Monte Albán: Heritage Conservation and the Spirit of Place
The approach in which a heritage site is conserved and managed might be a good lens through which one can learn about a society and its aspirations. Through their personal connection to a heritage site, a society brings an emotional layer of meaning, making us realize that those sites with a devoted community behind them emerge stronger and more powerful. In Mexico, Monte Albán Archaeological Site, a 2018 World Monuments Watch site, is in many ways a testing ground of this relationship between heritage, community, and people. The site suffered severe damage in a September 2017 earthquake, and World Monuments Fund became involved with the goal of helping the local recovery efforts in the aftermath.
On a recent trip to Oaxaca, I visited Monte Albán and was able to see firsthand the level of damage suffered by the structures—as well as the rigorous work undertaken by the local team led by Dr. Nelly Robles, archaeologist and director of the site. What began as an ordinary visit to observe the stabilization and restoration work turned into a moment of enlightenment when I encountered the human dimension of the site through the many people, mostly locals of Oaxaca, who work on the ground. They were proud to guide us through their work at Monte Albán, demonstrating how the site is an important part of their lives, and how in return, they have become an important part of the site’s spirit.
Our visit began at the juego de pelota (“ball game”) structure, where reconstruction work was advancing as planned and most of the damage had already been addressed through a reconstruction of the perimeter walls, which collapsed during the earthquake. Here, meticulous documentation work was done by identifying all the detached stones, numbering them, and placing each back into the wall using a mixture of limestone and sand. While in some areas stones were still waiting to be put back in place, in other areas, this work had already ended and workers were completing one of the final elements— compacting the ground on top of the wall.
Our visit continued as we climbed to the adjacent structure that had suffered a high degree of damage. There, interventions that took place in the 1930s had added new layers of stones and cement, which increased the rigidity and impermeability of the structure, making it more susceptible to earthquake damage and water infiltration. The work here was focusing on making the structure lighter and allowing it to “breath” by eliminating extra layers of stones and replacing the cement with limestone and sand.
In both structures, as well as the others we visited in Atzompa, I had the opportunity to speak not only with the archaeologists and architects, but also with the many workers who were doing some of the hard, skilled work on the ground. Their jobs ranged from removing stones, numbering them, and compacting the ground, to the delicate task of cleaning small fragments of broken ancient artifacts and meticulously re-assembling these together. What struck me was their sense of ownership and responsibility over the site. Some were second generation workers at Monte Albán and Atzompa, following the footsteps of their parents who had also worked on the site.
This strong emotional connection between Monte Albán and the local people of Oaxaca not only reinforces a unique sense of pride, belonging, and responsibility over the site, but creates a direct economic impact in the local communities. This benefit is based on a socially-driven agenda that, in my opinion, empowers the local community by letting them participate in the daily life of the monument. The social impact of this approach goes beyond the physical composition of the site to include the larger social fabric as well.
We must learn from the resiliency of Monte Albán and the conservation philosophy of its archaeologists and architects, in which the built environment, its spirit, and the people who take care of the site are deeply intertwined. The extraordinary success of this work is proof that heritage conservation can build community and bridge sites and people through local dialogue and an exemplary civic compromise. An example that could provide a template for heritage conservation and inspire others.