Researchers at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have deciphered an ancient frieze that constitutes one of the lengthiest examples of Zapotec writing found in the Oaxaca Valley. Their interpretations of the glyphs that adorn the frieze illuminate the worldviews of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, two of Mexico’s largest Indigenous cultures in the period before the Spanish conquest.
The frieze was discovered in 2018 in Casa del Sur, a massive complex located in the ancient archeological site of Atzompa in Monte Albán, the Zapotec capital. Founded between the seventh and ninth centuries BCE, the region was inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“In general, the glyphs are allusions to power in the city, to supernatural protection, and to a time without time,” said Nelly Robles García, INAH’s lead researcher on the project, in a statement.
Dating to between 650 and 850 CE, the nearly 50-foot limestone and stucco frieze features a series of glyphs done in high relief. These are characteristic of Zapotec and Mixtec iconography and include various figurative and numerical representations of the year of the lizard (Chila) in the Mixtec calendar; a quetzal bird, a Mayan and Aztec emblem of freedom and wealth; and several protective figures.
The frieze encircled the east and north facades of Casa del Sur, a prominent placement that would have ensured its visibility to passersby in the ceremonial plaza of the bustling city. Elsewhere on the facade, researchers found fragments depicting other iconic images of the Zapotec world, including representations of animals such as jaguars, which are considered sacred symbols of hereditary lineage, and images of the quincunx, a geometric pattern that evokes the four directions and the center of the universe.
These motifs are “manifestations of the cosmic world to which the construction of [Casa del Sur] responded to,” INAH’s press release says.
According to INAH, the original frieze measured approximately 100 feet before it was partially destroyed by the Zapotecs when they abandoned the site around 850 CE. Funerary urn fragments unearthed nearby may have served as sacrificial offerings they left behind with the intention of “desecrating the space,” the statement says. Portions of the frieze display have suffered considerable damage.
“Materials such as limestone and stucco require a high degree of specialization to manage and restore,” said Robles García. “Which is why the Casa del Sur frieze in Atzompa should be considered one of INAH’s major conservation priorities.”