the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings at Mitla

1. Burgoa’s Geográfica 

I had gone with Miguel Audiffred to the great Zapotec site at Monte Alban, just a few miles outside Oaxaca.  It was early in the morning and the few other people there were swallowed up in the immensity of the site and it was as if we had it to ourselves which, pleasing as it might be to a certain sort of romantic, is not at all authentic to the place, and I listened to Miguel’s descriptions and tried to fill the empty, grassy space with a teeming multitude of Indians dressed in fancy-patterned textiles and bright feathers and the platforms topped with tented pavilions and flags and here and there the glint of gold, and charcoal braziers and copal incense smoking the air and the babble of voices and the sounds of drums and flutes and whistles and the noises of animals and the shriek of birds, instead of the bare, silent stone work that was all there was left, and so much of that with the tell-tale black pebbles set in the mortar to indicate that it was an archæologist’s reconstruction, their best-guess as to what had once been there but now lost. 

Miguel was talking about the Indian cult of the underworld and mentioned that there was a tradition of an underground passageway connecting Monte Alban with the ancient burial place of the Zapotec kings about thirty-five miles away, at Mitla.  No such a tunnel has ever been found, he said, but the historian Burgoa, an early friar, described an entry into the tomb at Mitla where they found a pillared chamber and broad highway, but were frightened away when a wind came up and blew out their torches.  He said that I could find the account in Burgoa’s Geográfica, of which there was a copy in the library at the Art Institute.  And so I was out early the next morning to the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, and in its long, narrow library I found a beautiful facsimile edition of fray Francisco de Burgoa’s Geográfica Descripción, printed in Mexico City in the year 1674, and there I found the story.

A party of friars came to the city and, though the Gospel had been preached there, they found the natives still wed to their former, lamentable practices and worshiping the devil, particularly at a great opening in the earth which they vainly supposed connected to the domain of the dead in the underworld.  Intending to dispel this ignorance, the friars, full of zeal, took torches and entered this “gloomy concavity” where they descended wide steps and found themselves in a hall whose ceiling was supported by great pillars and there was what appeared to be a broad street.  They continued their descent.  The air was full of noxious odors. Then suddenly a chill wind came up and extinguished their torches, plunging them into darkness, whereupon the friars retreated in great haste and ordered this “infernal postillion”  --  this backdoor to hell  --  sealed up, which Burgoa tells us was done “con cal y cantos”, with cement and songs.

Well, now.  That was exciting.

2. Something odd at Mitla

Mitla is a small town about thirty miles from Oaxaca.  Its name is interpreted to mean “the place of the dead,” indicating that there are tombs there.  It was first inhabited perhaps 10,000 years ago and is the oldest settled place in the valley.  Before the coming of the Spanish it was an important town and was the burial place of the Zapotec kings, the last of which occurred in 1529, at the very beginning of the colonial era.

The archæological site is located a short distance from the center of the modern town, across a shallow river on higher ground to the north, and consists of five groups of three or four long, low structures on raised platforms, some decorated with elaborate stonework.  The northern-most, situate on the highest ground, is today called the Group of the Catholic Establishment and contains the church of San Pablo, built in 1760.

The Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente visited the place in 1533, when it was apparently still in use, and left a description of its monumental architecture.  A Relación dealing with the inhabitants and their practices was submitted in 1580, in response to Phillip II’s general inquiry as to conditions in his vast realms.  Then, a century later, we have Burgoa’s account, describing its architecture and the religious practices of its inhabitants. These three sources account for most of what is known of Mitla’s early history.

In 1936, the American anthropologist Elsie Parsons translated its name more poetically as the Town of Souls and another translation of the Zapotec original would read it as the House of Souls, but for a place so named, curiously few tombs have been found there.

3. a Portal to the Underworld

Driving south along the Pan American Highway toward Mitla, I noticed the hills riddled with caves.  The volcanic stone (which overlays limestone) is apparently cavity-prone (as limestone also famously is).  The long cavern said to connect to Monte Alban could have been an ancient lava tube; many are known in Mexico and some are quite long.

There is a church in the center of the modern town, across the river from the ruins, but I was told that it had not been popular with the Indians, who had preferred to make observances on the patio of the northern-most site, which is the reason that the present church of San Pablo was built there.  The present church, built in the ruins, was not there in Burgoa’s time, but was constructed about a century later, in 1760.  I was told in Mitla that there was a tradition that when the church was built a large hole had to be filled.  These are just stories I was told when I was there and I have no scholarly authority behind them.

Given the importance of the great hole as an entrance to the Underworld, the reason for Mitla’s prominence, it is only natural that I should want to see this place.

At Eleusis in Greece there was also an ancient portal to the Underworld, the Ploutonion, through which Hades had carried Persephone to his dark domains.  When I was at Eleusis I of course craved admission to these infernal realms and went there and was disappointed to find a shallow cave littered with empty plastic bottles.  I assumed I would find some similar disappointment at Mitla, but I did not.

Indeed, I did not find anything subterranean at Mitla.  This “gloomy concavity” which Burgoa had speculated might have been either a natural phenomenon or a relic of the Biblical flood  --  this portal to the Underworld whose access was controlled by a high priest who brokered power among the neighboring kings  --  was nowhere to be found.

There was neither a hole nor a sealed-up hole.  There was nothing.

I read in a guidebook that the royal tombs were in a chamber beneath the Palace of the Columns, but this chamber in no way resembles Burgoa’s description.  There was no broad staircase or columned hall or street nor anyplace a chill wind might arise to blow out their torches. The chamber pointed out to us today is short and cramped and the air is hot and still, and it is so shallow that light from the entrance reaches the back of the chamber.  The Spaniards knew what a tomb looked like and this is not what they were describing.  Even the archæologist who first surveyed the chamber remarked that it did not much resemble Burgoa’s description.

So where is that place, that royal tomb, that frightening portal to the Underworld that Burgoa described in 1674?

4.  Among old books.

I poked around Mitla for several days, examining walls and taking photographs and making drawings, prodding foundations with my walking stick, looking for trapdoors and tugging on suspicious wall sconces and finally decided that there was nothing I was doing at the site to find the tomb that generations of Zapotec school boys couldn’t have done better and undoubtedly already had.  So I decided to do something I was more competent at, and went looking for more books.

Burgoa’s 1674 Geografica I had already found in the library at the Grafica.  I next went to the library at Instituto Welte, in those days in a warren of small rooms around a central patio in the interior of a colonial building near the church of Santo Domingo.  While the Welte is now in new quarters and even has a website, its library was at that time still dark and cramped and maps and field notes and unpublished papers were being unpacked from wooden crates and I thought the whole thing delightfully romantic.

    The Institute was the creation of a retired American admiral who came to Mexico, took a degree in anthropology and concentrated on the cultural history of the Valley of Oaxaca.  His personal library of some 6,000 volumes went to make up the core of the Institute.

    In those days I had not discovered the ease of online research and so everything was done with pencil and yellow pad and searching out books and rummaging through boxes and folders of loose papers and getting not quite as dirty as you might if you were out in the field digging, and of course you were sitting down in the shade and there probably weren’t any scorpions under the library table, though being Mexico you probably ought not count on that.

    I knew that there had been a report on Mitla prepared toward the end of the 16th Century in response to a general inquiry as to conditions in the Spanish realms and with the help of the efficient German librarian I found La Relación de Tlacolula y Mitla, which apparently told everything the local authorities thought worth knowing about Mitla in 1580.

    The first thing I noticed was that Mitla got second billing, and as I read the document I noticed that the Relación does not mention the burial of kings, the presence of a high priest or anything else recognizable as Mitla in preHispanic times.  It seems entirely concerned with conditions in 1580, when the cult connected with the tomb appears no longer to be practiced.

    Which brought me back to a problem with Burgoa’s lively account.   I am a duffer at Spanish and while I have no problem with a newspaper I realize that there might be nuances in a 17th Century text that escaped me.  Furthermore, Burgoa may have had stylistic if not theological reservations about periods, as he so seldom used any, and his description of the events at Mitla were a few hundred words embedded in a 4,000-word sentence.  That said, it was clear to me that in the story of the entrance into the tomb the good friar was not claiming to describe anything he saw or took part in, but was telling a story of something that had happened to another group of friars at some unspecified time in the past.

    This suggests that the lively conditions described by Burgoa had ceased by his time, supporting the possibility that the incident Burgoa described occurred prior to that date, perhaps as early as Toribio’s visit in 1533.

    Another reason to consider this possibility is that the friars he described did not cover themselves with glory and Burgoa, a Dominican, may have been enjoying a story at the expense of Toribio’s Franciscans.

    This suggests to me the strong possibility that the Zapotec’s entrance to the Underworld was closed by Toribio’s party in 1533, or sometime not long thereafter, and Mitla, known already to be in decline, lost its remaining purpose and was sinking into obscurity a half-century later when the Relación was prepared.

Which may give us an idea when the entrance to the Underworld might have been closed, but of course we still don’t know where it was.

5.  Where else could the Tomb be?

I hate to play the autodidact, but it seems clear to me where the tomb is.  It is where the Indians had traditionally focused their piety and where, in consequence thereof, and in keeping with its almost universal practice, the Church had appropriated a pagan holy place to the use of the new faith.  It is the only significant area of the ancient site that may not be examined as it was in pre-Hispanic times.  Its entrance, first sealed by the agitated friars “con cal y cantos” was later sealed up definitively and is now utterly beyond our reach because it has a very heavy 18th Century church sitting on top of it.  The entrance to the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings, the great entrance to the Underworld at Mitla, is underneath the church of San Pablo on the patio of the northern-most ruins, the Group of the Catholic Establishment.

We know as surely as we know anything of the pre-Hispanic period that there was such an entrance to the Underworld at Mitla and this would appear to be the only place it could have been.  Burgoa, a native of nearby Oaxaca, apparently could still see enough of the entrance in his time to think it a natural feature, and all of the details of the friars’ adventure are of the entrance into a deep, natural opening in the earth.  No man-made structure is going to be deep enough to give rise to a wind that would blow out their torches, a chill wind that had been a long time underground.

As you stand in the nave of the church of San Pablo you may be only ten yards from the entrance to the Lost Tomb of the Zapotec Kings, but it might as well be on the moon.  You cannot go from there to there.

The Church, so much abused in Mexico, is not disposed to idle burrowing.  Ground-penetrating radar will almost certainly reveal underground chambers, but the geology of the area is such that natural concavities will show up most anywhere, and the tomb is almost certainly a natural concavity.

So how do we get to the tomb, this lost Tomb of the Zapotec Kings?

If we give any credence to Burgoa’s account of a strong, chill wind arising out of the chamber it would appear that the tomb lies at an entrance to a vast underground system.  It is situate in an area whose geology  --  lava flows overlaying limestone  --  ought be rife with underground chambers formed by flowing lava and underground waterways cutting through natural limestone.

Lava flows cool and harden on the top and this insulates the heated flow within, which continues on, eventually leaving behind an empty tube.  There is one in Hawaii fifty miles long.  There are many lava tubes in Mexico.  And one tube can break through into another.   And rainwater seeping into limestone can dissolve out passageways hundreds of miles long.

Can it be reasonable to think that an underground passageway that broke surface at Mitla has no other entrance?  Particularly if it is a lava tube, as these tend to be close to the surface.  And that these entrances have not been noticed?

6.   Is there another entrance?

If there is an 18th-Century church sitting on top of the entrance to the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings, effectively closing it to us, is there another entrance?

What of that first story I heard, that there was an underground passageway from Monte Alban to Mitla?  No one knows where it is, of course, but ought that discourage us?  Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervasive tradition of underground passageways connecting sacred Indian sites.  In the Yucatán I was told the same thing about their sacred sites and also that, unfortunately, no such passageway had ever been found.  Of course that was a few years ago, and since then extensive natural underground passageways have been found in the limestone bedrock of the Yucatán.  It is true that they do not actually connect any sacred sites, but they are down there and are far from fully explored.

In the libraries at the Welte and the Grafica, trudging through the long march of later primary and secondary sources  --  which were interesting without being that helpful  --  I discovered Mexico South, a book about the Isthmus of Tehuantepec by the artist Miguel Covarrubias, which delighted me because I remembered him from my childhood as the illustrator whose distinctive work  --  unlike anything I had ever seen before  --  appeared in some of the high-tone magazines my father had around the house.  His book was a memento of that more gracious time when anthropology was not the exclusive reserve of the professoriat, but something that any well-educated and motivated person could respectably try his hand at.  One of many stories that Corvarrubias told was that of the Mixtec hero Condoy, cornered not far from here by his enemies, who fled into a cave and escaped through its vast tunnels to a distant place.  The Indians thought these tunnels went somewhere, though we have no clear evidence that they ever actually followed them very far.  And besides, for the Indians such things were not about geology but about something much more important: about their relationship to the domain of the gods from which their ancient ancestors had emerged and to which they return them in death.

There is not far away a site whose Indian name, Zetobaa, means “the other sepulcre”, an entrance to the Underworld where were buried important persons not imminent enough to be interred at Mitla with the kings, priests and great lords who died in battle.  While this entrance is aledgedly connected to the Underworld, it was not suggested that it also went to Mitla.  There was another ancient site, visited by a friar in 1630, who described a large entrance into a mountain with painted walls, wide enough for two horsemen to enter abreast, which the Indians told him communicated by underground passageway to Mitla.  I find no reference to any archæological work having been done there, and it is in an area where I was told that marijuana is grown and visitors are unwelcome.

In the limestone mountains of the Zapotec Sierra there are caves everywhere.  Most are undoubtedly shallow and go nowhere; but most are also unexplored.  That we know of, at least.  But the main north-south highway goes right up the Valley and I have no doubt that narcotraficantes, who cultivate marijuana in the rugged hills, have investigated some of these caves, and may well feel proprietary toward them.

But if the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings is there, underneath the thick stone foundations of the Church of San Pablo, just tantalizingly beyond our reach, what would we find if we ever reached it?

7.  In the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings

If we ever found the tomb, what might be there?  I doubt that there is any gold.  The Spanish were diligent looters.  They felt that they had taken great risks against long odds and won, and that it was only fair that they reap their winnings, and did so with small notice, lest the King and the Church get their hands in.  Almost all tombs were looted in the early colonial period and scant record kept.
    What remains, though, would be a treasure chamber for archæologists, a royal mortuary sealed soon after the fact, when it was still revered and respected by those who lived around it.  If the chambers were cool and moist as Burgoa’s account says they were, this would not be good for preservation, but who knows what accidental survivals might remain in an untouched tomb.  The written record of the Indian era depends so much on what a few friars wrote of what the Indians told them, and the archæological record is limited to those things hard enough to survive, but here there could be fabric or feathered capes and intact bones and, since the Zapotec had a writing system, perhaps documents written on paper or linen, perhaps wooden objects, and certainly a profusion of pottery still in place.  There would have been the action of mold and bacteria and probably insects, but likely no animals to disturb these funerary arrays.  Everything that survives will be in perfect context.  A time capsule of a world five hundred years removed.  I am sometimes skeptical of the archæologists’ claim that they own the past, but I would give them this one.

Today’s archæologists are loathe to hint that there might be any gold, lest the site be destroyed by looters in their absence.  I don’t think that will be a problem here, both because there still seems a respect for the site among the Indians, as well as having a thick, heavy 18th-Century church sitting on top of its likely entrance.  Some years back, excavations at the Zapotec site at Zaachila ended abruptly when angry Indians chased off the archæologists: for some reason, stories like that appeal to me.

And the speculation that the entry to the royal tomb was covered over by the church is not a new idea in Mitla.  Like the underground passageway and the great opening that was filled when the church was built, it is a story that people there have grown up with and give as much credence as they do any old story about things that don’t affect them or treasures that are hidden out of reach.

In researching something like this, you can’t help but notice things that haven’t been tried, and think how you would do it.  But as for myself, I am just as happy that it hasn’t been found, not just yet.  It’s not going anywhere and our ability to extract information from sites gets better all the time, so there’s no hurry.  And I enjoy imagining the Zapotec kings and priests and the great lords who died in battle all sitting together holding court in their dark domain, unconcerned if we ever find them.

Copyright  Davis Keeler , 2011.