Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Pre-Hispanic tombs show Oaxaca town was once a major Zapotec capital

Today, San Pedro Nexicho is just a quiet, 150-person town in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juárez mountains but thanks to new archaeological finds, researchers are increasingly sure that it was one of the largest and most important settlements in the region before the Spanish Conquest.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has recently uncovered five ancient Zapotec tombs, bringing the total number of burial monuments found in the area to 12. The number and elaborate nature of the tombs show the wealth and importance of the pre-Hispanic settlement, which was once the capital of the Ixtepeji fiefdom.

INAH archaeologists restore murals in one of the tombs.
INAH archaeologists restore murals in one of the tombs. (INAH)

INAH archaeologist Dr. Nelly Robles García said that after receiving an alert of irregular activity in some of the tombs from the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation (FAHHO), the INAH Oaxaca Center commissioned a group of professionals to appraise four rectangular tombs and one cruciform. These tombs have now been restored and have new covers and accesses.

Work in the field was done between 2015 and 2020, Robles said, adding that the analysis of the archaeological materials is now underway. Upcoming publications on the matter will delve into the importance of San Pedro Nexicho during the pre-Hispanic era with emphasis on its interaction with the Valley of Oaxaca and the Mixteca, she said.

Robles, a specialist in pre-Hispanic cultures of Oaxaca, explained that the largest tomb, identified as Tomb 1, has a cruciform shape, and is located on what once was a residential terrace. When it was discovered in 2010 by someone living nearby, the tomb was found to be looted. However, some materials that were part of the funerary paraphernalia were found and restored, such as a small gold bead and splendid murals. Specialists have rehabilitated the architectural structure and restored the mural painting on the floor.

The tombs of San Pedro Nexicho were occupied between the Classic and Postclassic periods (A.D. 200 to 1521). In this sense, “they will provide us with clues on the themes elite tombs used at that time to add them to the map that include the tombs found in sites like Monte Albán, Atzompa and Suchiquiltongo in the Valley of Oaxaca,” Robles said.

A stone mask or head, approximately 25 cm wide and 40 cm tall, with a ruler for scale.
Though some of the tombs had been looted, investigators found a variety of significant artifacts, including this stone figure. (INAH)

In three of the tombs, few materials were recovered —  just a few small pieces like local ceramic miniatures, shell and foreign green stone. But two of the tombs were intact including bone material. Despite poor conditions due to moisture that entered over the last five centuries, these materials will provide data about its former inhabitants.

One of the halls of the Community Museum of San Pedro Nexicho is now home to the first archaeology workspace in the  Sierra Juárez, which Robles said will help show that Nexicho, ancient capital of the Ixtepeji fiefdom, was an important enclave on the commercial route of the Zapotec border.

The project to rescue, investigate, register and preserve these funerary monuments was developed by the Ministry of Culture through the INAH Oaxaca Center with financial support from the foundation FAHHO.

With reports from INAH

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