The ancient Zapotec metropolis of Monte Albán was founded in the sixth century B.C. on a low mountainous range overlooking the city of Oaxaca. Its impressive architectural remains—terraces, pyramids, and canals—extend over some four miles (6.5 square kilometers), including structures built around the Great Plaza, the north and south ends of which are anchored by massive platform mounds. Most of the existing ruins date to the Late Classic period from A.D. 650 to 800. Numerous stelae have Zapotec hieroglyphs and depict a variety of scenes. As the Zapotec culture declined in the fourteenth century, areas of Monte Albán were reoccupied by Mixtec peoples.
Significant insight into the ancient Zapotec civilization lies in the hieroglyphic inscriptions at Monte Albán, but they rapidly eroded from exposure to the elements as a result of digs. Looting and vandalism also threatened the site’s structural integrity, as did unchecked tourism—the public was not always provided with clear guidance on how to respect the site and its vulnerable remains. An improved tourism management plan was needed to allow visitors to enjoy the beauty of the archaeological site while keeping clear of places too fragile to bear heavy foot traffic. An added assault to Monte Albán came with forest fires, which decimated much of the buffer zone around the site, destroying native crops and superficially damaging the architectural remains through exposure to smoke and ash.
Our work at Monte Albán focused on conservation, documentation, and interpretation
The Monte Albán Archaeological Site became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, and was listed on the 2008 World Monuments Watch to assure the sustainability of the archaeological zone. Our work at Monte Albán focused on the conservation, documentation, and interpretation of the carved stones and benefitted from both public and private sector support. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation provided funds for the construction of the laboratory as well as the storage facility needed to implement the conservation work. The stones were protected, preventing further decay of the hieroglyphics. Long-term appreciation of the once flourishing Zapotec culture is possible and is evidenced by continued interest.