1: Destination Mitla

Oaxaca, Mexico
© L. Nicholas
Mitla’s Zocalo

In 1995, the modern town of Mitla became our base of operations for archaeological research in the Valley of Oaxaca (see above photo, and Photo #1 below.) For 17 years, we've driven to Mitla from the Upper Midwest at the outset of every field season. In the first year (1995), we surveyed east of Mitla, beyond the mountains, to provide regional context. Later, we completed detailed maps of three sites, including the Mitla Fortress.

Subsequently, we began a decade of excavations of prehispanic houses at the hilltop settlement of El Palmillo, in the lands of the neighboring community of Santiago Matatlán. This is the third season that we'll be excavating at the Mitla Fortress, which is situated at the western edge of Mitla’s communal land holdings.

Mitla today is a town of roughly 8,000 people. Situated at the eastern edge of the Valley of Oaxaca, it has long been a center of exchange and commerce, a role that likely extends back to prehispanic times. For centuries, Mitla has had a history as a mecca for tourists and anthropologists, largely because of its spectacular prehispanic ruins that sit right within the modern town (see Photos #2 and #3 below.)

These ruins, which feature more than 500-year-old palaces with incredible cut-stone facades, today are protected as a Mexican Archaeological Zone, a site designated by the federal government. The ruins are situated on a narrow cobblestone street across from the house where my wife and research partner, Linda Nicholas, and I live and rent when we're here.

To the west, only a few kilometers away and within our view on the hot, dry days of mid-March, stands the Mitla Fortress. This prehispanic hilltop settlement is within Mexico’s most recently recognized locality, the Prehistoric Caves and Landscape of Yagul and Mitla, on UNESCO’s treasured list of the World’s Patrimony.

Our experience with Mitla and its people actually extends farther back in time than 1995. In 1977, when, as a graduate student, I first was part of an archaeological team in this large Mexican valley, I had the good fortune to make several visits to the Mitla ruins and to savor the home cooking of Doña Alicia Olivera, the wife of a now deceased field colleague and friend, Fausto Olivera. She and her family still live in the nearby village of Xaaga (a dependency of Mitla).

In those early days, occasionally we would stop in Mitla, whose streets at that time were all unpaved, lined by house lots that were ringed with fences made of tall cactus (rather than the stone, brick, and concrete walls that surround most family dwellings today). We would take a Mitla field trip on a Sunday to visit the famous ruins, as well as the Frizzell Museum, which hopefully will reopen this year after being closed for more than a decade.

In point of fact, the Frizzell Museum itself has a long anthropological history. Once the guesthouse, La Sorpresa, it was the base camp for the pioneering anthropologist, Elsie Clews Parsons, who studied Mitla in the 1920s. Parsons’ tome, Mitla: Town of Souls, stands as an incredible record of the Zapotec people of this community at that time. Later, the same building housed archaeological crews led by famous scholars, including Kent Flannery and the late John Paddock.

With recollections of these experiences in our heads, Linda and I set off for Mitla. As with so many times before, we were focused on old and new research questions regarding the history and economy of the people who lived at the Mitla Fortress. And while brimming with excitement to see old friends and start a new project season, we were also tinged with a touch of anxiety reflecting events in the news and the potential for unexpected challenges….

More soon,

© L. Nicholas
Picturesque View
© L. Nicholas
Prehispanic Palace
© L. Nicholas
Mosaic Detail