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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Domestic Abyss

Updated: May 29, 2021

Zapotec tomb replica at the American Museum of Natural History
Zapotec Tomb 104 replica at the American Museum of natural History, New York, NY. Mural copies painted by Augstin Villagra.

Zapotec Tomb 104 replica at the American Museum of Natural History

The Zapotec lived with their dead. The elite of the community built tombs under their homes and continued an intimate relationship with the buried deceased. For the Zapotec, the dead were viewed as an intermediary to the Gods. It was the dead who had access to the clouds where the Gods lived and the ability to consort and communicate with them. They were often invoked to bring messages from the Gods or looked to for the delivery of signs from the otherworld. The Zapotec believed that all people had originally come from the clouds, and that at the end of life all people returned to them. The noble elite also believed that the bones of their dead, especially the femur, conferred on the descendent the inheritable status of their forebearer. To own and display the femur of a deceased nobleman proved the holder’s right of ascension as the leg bone held the strength and mobility (life force) of the living body.

Map of Mexico showing its states.
Map of Mexico showing the states. The state of Oaxaca is shown in yellow at the bottom of the curve into Guatemala.

The Zapotec were a Mesoamerican civilization that originated in the present southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, near the present city of Oaxaca. They were the first recorded civilization in Mesoamerica that built cities with monumental architecture and sculpture. They built their political and economic center at Monte Albán (The name was given to the abandoned city by the Spanish conquistadores.) At its height, Monte Albán boasted an estimated population of 16,500 citizens. The civilization flourished between 500 BC and lasted until the Spanish conquest (begun in 1522). Monte Albán itself was abandoned in 1000 AD due to unsustainable wealth disparity and over exploitation of natural resources. The Zapotec people migrated to a nearby city (44 miles away) they called Lyobaa, named Mitla by the later Spanish. They were excellent agriculturalists, with their main crop being maize, beans, squash and chilies. They developed a sophisticated public architecture utilizing stone and stucco. In addition to their architectural sculpture in stone and stucco, they created an accomplished ceramic-based sculpture that was an adjunct to their funeral practices. They also have become noted for their mural painting. Although the ornamental details of public buildings were often painted to accent details, Zapotec wall painting was mainly an accompaniment to their ancestral tombs. As such, these wall paintings were not public art, rather private devotional and memorial works that were reworked with each new death. The murals painted inside the Zapotec tombs are the most extant Mesoamerican painting that has been found. They provide a new dimension to indigenous Pre-Columbian thinking and world view. Important to the greater understanding of the tomb murals, the Zapotec had a form of glyph writing that was one of the earliest writing systems in Mesoamerica. Glyphs were often incorporated into the design elements of Zapotec painting and sculpture which explain and provide deeper meaning to the imagery. To the untrained eye, these glyphs often look like part of the ornamental detail of the work of art.

The Zapotec had a 260-day calendar, with 20-day names in 13 yearly divisions. (The day names are: Cociyo (God of lightening), Owl, Water, Sliding Knot, Monkey, Soap Plant, Jaguar, Maize, Earthquake, Rain, Lord, Profile with Cheek Mask, Reed, Eye, Profile with Angled Lines, Deer, House, Serpent and Tooth.) These names have been reinterpreted and given other names by various researchers.) Their calendar was very important to the Zapotec civilization because it was used for divining a person’s destiny, as well as foretelling which days were auspicious and which days were not. The calendar was also important as a naming system for people. The Zapotec people (in fact most of Mesoamerica) were named according to the day they were born or according to the day on which their destiny was mantically determined.

Map of Monte Alban.
Map of Monte Alban showing the location of the main buildings and Tomb 104.

Zapotec elite lived in palaces built on high, cold, dry ridges, leveled for construction, overlooking the valley of Oaxaca. The palaces were constructed as a series of rooms that faced a common patio, and often as a complex of several patios with surrounding rooms, connected by narrow hallways. This building design suggests a familial, communal way of living. The palace rooms had no windows, while the entrances faced away from the views overlooking the landscape. The living spaces were constructed this way because privacy for the elite was of prime importance. Keeping their lives mysterious and apart from the common people contributed to their perceived status and association with the Gods. Each palace apartment had a corresponding tomb, built either under the patio or under the largest room of the dwelling.

The tombs were carved out of the bedrock, often facing west in the direction of the setting sun. They were capped with large ceiling stones to create a roof. This construction was then buried under the floor of the patio or room where the tomb was located. The interior tomb walls show a variety of finishing techniques, but most are smoothed out, stuccoed, and painted with murals. They have the magical associations of the cave as the gateway to the underworld abyss and also as the place of transformation and resurrection of the spirit to the afterlife.

The palace ruins where Tomb 104 was found. The stacked squares found center, left is the present entrance to Tomb 104.

The most extant of the existing Zapotec tombs, is called Tomb 104. At the time of its discovery in 1937, it had been untouched and unentered since its construction in 450 – 550 AD. It’s singular survival, and the extraordinary pristine condition of its contents, led to its reconstruction as an exhibit in the Mexican pavilion at the 1939 World’s fair as a paean to Mexican culture. This reconstruction of the tomb was presented by the Mexican government to the American Museum of Natural History at the close of the World’s Fair.

In situ, Tomb 104 would have been accessed by a set of descending stairs leading to a small courtyard in front of the tomb entrance. While a necessary feature of reaching the tomb, descending stairs are symbolic of the downward and inward journey to the underworld. The stairs were not a visible feature in the room. They would have been filled in and paved over with stone creating a smooth floor, with only an offertory box to indicate what was beneath. This not only made discovery and pillaging difficult, but it also made the journey to the underworld as symbolically difficult as it would be in life. At the bottom of the stairs, was the entrance to the tomb. However, the entrance to Zapotec tombs was not simply a rough hole to crawl through as in other Mesoamerican cultures. The Zapotec tombs had an impressively designed and finished façade. The façade of Tomb 104 which rises about 10 feet from the bottom of the entrance stairs, is divided into three distinctive areas, each having its own meaning. The entrance to the tomb proper was originally sealed with a large stone. There are symbols painted around the entrance on the door jambs. These symbols have been deciphered to mean “blood” (on the narrow areas inset next to the entrance) and on framing the spaces further away from the door, “day” or more generically, “space” – which is to be read that this is a tomb for a person whose life has ended, and his spirit has moved on into space. This interpretation is supported by the remaining façade architecture. The three stepped lintels above the door are symbolic of the spirit rising into the clouds, while the three squared arched shapes above them are indicative of the destination of the spirit in the clouds. Indeed, there is imbedded in the depiction of the clouds, an effigy that may represent the ascended deceased, or a god protecting the tomb and guiding the deceased.

Inside Tomb 104 at the American Museum of Natural History.
Looking into Tomb 104 as reproduced at the American Museum of Natural History.

Effigy figure of tomb 104.
The effigy figure in situ at Tomb 104 at Monte Alban, Mecico.

The effigy figure holds the most prominent position on the façade of the tomb and as it is detailed and the only figurative element, it is clearly the focal point. Originally, the present black clay figure was stuccoed and painted with touches of red. Red is an important color in Zapotec art and architecture since it denotes life, blood and the spirit. It is a color that is used liberally in their art. One of the most interesting details of this façade figure, is that it exhibits both male and female characteristics. It is presented outwardly as male, but certain details: the soft modeling of the face; the hair braided in a traditional female style (still worn by the Mexican women living in the area); the feet being depicted without sandals (an iconographic detail associated with women during this period of Mexican history); the figure wears a scalloped tunic (huipil) and fringed cloak which were traditional female clothing of the Zapotec. The most obvious male characteristics of the figure are the elaborate headdress (worn rituality only by men in Zapotec culture), the fringed bag held in the right hand which is a traditional male Zapotec accessory and the representation of a pectoral ornament depicting a human head with tassels, the design of which seems to be a personal identifier.

Drawing of effigy figure on the facade of Tomb 104 to show details.

Since understanding the meaning of this figure will afford the key to the interpretation of the entire tomb, there have been many theories about who or what this figure represents. It has been suggested that it represents Cocijo, the god of lightening. Cocijo is one of the most important gods in the Zapotec pantheon because he is associated with rainfall. Rainfall is the life sustaining element for agricultural societies. His presence above the entrance to the tomb could be as a protector of the sacred space of the dead. The error of this reading is that Cocijo is inherently a masculine God and not gender fluid. It has also been discussed that the figure shows the wife of the deceased being given the inheritance rights and rulership of the clan. This would account for the duality of gender markers expressed in the sculpture, as the consort of the elite would be taking on a male role of rulership along with her birth gender duties. This would have to indicate that the deceased in the tomb died without male heirs for this to happen in Zapotec society. The problem with this conclusion is that there is no indication that the occupant of this tomb had a wife or children. The tomb contains a single burial and has remained undisturbed since it was sealed. Any wife and or children would have been buried in the tomb and the tomb repainted and reconsecrated at their deaths. A third alternative (which none of my research has broached to explain the gender dualities) seems to be the most logical. It would be that the figure over the tomb is there to identify the interred in his role as an ancestral ruler and intermediary to the gods. He has ascended to the clouds, which was the final resting place of the Zapotec dead. As a representation of the deceased, this would not only indicate who was buried in the tomb but would also impart some interesting personality traits. The transgender characteristics of the figure could be accounted for by his being homosexual or transexual in life where he expressed the roles of both ruler and consort. This gender fluid identity must have been known to the commissioners and builders of the tomb for them to be displayed so prominently. But since it would also be hidden from public view by its location under a palace room, the importance of this information would be accessible only to family and the Gods.

Drawing of the sealing stone of Tomb 104 showing the carved glyphs.
Drwing shoing the glyphs carved onto the back of the stone that sealed the entrance to Tomb 104.

Originally the entrance to the tomb was sealed by two large stones fitted into the entrance. The largest measures 4 feet 3 inches high x 3 feet wide x 9 ½ inches thick. This stone is carved on the front and back. The smaller stone (the dimensions do not seem to have been recorded) has no carving. The carved stone seems to have been reused from another context, as the exterior side carving does not relate to the tomb but may still relate to the deceased’s notable actions while living. The second uncarved stone is apparently a filler stone to complete the sealing of the entrance.

The side of the carved stone that faces the interior can be deciphered to offer the birth and death dates of the departed. The interpreted dates offer an age of 38 years to the buried individual. It has been suggested that given the age of death, and the reusing of an already carved stone for the entrance sealer, that the death was sudden and unforeseen. The suddenness of the death could have made it impossible to have an original stone for the door to be quarried. A more prosaic reason could be given for the reuse of the sealing stone. It was available and large enough so it could be shaped to fit. Quarrying and transporting a fresh stone would take greater effort and expense than reusing a stone that was already convenient. However, the recycling of the entrance stone is another deviation from the standard Zapotec domestic tomb.

Interior of present day Tonmb 104
The interior of Tomb 104 as it looks in present day.

The tomb proper is a cell that measures approximately 6 ½ feet wide by 14 feet deep and is approximately 6 feet high. As mentioned previously, Tomb 104 is the only tomb so far found at Monte Albán that has been found intact and unsealed. The other tombs at this site show evidence of use over time with multiple burials and layers of repainting on the murals. Most have been emptied of their contents and moved by the families when Monte Albán was abandoned. One exception is Tomb 7, which was reused as a temple to the earth/fertility goddess Cihauacoatl several hundreds of years after its abandonment. It is curious, and another anomaly of Tomb 104, that it was not disinterred with the others at the abandonment of Monte Albán. This is further evidence in favor of the deceased dying without heirs or a spouse. Another curious fact of the tomb is that there is only one burial in it. All of the other grave sites held multiple burials (up to six). Here in Tomb 104, there lies only the remains of one male skeleton. He is placed so that his head is toward the back, facing west, while his feet point toward the entrance. In a semi-circle around his feet are five effigy urns: a large one in the center, flanked on each side by two smaller ones. The large urn dominating the center position in front of the feet of the body, shows similarities to the figure adorning the front of the tomb. It wears the same pectoral ornament of a human head with tassels, but this figure is hiding his face behind a snout-serpentine mask and wears a differently detailed headdress. This figurative sculpture found in the interior of the tomb is obscuring their real identity and taking on the role of another more powerful deity. It has been speculated that this sculpture is a representation of the Zapotec corn god Pitao Cozobi, or a priest dressed to impersonate the god. It may even be the deceased himself masked and adorned to portray the god. The representation of the pectoral jewelry appearing on both the figure on the façade and on the interior figure infers that the same person is represented. Due to the presence of the masks, the sculpture is clearly not a representation of the God itself. Its placement in a position of prominence and power just inside the entrance and at the feet of the body, along with its superior size and the complexity of its design in comparison to the other figurative objects in the tomb, indicates it must have a protective function. It would be the first image inside the tomb that would be seen by anyone entering. It would serve as a warning of consequences if the disturbance of the grave were not in some way appeased. The four smaller figures to each side would also serve at the bidding of the dominant one and would need to be placated as well. These ceramic sculptures are built around an open vessel shaped similar to a vase that could readily accept an offering of appeasement of some kind.

Drawing showing the placement of the skeleton and pottery in Tomb 104.
Drawing of Tomb 104 showing the placement of the skeleton and pottery.

Three effigy urns from Tomb 104.
Three of the figurative urns that were placed at the feet of the body in Tomb 104. The large central guardian effigy of Pitao Cozobi is shown in the center.

Carved out of the center of each wall and into the far corners of the tomb are niches which were filled with ceramic eating and cooking vessels left as offerings, although no traces of any food were found in them. On the walls themselves, are painted the murals for which this tomb is famed. Now faded upon being exposed to the air, and the breath and temperature of the public (Tomb 104 is no longer open to the public in hopes of preserving what remains of the murals) the murals were found in pristine condition. On the back wall lording over the imagery of the space is the God Pitao Pezelao, the Zapotec God of the Dead. He is the oppressive and static center of this burial space. His presence exemplifies finality and silence.

Schematic drawing of Tomb 104 wall murals.
Schematic drawing of the murals as they wrap around the three walls of the interior of the Tomb 104.

The Murals themselves are painted in three colors: red, blue and grey (or a white that has dirtied) on a lighter red ground. By the presence of drip marks, it has been speculated that these paintings were executed with haste. Alternatively, the drips could have been as a result of the looseness of medium, or of the inadequacy of the tools used for application. As an artist, I can think of other reasons for the dripping paint than haste. But, when the murals of Tomb 104 are compared with other murals at Monte Albán, they do reveal a roughness of detail and are missing the strong, careful linear elements of others. With the youth of the interred inferring an unexpected death, the assumption of a quick execution of the painting is natural.

The murals can be read as a linear message from front to back. Each side begins with the image of a god. On the right is a representation of Pitao Cozobi, the God of Corn and harvest – the same God who is conjectured to be represented as the large sculptural figure at the feet of the body. On the left is Xipe Totec, the gory God of Spring and new vegetation. The God of beginnings who wears the flayed skin of a human victim, the new skin of the Earth as it regrows in the spring. Visually, Xipe Totec is depicted as thin, befitting his role as the God who begins the growing season, when food would be scarce. Pitao Cozobi on the other hand is rendered as plump, given that his role is one of the harvest when food would be plentiful. All of the implied movement of the elements of the wall paintings is directed toward the back wall to the static image of Pitao Pezelao the God of the Dead who lords in silence. The information on the walls identifies the body as Lord 1 M (first day of the time of Lightning) of the Jaguar lineage. In most Zapotec tombs, the mural imagery and glyphs depict the lineage of the buried, their connection to the living and proof of their ancestral superiority, Tomb 104 does not. Instead, the symbolism and the glyphs depict a particular time of the yearly cycle, the time out of time between the end of the dry season (spring) and the beginning of the wet (growing) as the journey of the deceased through the underworld.

This particular period of the yearly cycle is used as the metaphor for the dying of Lord 1M. It is the time of year when water is at its most scarce in this region of Mexico. It is the 65-day period before the rainy season when it is not time to plant, but a time of fallowness, scarcity and waiting for the rain in order to sow. To plant now would kill the crop before it had started to grow. This iconography is important, since it explains much of what makes this tomb different than the others at Monte Albán. Lord 1M is depicted in the murals as the end of his line. There was no progeny to open his grave and venerate him as an ancestor. This was proven by the undisturbed state of Tomb 104, and the single skeleton inside. Lord 1M has gone to join his ancestors in the clouds who are no longer connected to the living. His life had been fallow and barren as the dry fields waiting for rain. His seed died before it could grow, be harvested and produce heirs.

Tomb 104 is notable among Mesoamerican art and culture for several reasons. Due to the untouched, pristine condition in which it was found, it has provided a wealth of information on the funerary practices of early Mexican civilizations. It is the prime example of early Mesoamerican painting because its murals were never painted over or altered before their discovery in 1937. The tomb was not pillaged or looted by treasure seekers in its 1500-year history, allowing archeologists to get a complete picture of the idea of the Zapotec concept of the afterlife.

There are also many questions that Tomb 104 brings up as well, that we may never have satisfactory answers to. Why was this a solitary burial? All of the other tombs found at Monte Albán were multiple burial sites. As a ruling elite, Lord 1M of the Jaguar clan should have had a consort and heirs, yet all of the evidence indicates that he did not. Why does his identification effigy on the façade of the tomb have both male and female gender markers? This may be the lone indicator of a wife according to some archeologists . If that is so, why did the wife abandon the tomb to time? Even if Lord 1M died without issue, his wife would have been buried with him at her death. Most importantly, why was the tomb buried, paved over and forgotten? The iconographic symbolism and glyph reading in Tomb 104 tells us that Lord 1M was the last of his line to ascend to the clouds. This makes clear that he died without children to inherit the maintenance and veneration of his tomb. But again, what about the wife? Did she remarry and did this void her obligation to her deceased husband? Or was something else not examined by the scholars who have studied this civilization. Unless the evidence is unrefutable, the notion of homosexuality is not a major consideration in the intellectual community. But the iconographic evidence in this situation merits at least an investigation into the possibility that Lord 1M may have had other interests outside the heteronormative.

Tomb 104 stands not only as a rich repository of Zapotec funeral culture, but as a paradigm for Mesoamerican art. Its wealth of pictorial symbolism provides an exemplary understanding into the life of the occupant of the tomb as well as the lives of the people and the civilization that are responsible for its creation. So much of Mesoamerican art and culture has been lost to the Spanish conquest, looting or simply to the ravages of time. That this tomb was forgotten is a tragedy for the interred, but its rediscovery is a miracle of survival. Lord 1M has been rediscovered for modern times. His story provides a glint of the complexity and diversity of all of our ancient forbearers.

Arthur Bruso © 2021

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