Exploring the Treasures of Oaxaca


ACCORDING to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, as many as 4,000 different archaeological sites have been identified throughout the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca. From these sites, archaeologists have unearthed priceless relics, many of which are on display in the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. Join us as we visit this fascinating museum.

The Museum of Oaxacan Cultures * is situated in the former convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, located in the city of Oaxaca, some 270 miles [430 km] southeast of Mexico City. There, 14 exhibition halls display jewelry, sculptures, ceramics, and other valuable works of art.

Arrowheads are on display in the first exhibition hall. They are about the only remaining evidence of the presence of the nomadic hunting groups that roamed Oaxaca thousands of years ago. Moving on to the second room, we learn about Monte Albán, a hilltop city in the central Oaxacan valley. It has been termed “the first major city in the Americas.” Monte Albán apparently flourished between  300 and 900 C.E. However, its initial construction may date back to the eighth century B.C.E.

The well-preserved ruins of Monte Albán reveal that its people had acquired extensive knowledge of astronomy, goldsmithery, and hieroglyphic writing. Its archaeological treasures can still be seen. For example, there are a number of pyramids that stand out starkly from the surrounding valley. In addition, great plazas, underground passageways, a court for playing a ritual ball game called ollama, and some 170 subterranean tombs have been identified.

On January 9, 1932, archaeologist Dr. Alfonso Caso discovered Tomb 7, a Zapotec tomb that held the remains of a nobleman, along with a huge cache of treasures. Among the items found in this tomb were pieces of jewelry crafted with gold, silver, and copper as well as jade, turquoise, rock crystal, pearls, and coral. Many of these items, including objects of gold having a combined weight of nearly eight pounds [4 kg], are on display.

Besides glittering jewelry and gems, Tomb 7 contained beautiful clay artifacts and sculptured bone. One notable item was a lovely multicolored jar adorned with drawings. At the fall of Monte Albán, the period of writing in relief on monuments ended, giving way to Mixtec writing, especially on codices, or leaf books.

By 900 C.E., all the great Mesoamerican cities, including Monte Albán, had been abandoned. For the next 600 years, warriors and military factions ruled. Of all the groups inhabiting Oaxaca during that period, the Mixtec left perhaps the greatest legacy. Says The Encyclopedia Americana: “The Mixtecs were master craftsmen and artists, excelling in jewelry and exquisite picture books.”

Eventually, we hope to return and review information regarding Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain. In the meantime, come and explore the treasures of ancient Mexico for yourself. You will be glad that you did!


^ par. 4 Previously known as the Regional Museum.

[Pictures on page 24, 25]

Monte Albán flourished between 300 and 900 C.E.

Bottom: Breastpiece and other items from Tomb 7 and jars of the same period

[Credit Line]

All pictures: Reproducción Autorizada por el Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia CONACULTA-INAH-MEX