obligatory human sacrifice) or the bustling central square of a thriving town.
It reminded me of something I’ve just been working on: tourism to Pompeii in the early nineteenth century, when different guides identified most of the big buildings in the newly excavated Forum in entirely different ways. Is it the Temple of Jupiter, or is it the senate house? Is it the Pantheon or the fish market?
To try and get more of a grip on this, we went back to the Museum in Oaxaca, where most of the finds from the site are housed. There was even more puzzlement here. How, I wondered, could this culture produce such elegant jewelry and metalwork at the same time as it was churning out such brutal and unattractive sculpture?
But then an extraordinary object caught the eye, from one of the tombs near Monte Alban. A jade-encrusted skull (the one at the top of this post) – a dead ringer for the diamond-encrusted one that Damien Hirst is about to flog for millions. Had he been here before us?