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Mitla Stone Mosaics

Along with Monte Alban, I visited Mitla, another Zapotec site but from a later period and with a much different feel. The ruins are in the middle of a town, which makes for a strange juxtaposition, the second stories of several houses peaking over one of the walls and the town’s catholic church incorporating a couple of the old walls into its construction. I wandered onto the site before I even realized it, and at first glance it didn’t seem dramatic. But then I saw the stone mosaic panels and I was completely enchanted. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

The mosaics are wonderful, made with hundreds of individual stones fit together into repeating patterns, like brick diaperwork but with stone. I’ve read that the panels are based on weaving patterns. Though I think that theory is to some extent just speculation, it certainly seems plausible, and it’s fascinating to think of these as stone textiles and the masons as weavers. I’ve done a little bit of stone fretwork like this, and I am blown away that people did this a thousand years ago using just stone-bladed tools and maybe some form of abrasion.

The stone framing around the mosaic panels is quite sophisticated as well. The walls are three or four feet thick, and the panels are inset and laid as a veneer, with corniced stone courses overhanging them. It’s a more refined form of the detailing at Monte Alban, with a skill level that is obviously much higher, but also a stone that is easier to work as well. The stone is trachyte, a volcanic rock that is soft and relatively easy to work. The blocks have admirably crisp edges, though they are not standardized; virtually every course has an odd-dimensioned ‘closer’ stone to resolve the variations in the stones. Some of the courses are battered at the bases of the wall, and many of the stones are trapezoidal instead of perfectly rectangular. Individual stones vary from fifteen-foot-long lintels and massive cylindrical columns that must weigh over ten tons to pieces the size of a finger.

The recessed stones in the mosaics were covered by red stucco when the site was occupied. Traces are visible if you click the photos to see them larger.

There are about 150 different panels. I didn’t take a photo of every single one, but quite a few of them are below.

Most of the panels are mosaics fit together from individual stones but some of them are carved from larger stones as reliefs.

These are interior walls that would have been protected by roofs, but the overhanging molding has stood the mosaics well during the roofless phase of the site. The weatherstaining is much worse wherever the overhanging cornice line has been broken away.

It’s mind boggling to me that these houses overlook the ruins. I hope the occupants haven’t become jaded about living beside structures one thousand years old.

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