Timeless Zapotec Design

March 18, 2020  •  20 Comments

Indigenous culture spans many centuries in Mexico, long predating the arrival of Europeans. On a recent trip to the southern state of Oaxaca I was struck by the timeless designs on many of the remaining ancient buildings. Many intricate stone panels adorn the large ceremonial and residential structures at sites such as Mitla including tomb interiors, courtyards and exterior walls. Fortunately many of these remain spectacularly preserved, though many structures were dismantled or destroyed, their stones used to construct newer buildings including European-style churches. 

Mitla TombMitla TombInterior tomb in the Mitlan archeological site. Mitla, OaxacaMitla, OaxacaZapotec architecture in Mitla, Oaxaca.
Looking closely, it became clear that the intricate designs are not carved into large stone blocks, but 3-dimensional mosaics of small blocks pieced together into large, regular patterns creating a very pronounced texture when viewed from some distance. There are many different designs, but all with a consistent, geometrical aesthetic set into very large, multi-story structures themselves made from much larger stone blocks with astoundingly accurate masonry. I had to keep reminding myself that these were produced many centuries ago, all with hand tools.

As remarkable as these structures are, it is fascinating to see the very same designs used in other artforms still being produced today in the same area. Weaving is one of the most important industries in Oaxaca, particularly in the town of Teotitlán del Valle, where several multi-generational families carry on the traditional practices (https://www.etsy.com/shop/MBWeavings).

They produce rugs and other items from local wool, processed and dyed in-house and woven on large, traditional looms by hand. Though traditional natural dyes are still used, they also use synthetic dyes with more vibrant colors.

Drying YarnDrying Yarn



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