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decorative geometric design
decorative geometric design
decorative geometric design

Up Close With a Zapotec Urn

Lucy holding a clipboard and pen

Hi, I'm Lucy, and I'm at the American Museum of Natural History. Today I'm interviewing an urn made by the Zapotec people of ancient Mexico. Come with me as I ask about his not-so-humble beginnings, his amazing discovery, and the responsibilities of being an ancient artifact.

Zapotec Urn outside collection cabinet

Lucy: Before we begin, some folks out there might not know what an urn is. How would you describe yourself?

Zapotec urn from the back side

Zapotec Urn: Well, Lucy, like other Zapotec urns , I'm a ceramic jar. Many people are so taken by my ravishing design that they don't notice the big vase attached to my back.

Lucy: Now, rumor has it you were found in a tomb. What would an urn be doing there?

Zapotec Urn: You see, I'm not your average urn. People called the Zapotecs created me for a very special purpose. I was made to honor a noble (a person of the highest class) who died. That person was placed in a fancy tomb, and I was among the precious treasures buried with him.

Lucy: Tell me about these Zapotecs. Are they related to the Zapotekis of Minneapolis?

Zapotec Urn: Um, no. The Zapotecs weren't a family. In fact, they were a native people who founded one of Mexico's earliest civilizations. They lived in the Valley of Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka), nestled in the mountains in southern Mexico .

Lucy: It sounds like the Zapotecs were around a long time ago. Exactly how old are you?

Zapotec Urn: Well, Lucy, if you don't mind, I'd rather not reveal my exact age. But I will tell you that the tomb in which I was found dates from somewhere between A.D. 200 and A.D. 700.

Lucy: You must have known those Aztecs! What were they like?

Zapotec Urn: (Sigh.) Those Aztecs seem to get all the attention! What is so interesting about them, anyway? The Zapotecs were building cities and carving hieroglyphs over a thousand years before the  Aztec empire ! But I can see how you'd compare us, since we both lived in what is now Mexico.

Lucy: Were there a lot of Zapotecs?

Monte Alban

Zapotec Urn: There sure were, Lucy! During their "golden age," from A.D. 200-700, they had one of the largest states in the region. About 20,000 people lived in the magnificent capital of Monte Alban, and there were many times that number living in farming villages.

Image Credits:

Lucy, Zapotec Urn and cabinet, courtesy of AMNH / Craig Chesek; Monte Alban, courtesy of AMNH.