Situated at an elevation of 4,855 feet (1,480 meters) in the Tlacolula valley and 24 miles (38 km) southeast of Oaxaca, the pre-Hispanic stone mosaics of Mitla are unrivaled in Mexico. The word Mitla comes from the Náhuatl word Mictlan which means place of the dead or underworld. In the Zapotec language this site is called Lyobaa, which translates as tomb or place of rest.

The greatest growth and peak occurred in the Late Post-Classic period or Monte Albán V (950-1521 AD). Due to its importance, Mitla was constantly threatened with wars and invasion, and consequently, it was fortified with with great walls in the surrounding areas. Somewhere beneath the town may be a great undiscovered tomb of Zapotec kings and heroes, as the 17th century monk Francisco de Burgoa wrote that priests had found it but sealed it up.

Archaeological excavations indicate that the site may have been occupied as early as 900 BC. Mitla's earliest visible structural remains date from the epoch of Monte Albán II (1-200 AD) to between 200 and 900 AD when the Zapotecs were present. The Mixtecs took control of the site from 1000 AD until at least 1200 AD or later, and much 14th century Mixtec pottery has been found, after which the Zapotecs took back control until the Aztecs arrived in 1494.

The archaeological site of Mitla is separated by the urban sprawl has divided and invaded practically every corner of the site — dividing it into 5 areas with archaeological remains. It is not now possible to have an integrated perspective on the site, but instead one finds the 5 segments bounded by modern streets, with small pieces of unoccupied land which consist of the structures themselves and adjoining spaces which serve as future areas for research.

The original residential areas were located south of the monumental clusters, along both sides of the river. Today what were once major zones of human habitation and daily life are completely covered by the modern houses of contemporary Zapotec residents.

Beyond this urban center one finds the fortresses, or the defensive walls, which crown some of the hills surrounding the city, three of these have been documented. Another significant activity in the area outside the city were the quarries and workshops for stone used in construction, eight of which have been located, some several miles from where the stone was later used. Mitla as a fortified city located on the edge of the Oaxaca Valley, with a strong commercial and political influence over the surrounding area and even to more distant points.

Mitla MapThe Mitla archaeological zone includes these five main groups of structures, and stretched for more than two thirds of a mile along either side of the Mitla River, as well as dwelling areas located below the actual urban layout. The five groupings, from north to south, are:

1) Grupo de la Iglesia (Church Group),

2) Grupo de las Columnas (Columns Group),

3) Grupo Adobe, (Adobe Group)

4) Grupo del Arroyo (Arroyo or Riverbed Group) ,

5) and Grupo Sur (South Group),

The north complexes (Grupos de la Iglesia, de las Columnas y del Arroyo) are administrative buildings and palaces of the hierarchy — priests, military leaders and the families — constructed during the epoch of Monte Albán V. These palaces are characterized by the use of large monoliths and ornamental facades with mosaics of small stones perfectly cut small stones and assembled forming long bands of frets with 14 different different designs framed by panels, elements which are part of the Zapotec architectural tradition begun with Monte Albán with strong Teotihuacan influences. However, in some cases the frets were not placed together with this sophisticated technique, but were rather carved into a single block of stone to form a false mosaic.

The roofs were made of beams supported by the lateral walls, on top of which were thin pieces of wood and upon these again, others in the direction of the beams. Over everything,they put a thick flat surface with the necessary incline to allow the rain water to run off. In the wider rooms, a line of monolithic columns ran down the center to support the roof. The columns did not have a base or a capital, but their diameter diminished slightly towards the top.

The lintels are generally enormous monolithic rectangles, sometimes decorated with false mosaics similar to the ones used in tombs. There are in Mitla itself and some more in the surrounding area. The edifices have a very spacious cruciform floor plan and are finished off remarkably with stone mosaics or blocks of finely carved stone.

In all the Mitla structures, there were parts decorated with paintings which now have almost disappeared, but in some, the projecting moulding over the lintels has protected and partially preserved them. These paintings filled long and narrow horizontal spaces and were executed on very finely smoothed and well polished stucco. The background is generally a dark red and the figures are white yet slightly greyed because of the surface finish. The rest of the painting is colored in different tones of mixed red and white. It is precise and painted with a steady hand. Exceptionally, other colors are found on small fragments of paintings in some buildings, but almost all is in white and various tones of red.

The other complexes (Grupos Adobe y Sur) were built in earlier periods and reproduce the tradition of courtyards surrounded by palaces on platforms, following the Monte Albán style.

Grupo de la Iglesia

This group is composed of three quadrangles or courtyards (A, B, C) bounded by four rooms of stone and dirt, finished with red stucco and ornaments, and topped with friezes of frets and codex-type mural painting on the lintels of Courtyard A. This group was constructed between 1300 and 1400 AD and is contemporary with the better preserved Grupo de las Columnas. Both Groups share a spatial and probably a functional one as well for activities of the ruling class.

The Iglesia de San Pablo was built on top of Courtyard C in 1590 using construction materials from the destruction of various prehispanic palaces, and is supported by the monolithic lintels of the underlying room. Courtyards A and B suffered modifications when they were converted into parish stables, and rubbish dumps were installed in Courtyard A and the parish house in Courtyard B. To enter the parish house, a portico was built outside supported by two monolithic columns from the complexes to the south. The western entrance shows evidence of an open area with a cobble porch and fountain.

Iglesia - north of Courtyards A & B
Iglesia - east of Courtyard B
Courtyard B South Wall
Courtyard A South Wall
Courtyard A Southwest Corner
Courtyard B South Wall
Courtyard B West Wall
Courtyard B North Wall
Fragment of original color
Wall Detail
Iglesia - west of Courtyard B
17th Century Fountain
Iglesia - from south of Mercado de Artesaias
Iglesia Interior - Covered for Holy Week
West door of the Iglesia

Grupo de las Columnas (Columns Group)

These structures stand out for its large scale architecture and for the exclusive use in Mitla of the monolithic columns as structural and ornamental elements. It is composed of three quadrangles or courtyards (D, E, F) of differing dimensions and located on different levels. This sector was constructed between 1300 and 1400 AD, and shows profound architectural, engineering and astronomical knowledge as well as a delicate esthetic sense and sculptural expertise in order to cut the stone. The finish of the facades and floors were usually colored red.

Courtyard D (Patio de Mosaicos) and Sala de las Columnas (Hall of Columns)

This sector is supported by an enormous stairway which opens to Courtyard E to the south and provides access. It shows an impeccable collection of frets with a base of joined mosaics. The principal facade of Sala de las Columnas at the north end of Courtyard E is one of the most exquisite examples of prehispanic architecture of Mesoamerica.

Wood engraving circa 1875
Courtyard D and Courtyard E from west
From Courtyard F to South
Sala de las Columnas from Courtyard E
Sala de las Columnas from Courtyard E
Niche is visible in center doorway

Sala de las Columnas (Hall of Columns)

Niche is visible to left of 2nd column

The principal facade of Sala de las Columnas is on the north end of Courtyard E, its name coming from the first Spanish explorers visiting the site. It is a a hall of monumental dimension (38 by 7 meters), characterized by six large monolithic columns of volcanic stone which served to support the roof and give a unique character to the enclosure. The door frames have unusual lintels of a single slab of stone. Both the columns and lintels were transported from quarries in the mountains surrounding the site. This hall was most likely used for civic and administrative activities, although the niche in the north wall suggest some association with religious activities.

Courtyard D (Patio de Mosaicos)


At one end of the hall, a low and narrow passageway leads to the Patio de Mosaicos (Patio of the Mosaics), which had some of Mitla's best stone work. This patio, now roofless, was originally covered. Its walls are covered with panels of inlaid cut-stone mosaic known as stepped-fret design. Each piece of stone was cut to fit the design, then set in mortar on the walls and painted. There are 14 geometric designs at Mitla, thought to symbolize the sky, earth, feathered serpent and others things. The four rooms are closed and have only one entrance, indicating that most of the activitiy was carried out in the exterior courtyard. The roof of the north room was reconstructed to its original design.

Courtyard E (Patio Norte)

Courtyard E looking east
Courtyard E looking south to Courtyard F
Courtyard E looking south to Courtyard F

This sector is supported by an enormous stairway which opens to Courtyard E, and shows part of the history of the destruction and vandalism which Mitla suffered as a result of the Spanish conquest. The three structures to the east, south and west totally destroyed to reuse their materials in the construction of the church. The ultimate objective was to destroy the vestiges of power in the prehispanic culture in order to impose western civilization and religion.

Courtyard F (Patio Sur)

Courtyard F contains two monumental Tumbas (tombs) which have the characteristics of the Post-Classic period in Oaxaca. Their architectural plan is cruciform, and its rooms and anterooms are richly decorated with joints and cut stone friezes of frets like the facades of the principal buildings. The north tomb displays a monolithic column which served to support the roof of its transept. The east tomb displays a mural painting on stucco on its interior lintels. The funerary tradition called for consecutive burials, depositing the cadavers with their offerings and moving the earlier remains to one side.

Courtyard F and north tomb
Courtyard F and east tomb
East tomb
East tomb
East tomb
North tomb
North tomb
North tomb

Grupo del Arroyo (Arroyo or Riverbed Group)

The construction of this group is believed to have been earlier than the North and Columns Groups. This area was one of the most deteriorated of the prehispanic architecture in Oaxaca. Natural factors, vandalism and urban invasion had caused lintels and the major parts of the walls to fall down. Restoration restored the lintels with steel frame supports.

There was a bad fire in Courtyard I that left a meter deep ash cover, probably at the beginning of the colonial period. Excavation of the courtyard and rooms revealed the existence of dividing walls in the prehispanic rooms. Pieces of mural paint can be seen on the lintels, and the original facades were probably covered with friezes of frets similar to those of the North Group.

This group is similarly arranged as the Columns Group. The most northern building extends to the rear by means of a square patio, surrounded by four corridors, and a base at the same level as the rooms. The courtyard is entered from the south side. The buildings on top of the platform are narrow, sot there was no need for intermediate supports to support the roof.


Grupos Adobe y Sur

The South Group and Adobe Group correspond to early classic period of Monte Albán IIIB.

The Adobe group is furthest to the west. It has not been excavated, but presents a characteristic which is only shared with the south structures. In both groups, a square patio is bordered on three sides by rooms and on the eastern side by a pyramid on the top of which there must have been a temple. Another similar pyramid one is on the north side of the South group. These are the only two religious structures in all the five groups. In the centre of the patio, and perhaps also on the patio of the Adobe constructions, was an altar.

The chapel of the Calvary was built on the summit of Mound 37 of the Adobe group.


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