Zapotec Urn Sheds Light on Ancient People of Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley

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Clay funerary urn.
Catalog no. 30/6335
D. Finnin/ © AMNH

This striking clay urn was produced by the Zapotec, who lived in one of America's earliest urban civilizations in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley from 300 BC to AD 700. It was one of five urns found above a doorway to a Zapotec tomb in the village of Xoxocotlán during a Museum expedition in 1897, led by the Museum’s first curator of Mexican and Central American archaeology, Marshall Saville, whose work helped establish a foundational knowledge of the Zapotec.

“The Museum has the largest and most important collection of Zapotec urns outside of Mexico itself,” says Charles Spencer, curator in the Division of Anthropology who has worked in Oaxaca since 1971. “The key reason for their scientific significance is straightforward: Most of the urns in our collection were recovered by Saville in the late-19th century using the most sophisticated methods of the time, which included recording the precise archaeological location of each piece and documenting the excavations with photography. As it happens, they were all in funerary contexts, associated with the tombs of high-status individuals. It is the combination of the urns themselves plus their archaeological provenience that has made it possible for contemporary researchers to decipher the function and meaning of the Zapotec urns.”

The urn pictured here most likely represents an ancestor of the deceased wearing the mask of Cocijo, or lightning—the most powerful force in the Zapotec world. It was long thought that the urns represented deities who would guide the spirits of the deceased, but more recent scholarship suggests they reflect the Zapotec culture’s veneration of ancestors. (The Museum’s website for kids, OLogy, explores the discovery and conservation of a similar urn in “Up Close With a Zapotec Urn.”)

Beside serving as clues to the Zapotec culture, the urns in the Museum’s collection are an invaluable resource for a wide range of related Mesoamerican research. Museum conservator Samantha Alderson, for example, has analyzed pigment samples from Zapotec urns to learn more about the painted decoration—work she described in this Facebook Live video. And visiting botanists have studied the impressions of real corn on the urns to understand the evolution of maize and to track trade and cultural contacts.

Visitors to the Museum can see more Zapotec funerary urns and a replica of a Zapotec tomb in the Hall of Mexico and Central America