Mexico's First Empire: Legends, Landscapes, and Archeology of Oaxaca

By Greg Stafford

My latest project is to write a book about Oaxaca, where Suzanne and I spent two wonderful years. 

Synopsis

Mexico's First Empire (tentative title) is about my experiences in Oaxaca. It combines our travels to many of its ancient ruins, including some of my spiritual insights while doing so; archeological information on the sites, including some of my own speculation; and legends appropriate to the site, some of which are original with me. It follows the chronology of the sites and notes some of the significant achievements of the Zapotec people and their changing customs. It starts with the first hunter-gatherers and ending with the Oaxaca Resistance movement that took over the state in 2007. It concentrates on the Mesoamerican period, especially Monte Alban, which existed from 500 BC to 1000 AD; and the Post-classic period from 1000 AD to the Spanish invasion.

 

History Begins at Oaxaca 

Well, actually recorded “New World” history begins at Oaxaca. 

The New World was only new to new comers. Christopher Columbus was the first new comer, and he was convinced he reached the Indies, the Spice Isles of the Far East. He called the people Indios, and to be sure he was right sooner or later he kept calling them all indios whether they were black, brown, tan or bronze. I have been told that he really meant “in dios,” or “in god,” indicating his view of their innocence. That’s bad Spanish and a nonsense interpretation. Nonetheless, New World now means what we call North and South America and its surrounding seas and islands. 

History is written documentation of events of living people. For a generation Spanish explorers and overlords documented their enslavement and extermination of the native peoples. They didn’t mean to exterminate —enslavement was preferred. They just did what everyone else in the world did at that time. It’s just that Spanish methods were so cruel and reckless that they didn’t work well with humans. People are so fragile! 

Cortez, the world’s luckiest adventurer, pushed European history onto the mainland at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The way that he hit them was like we’d feel if a red white and blue UFO landed without a permit in Washington DC on 4th of July and Jesus stepped out with a brace of nuclear sidearms. This triumph is recorded in Spanish dispatches, and subsequent history, and tell how Cortez did it all, like a god. His loyal captain Bernal Díaz records it in his thudding prose, determined to tell the truth about his boss. The story was passed on as the glorious model for the conquistadores who followed, and then to us. 

But like Columbus saying the Arawaks were “in dios,” the Cortez tale is bunk, not true, or to be fair not entirely true. Cortez destroyed the Aztecs, but not because he was thought to be a god, or that God was on his side, and not because of cannons and horses and dogs. Contemporary Mesoamerican documents treat his presence almost casually, and credit victory to the tens of thousands of native warriors who fought for him in his battles, and who simultaneously both followed and exploited the stranger. He was considered to be a rogue force, utterly ignorant and willing to break any convention of peace or war, and one to be exploited against the hated empire while he lasted. Perhaps he lasted longer than expected, but at first his victory was just the replacement of one emperor by another who was very strange, but obviously powerful. 

Oaxaca had the honor of being part of the personal holding of Lord Cortez, el conquistador. King Carlos I of Spain, also known as Emperor Carlos V of the Holy Roman Empire, named Cortez as Lord Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. His original claim included much more, but even after the crown and his enemies whittled everything back to just the size of a small nation, his descendants clung to Oaxaca until they killed each other off. Missionaries moved in. Mesoamerica ended. 

So the New World entered history. Well, more bunk. 

Actually, American writing started here in Oaxaca about two thousand years earlier than Cortez. On stone we can read the names, dates and events of important people. That is history, as defined, and that’s the history we will look at—pre Columbian. 

Those records in stone had to be preceded by a long history of frangible documentation, because the system is clear and almost understandable when it was chiseled in stone. The writing and symbols that we have in stone from those earliest records were used and developed continually for twenty centuries to become several sophisticated writing systems. 

Documented Mesoamerican history culminated in the codices, of which several types exist. We’ll come back to these, but a codex is a screenfold deerskin upon which pictures, symbols, and images tell very sophisticated stories. In many ways it is a graphic novel. They have not been fully decoded, but the parts we do understand are broadly understood.

In one, we have a Oaxacan account of the creation of the world. This is taken from the so-called Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus 1. We will see more about these documents later. 

The screenfold is two long pages, decorated on both sides. They were legal documents, but they were also mounted on the walls of nobles as decorative proof of their ancestry. To read them, normally the narrative usually begins on the lower right of a page and moves to the left to the end of the page, and then go up and right to the page joint, and then back to the left. When it reaches that joint, it goes to the top of the next page. A red line means “turn here.” Other clues are in the pictures, such as which way the figures are facing. 

 

Creation

In a market place bustling with business a woman stands to one side and unrolls a brightly colored leather roll. She carefully places it into a frame so it stands upright, then picks up a gourd rattle and begins to sing a song. Passersby who can spare the time slow to look at the painted skin when they hear her singing.

The sacred word is being spoken
The sacred word is being heard
Here is the voice of the gods that is speaking
Here the voice of the gods can be heard

Soon a small crowd has gathered to look and listen to this woman, Three-Reed, a colanij [diviner] who bears the sacred responsibility to share her knowledge and insight with the people. 

You who have taught us to speak,
You who have given us words
Make me your tongue, your lips and your mouth
Make the truth of the gods slip forth from my mouth.

She points to the lower left corner of the brightly painted screen and begins to chant. 

One Deer and One Deer Make the World

Look! Here is the creation of our world. Here is how the world was made. This is not our world now, this is not our world then! This is the Spirit World, the Sky World where things existed before there was anything! See these eight signs here? Those are Sky-world signs, we see this is up there. Now like I said there are eight of these, and they are like the hours of our night, and we have how many…

A girl from the crowd speaks up and says “Nine.”

Yes young lady, correct, nine from nightfall to nightfall, yes. So here we see that eight have passed, eight god-hours for the night. One more and it is sunrise! And so we see here everything inside that’s going on in the ninth hour. This is what goes on in Heaven when the fires are relit! 

Here is Creator—he has no fancy clothes, no masks and no jewels. He is black because we cannot really see him

“You mean She,” says someone.

Yes, yes, Thirteen Deer, he is a she, thank you. My good listeners, that’s my assistant Thirteen Deer. Do you need your beans read? She’s the best fallen star in the city for you, right there. See her after my song. 

And like she says, Creator is Creatrix too, or both. But of course we can’t see Creatrix either, and so I will just speak of Mystery right now. Thirteen Deer, you’ll have your chance later. Now, some respect please. 

Here is Mystery—It has no fancy clothes, no masks and no jewels. It is black because we cannot really  see it. It has nothing except itself, and see, It speaks. 

She makes a strange hand sign and then points to someone of the priest class. Right foot, she says.

Here, see now, its words have become the sound and the Listener. 

This I give to you, the sprinkled offering.
This I give to you, the song of the Heart.

It’s in its left hand, It receives this from itself. Here it is! Listen! 

She plays a short tune on her flute. 

And as It plays there are twenty sounds, and twenty silences, see them here? Count them if you want. Twenty nights there—stars see? And this here, look now, twenty censers are our days. 

And here is a censer just like in the picture. Thirteen Deer, light that and bless these people with the blood of our mother while we talk. 

Here is a person—that’s you., as she points to someone, and you and you. Yes, you are not yet formed. It is you without your face. Listen to what Mystery is telling you here, just before you’re going to be born. “Here is how to live: look ahead. Work hard!” 

And then It says, as she raises her finger as in the painting, listen now. “You can look up if you want to, but what happens then? Yes, right, you go down.” Down where? Oh oh, look, do we see Mystery? No, that’s Death. That is the ol’ farter Mr. Bones himself. Is that Mystery now? Well, yes actually, but It’s got the mask. Yea, it is how we see it first. It’s just way too much for us. We know that, of course. And how do we know it?
This guy, right? The Lord of Death and Life, our dear nobility — any of you here now? 

 The crowd laughs, because the nobles never walk on this street. 

No, of course not. 

Look at this—two hours of the Creation Time have gone past by now. Out of the Sky Mouth comes the Heavenly river, that beautiful thing in the sky that you see on the holy nights when you are out. That is Star Skirt there, but without her mask. Then next here, this is Sky Mountain. It’s up there and it doesn’t move, ever. You know which star it is. 

Then there, in the sky, is born the first plant. It knows what it is to be—see, it is bleeding for life. Here is the first sacrifice. The grass, the cleaner and sweeper, the bearer of power; it bleeds. When the priests sprinkle the blood of sacrifices on us with their bundles, this is the blood they are sending.

Here’s the new world now. The dark Underworld at the bottom, our world above it, and then the sky world—yes, the stars hang from it. Above that, up beyond the sky, is Sacred World, the Place of One. Inside that enclosure of One, see this pyramid, yea, it’s everywhere. Up and down, right? Like the Sun and the moon, and the corn and our lives. It’s complete, from start to finish. There it is, the One Temple, closed and contained. 

Next, here, see a start and a finish on these steps again! These nine flints on top, those are the nine dry months and these nine reeds are growing, the wet months. See here, the levels of the world are Space, then the 18 months of Time, and we see the world start to grow.

Our world see, not the finished world. See how it has teps, not pyramids. And what do we have, first the waters of the world there, then here’s the earth, the dry season. It’s hard ground now. And we see it grows again, plants. Mmmm, look, it’s Our Mother Mescal. 

“Sir, over there! I see you’ve got a bit of our mother’s milk, eh? Maybe you can give a cup to Thirteen Deer for me? Ah, thank you sir, you are like the gods…” He hands a small cup of mescal to Thirteen Deer, who gulps it down. The crowd laughs. “Oh… well, maybe one for me later, then?”

So then here we are, two temples. These are the first temples ever, and you can see they are for Night and for Day. Those holy places, they are starting to come down to us now. They come down and change shape. Here, the Lord and Lady of Creation. Mystery is now two, Him and Her up there in the Sky World. The empty temples are Him and Her up there, and then here they are again but they are not in the Sky World now. 

They are somewhere else, yes, on top of mountains, poised right there at the edge of the sky ready for the world to become dirt. 

Look over there, and over there. 

She points to two distant mountains. 

They are there, on those mountains.

This is how the world was started.
This is how the world was made.
This is the way that our world started.
This is how our world was made.

The Triple Valley

Before people, the valley of Oaxaca was filled with willow forests along the rivers, mixed scrub lands from there to the edge of the mountains, and then forests, divided by altitude into various bands of ecosphere up to the cold lands, the steep mountaintops. The earliest human artifact in Oaxaca is a grooved arrowhead similar to the Clovis-style points found in the US and dated to about 10,000 BC. The Clovis-style people were once thought to be the first humans in America, but recent discoveries and the possibilities of boat travel have pushed the date back. 50,000 years BC is supported by recent evidence.

These people, or anyone earlier, were hunter-gathering bands of ten to forty people. They came up into the Triple Valley through one of several passes from the Pacific coast, and certainly had a couple of centuries to wander around and explore before helping to wipe out the last mammoths and other giant game. 

About 10,000 years ago people had settled into the normal hunter-gatherer foraging routine. Groups have a fixed territory that they exploit for food, moving to wherever the best food is from season to season. Troupes break up into smaller groups when food is scarce, seeking secondary and tertiary sources of fare; and gather into larger groups in times and places of plenty. People across all of highland Mexico, from the Anahuac through the Puebla and Mixteca lands, on to Oaxaca all used the same kind of stone tools, left the same kinds of litter, and spoke the same language that we call Proto Oto-Manguean. The people of this era are called the Tehuacán Culture.

In this time the forested mountains and passes were as seasonally populated as the valleys. Although thinly spread, the people mixed regularly, sharing customs, language and wives and were more or less in constant communication with each other at the borders of their territory. Whatever innovations and changes were discovered could be transmitted from one neighbor to the next across the entire area. 

When the whole population had previously foraged, they frequented mountains and met their neighbors. The People.

This is called the Lithic Stage, Paleo-Indian Period. By official count it begins when that stone point mentioned above was dropped, and lasted for 4,000 years. At 6 generations per century, accounting for young childbearing, that is roughly 240 generations of people living under the same conditions, in the same place, using the same tools. Think for a moment where your ancestors were 4,000 years ago, and you can appreciate how ingrained and familiar this lifestyle was. 

The Archaic Period of the Lithic Stage began about 6,000 BC. The earth had warmed quite a bit, and minimal glaciations raised the sea levels enough to drive the coastal people inland. The steep drop off on the Pacific coast was not as drastic as on the Caribbean side. The weather was much as it is today. Pines covered the higher mountain slopes and the lower, alluvial areas along the rivers were forested. In between these the piedmont areas were covered with mesquite and brush woodlands.

The Guilá Naquitz caves behind Mitla have given up fragments of worked stone indicating the presence of humans in the Archaic time. More importantly, the remains show the earliest domestication of plants. 

Cultivation may have begun as an accidental activity. People gather up the wild beans that they like to eat and save them until later to eat. Some are dropped along the way and so when they return next year the plant is found to be growing there, too. 

It could have been deliberate as well. People living in the wild have a tremendous knowledge of what we call in modern times zoology, botany, ecology and so on. In those days, though, it would simply have been “getting along.” It is easy to see that seedlings grow from seeds, and that mature plants grow from seedlings. So if our family stopped at this waterhole twice every year and we liked to eat those beans, we could scatter or bury some of them in the hopes of having some more easy-to-get food next time we passed through.

The process naturally lends itself to developing the best or the biggest seeds as well. People would gather the food they wanted to eat first. The big seeds, the large plants. These would be the ones dropped to the side of the path or deliberately seeded. The selection of these preferred plants modified the natural selection of the species.

So the earliest stages of deliberate plant cultivation began early, when people were still in the lithic, hunting and gathering period. 

Corn, beans and squash were all developed this way. The earliest dates documented for these are for squash is 10,000 BC, proto-maize at 7,000 BC, and beans likely to be about 5,000 BC. And these are the earliest documented accounts, lucky finds by clever and intelligent archeologists who were looking for them. But the earliest documented find is not necessarily the earliest cultivation, of course. It could have been thousands of years earlier. Other early plants included cacao beans, avocado, tomatoes, guavas, manioc, agave, prickly pear cactus, and of course chilli peppers. 

When people were able to cultivate and gather enough plant food, augmented with game, they began to settle in one place and not wander about to feed themselves seasonally. This led to the abandonment of the mountain forests and the beginning of the separation of the old Tehuacán culture and Oto-Manguan language into the Zapotec and Mixtec peoples. 

 

Mother Maguey, Our Magic Plant

Maguey is a succulent plant that grows throughout Mexico. 

Heart of the Land, keeper of life, made the land before humans came. The inhabitants were, at first, all people and spoke the same language. When the earth was still soft the 400 plants grew upon it, some in the jungles, some in the mountains, some in the deserts. Every plant had a lover, a family and friends from their land. Some people are other plants or mountains, some are rivers or heroes, others animals or humans. Possum was one.

Ever since he burnt his tail stealing fire Possum has been very casual, cautious and entirely unambitious. One day Packrat sees him sleeping under a shady tree and wakes him up.

“Hey, Lazy boy,” says Packrat. “You better get up and start saving seeds. Rain says he is going away to find a wife and won’t be back for a long time.”

“There’s plenty of time,” says Possum, and goes back to sleep. Then Rain goes away, and the land gets very dry. Many days later Packrat sees him sleeping. The tree is dry, with only dead leaves that are falling off. Packrat wakes Possum again.

“Hey, slug-a-bed,” says Packrat. “Rain is gone and won’t be back for a long time. You better get to work. It’s hard even for me to find food.”

“I’ll do it later,” says Possum, and goes back to sleep. Many days pass and the land is parched and dry. Packrat sees him sleeping and wakes him up a third time. 

 “Hey, Loser,” says Packrat. “Rain is gone, and even I can’t find a seed. The river is dry. Even your tree is dead. You better take cover.” Then he went leaping off to find someone else to bother. He was right, though. No leaves shade Possum, so he gets up and ambles about, as he usually does, looking for bugs and dead things to eat. But he finds nothing. Even the dead things are just husks that are almost too hard to bite and get stuck between his teeth, and when he bites bit off that are small enough to swallow they just move around inside his stomach like chips of flint. He gets pretty hungry, and tired; but he is too hungry to sleep, and staggers on. 

At last he finds his way to Packrat’s house.

“Friend Packrat,” he shouts, “This is Possum, your old and very best friend, come to visit. Will you let me in?”

“Not a chance,” says Packrat. “I have a wife and 400 children in here. I warned you. Now suffer the consequences.” 

Possum goes away, dragging himself over the parched ground. He looks upward and sees Rain coming! Alas, no—it is Vulture who circles low overhead, eager for a meal, unable to take his eye off his prey. “Food!” he cries weakly, using one of his five words. Soon he’ll be unable to keep himself, and he’ll land and peck out Possum’s tender eyes. 

That’s when Possum sees a green plant, with shade. He says, “If I am going to die, then I am at least going to be in the shade when I do,” and crawls off to it. 

“Whoa,” says the plant, “Where are you going?” 

“Just to shade myself,” says Possum, “So I can die in peace.

“No thanks,” says the plant. It is a she. “No need for carrion here, just worshippers.” 

“Hm, and what does that cost me?”

“If you have to ask, you cannot afford it,” says the plant. Possum, upon the edge of death, figures that he’s got nothing to lose. He agrees. “Then crawl into my shade,” says the plant. “I am Maguey.”

“Ouch!” As he goes in, Possum is scratched by a spine and his blood runs into the earth at the root of the plant. “What’s that about?”

“The start of my worship,” says Maguey. “Would you prefer to give me your life, or just some blood?” Possum is sitting in the shade now, and Vulture overhead is spiraling upward and outward, looking once more for the dying thing that’s hidden. 

“Oh, blood for sure,” says Possum. “I’ll even carry around that spike to use if you want.”

“I want that,” says Maguey. “Snap off that spine and keep it sacred. You will need it.”

“For what? I already paid for the shade with this scratch.”

“I’m better than that,” says Maguey. “If you pierce yourself for me I will give you gifts.”

“Like what?”

“Bleed.” Possum has little to lose, so he prepares to scratch himself again. “Oh no, a special way,” she says, “from the ear.” Possum does this, and she says, “I will show you how I am drink.” Possum drinks deeply and is refreshed now. 

“Is there more?” he asks.

“Bleed, from the tongue.” Possum does this, and she says, “I will show you how I am food.” Possum is strong and encouraged now. 

“Is there more?” he asks.

“Bleed, from the shin.” Possum does this, and she says, “I will show you how to find fibers.” Possum is makes clothing from it. 

“Is there more?” he asks.

“Bleed, from the penis.” Possum does this, and she says, “I will show you how to find magic.” Possum chews his way into her heart, and there he finds pulque. He drinks it and finds his way out to the daylight again. He stands up, and falls over, laughing. 

“What is this wonderful stuff?” he asks. He starts to rise, unsteadily, laughing. 

“Meet Pulque, my daughter, my heart, the life of my soul,” says Maguey. And she continues. “I am going to die now, worshipper of mine, and there is one more bleeding that can be done.”

Now, Possum has already scratched his arm, stabbed himself in the ear, tongue, shin and penis. He fell down again. He stops laughing as he tries to imagine what he might put that spine into next. 

“No thanks, goddess,” says Possum. “You’ve saved my life, given me drink, food, clothing and pulque. I couldn’t ask for more, thank you. I will pass on any more blood letting.” 

“You have much to learn about sacrifice, party-boy,” says Maguey. “You are now the water bearer. Take my daughter and go now, and where ever you walk will be where waters will flow. Where you stop my children will grow. Now go.”

So the marriage couple left, stopping to celebrate, sharing the blessing and making many new friends. Wherever Possum walked when he was drunk, the rivers are now crooked and twisted, along his staggering and stumbling path. Where he walked when he was sober, the rivers now flow straight. 

Early San José Mogote 

Established between 1700 and 1400 BC, major settlement to 500 BC  

The leading Oaxacan settlement during the Olmec period is called San José Mogote. It is located in the north arm of the Oaxacan valley in a region of rich soil. It is the oldest town-sized settlement in Oaxaca, with another 19 small settlements around it. 

The San José Mogote residents were the first people of Oaxaca to use pottery, adobe, agricultural terracing, and specialize in crafts. For centuries, it was the only settlement larger than a village, and it dominated the northern Etla valley.

San José Mogote had many differences from the lowland jungle sites. For instance, the satellite settlements around San José Mogote were larger than those of the coastal culture. They had extensive irrigation ditches and storage pools since the rain was less reliable up in the mountains than on the tropical coast. In fact, the more that the archeologists dug, the more differences they found. In addition to the palisade already mentioned, they found the oldest example of Mesoamerican hieroglyphic writing as well. 

The residents grew domestic maize, squash, black beans, pumpkins, chile peppers, and avocados. They also collected prickly pear, hackberry, West Indian cherry, and the multi-use maguey. They also hunted deer, peccary, small animals like rabbits and turtles, and birds like quail and doves. They also raised small dogs for food.

San José Mogote also had a unique natural resource that was valuable to the jungle lowlands. Its veins of magnetite, a form of naturally occurring iron oxide, could be mined for pieces that could be polished to shile like a mirror. 

Several buildings of the original San José Mogote site was composed of workshops that shaped and polished the magnetite to create shiny little mirrors about the size of a thumbnail. They are pretty common in San José Mogote, and importantly, they are also found in the Olmec settlements, but only in the graves of their elites. Clearly, someone had brought some of the “cool stuff” from the mountains to the lowlands. Other foreign objects in San José Mogote include shells to be made into jewelry from both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Turtle shell rattles, conch shell trumpets, and stingray spines used for bloodletting were also found. These last are sacred items throughout Mesoamerica long after San José Mogote lost its importance. 

Other sites revealed similar importation of exotic items. These showed that the Olmec “empire” was probably not an empire of any sort. Instead it was the center of trade from which a distinctive art style, pyramid-shaped sacred structures, specific forms of divine worship, and the brutal ball game were exported, undoubtedly sought by the emerging elites of other towns who sought to set themselves apart from the common farmers. Oaxaca, with its magnetite mirrors, contributed to that fledging growth of the Mesoamerican culture.

In the earliest centuries at San José Mogote religion was practiced differently for men and for women. They were performed by ordinary men and women. 

Several men’s ritual “lineage houses” have been exhumed in San José Mogote. These are small buildings, and they are utterly devoid of any women’s tools. These facts indicate that it was for only a few individuals, the men initiated into the secrets of lightning and earthquake. They prayed and sacrificed animals and their own blood for good harvests, raids or defense against raiders, hunting luck, and whatever else affected the community. 

Men were concerned with the spirits of ancient ancestors, bloodletting, costumed dancing, and the use of medicine helpers of datura, morning glory, and tobacco. They addressed prayers to the vital forces called pée, especially to its concentrated, vital for of Cociyo, or Lightning; and Xoo, or Earthquake. The lineage houses are dedicated to one of these two powers, who are the ancestors of the lineages. All of the lineage houses investigated so far have been oriented to be 8 degrees west of true north. This orientation was later common for public buildings in Oaxaca and some other places. These predate similar structures in Olmec lands, indicating another first for Oaxaca. 

Burials are a favorite source of information for archeologists. In San José Mogote the earliest seated burials have been uncovered. Only important men received this type of burial. The posture indicates that they were bound up as mummy bundles before burial. Pottery with lightning and earthquake symbols are found in their graves.

Lightning is found on pottery as a serpent of fire. Earthquake is a mask with a feline mouth and a cleft skull which is the fissure left by an earthquake. A crocodile foot glyph, usually stylized, is sometimes used to represent earthquake, since the earth is generally considered to be a gigantic crocodile. Both of these powers also appear in abstract form. 

Women’s rites were practiced in or near the domestic houses. They performed divination by tossing maize kernels into one of four water-filled holes, each colored in the color associated with one of the cardinal directions. East is red, yellow is south, black is west, and north is white. The system was used to discover the source of an illness, the name of a newborn child, or to find an auspicious day to plant or marry. 

Women also used clay figurines of their recent ancestors to enhance their work. Faces were indistinct, but they had elaborate hairdos and ornaments to set them apart. 

Visiting San José Mogote

We had already spent half a day searching for San José Mogote but without success. The directions in the Moon book were entirely wrong. But we still wanted to visit the site, so we went to the Tourist Center and asked directions. The guide there gave us clear and explicit instructions. Go north on the main highway and turn left just after the water parks. We got there quickly. 

Modern San José Mogote is a small pueblo, or village, about seven and a half miles from the city of Oaxaca. The ruins of great Monte Albán are visible from the site. 

We started at the museum in the town. I have mentioned the one in Tehuacán, which is a sizable city. San José Mogote is a little village, but it still has its own museum. In fact, it seems that every town has its own little museum, stuffed with local pride. These are generally owned and maintained by the community, not the state or federal government. They vary widely in quality, but are usually one to three rooms divided into three separate areas. One area always has some local pre-Columbian artifacts, although the best ones have almost always been taken by the government to Mexico City. The other two are about what the town’s people did during the war for independence and the revolution. 

These museums are rarely just open to the public, because the public rarely attends them. Visitors have to find village official who holds the key. Officials are usually in the small government on the plaza in the center of town. Sometime the attendant is a person given the responsibility, which requires waiting for someone to go out and find them, and bring them back. At other times it requires a search by the visitors over bumpy dirt roads to a dusty cornfield somewhere. The attendant never refused to come and open it, even if they were in the middle of some task.

When we got to San José Mogote the local caretaker was just locking up. Another American, carrying his backpack, was just leaving. She said she had to attend some other business, but she promised to send someone else to open for us. While we were waiting we talked to the other tourist, a young man named Damian who was from Austin. He told us he was just bumming around the country and become enamored of these local museums. He was trying to figure out how to make his doctorate thesis on them. I offered him a ride back to the city when we were done, which he accepted. 

This museum was one largish room and one smaller. The larger room had some very nice artifacts from the village period. In particular, the shell necklace was interesting. The collection of early pottery figurines from the pre-urban era had its own charm. describe the individuality 

The site had been occupied during the Monte Albán era, too. A set of five funerary urns are displayed that were found, buried together. The one in front is of Cosijo, the primary deity who was rain and fertility. Here is another one. These kinds of images are found all through Oaxaca for this period. The most famous piece in the museum is of a quality that is usually taken away by anthropolgists for the big city museum. It is a brazier called the diablo enchilado, or “red devil.” People are not allowed to take photos of it. 

The smaller room of the museum was about the later history of the town itself. The museum is located in the former hacienda of the local casique (leader) and there were photos of the early 20th century family,  documents including some annual cost sheets for food and clothing for the family, a little model of the hacienda, etc. There was also a section about the revolution and how the town became what it is. 

With Damian in tow, we went to view the site. Damian knew very little of Mesoamerican history so we got to show off our knowledge to him as we looked it over. The new town is built right on top of the old one, and so we cut through peoples’ yards and along the side of the school to get there. It is not extensively dug or reconstructed. 

We had already visited almost all of the zona arquelología in the state that are prepared for the public, and so we are down to “class two” sites like this one. 

The ball court is not fully excavated. Nonetheless, its distinctive I-shape is visible. Some men were hard at work digging out the outside when we were there.

At the end of our tour we drove home, stopping at a roadside stand for a hearty lunch of pollo asado. Damien told us about his time in Zimbabwe while in the Peace Corps, and we mutually expressed dismay over the political conditions there, also about the gross living standards of the U.S. compared to the rest of the world, and our anticipated difficulties when we move back.