Saturday 5th Sept.
Ready at the travel shop at 10.05 for a 10.30 departure to Monte Alban. Small bus, I hope.
Small bus it was. Left, with 6 of us on board and a few minutes early. Around we went through back streets to another bus that looked identical. We changed buses and 2 more joined us.
The driver, after 5 minutes, suddenly put on his seat belt. Yes, police were active. He took it off after we passed through a police stop. So yes, seat belts are compulsory but often not worn.
The road was pretty awful: broken concrete, holes, narrow, no footpaths or else seriously deficient ones and clearly a different part of town to the centre, the haunt of tourists and the location of museums and galleries. The sections after improved, as we climbed up and up around sharp curves our driver kept true. Just. Definitely Speedy Gonzales in training, thwarted coming down by the blockage of a lane by a big boulder on the road. We were stuck behind two big and slow buses for a while on the worst part down. Phew.
Monte Alban archaeological site
Is spectacular and very strange at the same time, a bit sterile and with too many old men hanging around, selling figurines. And only a hint remains of the apparently first urban society in the Americas, one that existed from about 500BC to about 850CE when the site was gradually abandoned (according to the information at the site). Its government was unusual and one of the few in which the rise of the state came to represent a system of government.
The different sections date to various periods as it was continuously being developed, new built on the old again and again. A huge central rectangular area is surrounded by various buildings with governing and religious functions. In the centre is an astronomical building, reminiscent in its prominence to that at Chichen Itza. I hasten to add it’s a lot less sterile than that site. However, it’s huge and the places people, particularly the non governing or religious, lived are to the side of the main features of the place.
The most intriguing are the Danzantes, stelaes showing contorted men, some with apparent genital mutilations. No, dancing wasn’t harder then. Seems the figures were labelled dancers because of the odd positions and recognised now as more likely to have been prisoners or tortured (yes, Muriel, or both). Few look happy and I get a sense of entrails hanging out on some.
The ball court, a distinguishing feature of Mesoamerican ‘temples’, is apparently smaller than many elsewhere here. It’s certainly smaller than that Ajr and I saw at ?Palenque or Uxmal. Also, no hoop of the type we saw there, just very narrow and steep steps up both sides.
There was an even smaller ball court away from the main area. These are also thought to have been used by men settling disputes and with no associated human sacrifices as at other sites.
What was here before the archaeologists? Perhaps it looked like this with a rocky structure evident but hidden.
And how, if that picture was drawn soon after Monte Alban was ‘discovered’, can we believe the locals not know of the existence of the site? Although they apparently started to populate the valley after those living in Monte Alban had ‘left’ that site, they co-opted cultural aspects of their predecessors. Given the prominence of the ruins and the need for active methods to transfer culture, locals must have included the previous Monte Alban people and have known of the ruins for the intervening hundreds of years. Which makes its ‘discovery’ and the statue of its ‘discoverer’ puzzling. Perhaps it’s just a eurocentric view of the world in which something exists only post an adventurer or an archaeologist ‘identifying’ it.
The limited evidence of possible human sacrifices in Monte Alban is an extrapolation from the set of children’s skulls found. The skulls of 6-12 years old were found buried together, why is unknown. They now ‘live’ under glass in the museum.
Another skeleton was also on show in a sort of glass topped coffin under the floor. This person looked old or like someone who’d worked very hard given boney changes in their spine. The lack of teeth? Don’t know if it related to treatment after death or if teeth tend to fall out after an extended period of burial or, if it was all the person had left at death. Looking locally it’s possible the latter is the explanation!
The steps climbing ‘Meso American temples are always so high and each is so short. Guess it reduces the overall size of the temple. I thought I’d never make it up and without a rail I wouldn’t have. Down was another challenge. One guy was clearly having major problems going down the northern most temple. With them being so high and sooooo steep it was easy to understand.
Last time I climbed this type of set of stairs I had to be brave to go up, and, then, down again. Not so bad here, neither set was as steep. In Tikal, the first time, I honestly thought I’d be up there for life! They are considerably steeper and higher. My advice: don’t look down! The guy doing it tough did!
Afterwards, in the cafe having coffee, I was sitting next to a German family. First time they’d encountered ‘club sandwiches’ on a menu and they were quite puzzled. Answers in Spanish from the waiter didn’t help. Dad, and the food, arrived. He spoke a nice, very polite, Spanish. All sorted.
A disgusting hawking noise was coming from down below the cafe. Must be an animal of some sort as no-one could need to keep on for so long. Or so I thought. Hmmm, no signs of a big enough animal only the humans sitting trying to sell things to tourists. They have face masks (decorative, not protective), jewellery and sombreros as the sun was warm. Most of the tourists were Spanish speakers. I’m guessing many are from other parts of Mexico.
One other comment: too many sellers throughout the site. Every 50 or 100m you are approached. They are easily discouraged but when most are selling the same little things why does having more sellers work? Does it? Good thing is they don’t follow you and when you say ‘no thanks’ that’s it. So, easy to deal with.
The acoustics at the site are amazing. One guy was up at the top speaking, in a normal voice, to someone down below under a nearby tree over to the side. Neither needed to shout despite the height above the other guy.
What do many men do best? Rest! Well, these 3 were. Typical of many older men around here. I love the moustaches!
The area is very well maintained. Definitely worth a visit.