Monday, August 22, 2011

Mitla, 7.

In the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings

If we ever found the tomb, what might be there?  I doubt that there is any gold.  The Spanish were diligent looters.  They felt that they had taken great risks against long odds and won, and that it was only fair that they reap their winnings, and did so with small notice, lest the King and the Church get their hands in.  Almost all tombs were looted in the early colonial period and scant record kept.
    What remains, though, would be a treasure chamber for archæologists, a royal mortuary sealed soon after the fact, when it was still revered and respected by those who lived around it.  If the chambers were cool and moist as Burgoa’s account says they were, this would not be good for preservation, but who knows what accidental survivals might remain in an untouched tomb.  The written record of the Indian era depends so much on what a few friars wrote of what the Indians told them, and the archæological record is limited to those things hard enough to survive, but here there could be fabric or feathered capes and intact bones and, since the Zapotec had a writing system, perhaps documents written on paper or linen, perhaps wooden objects, and certainly a profusion of pottery still in place.  There would have been the action of mold and bacteria and probably insects, but likely no animals to disturb these funerary arrays.  Everything that survives will be in perfect context.  A time capsule of a world five hundred years removed.  I am sometimes skeptical of the archæologists’ claim that they own the past, but I would give them this one.

Unlike their earlier, more robust predecessors, today’s archæologists are loath to hint that there might be any gold, lest the site be destroyed by looters in their absence.  I don’t think that will be a problem here, both because there still seems a respect for the site among the Indians, as well as having a thick, heavy 18th-Century church sitting on top of its likely entrance.  Some years back, excavations at the Zapotec site at Zaachila ended abruptly when angry Indians chased off the archæologists: for some reason, stories like that appeal to me.

And the speculation that the entry to the royal tomb was covered over by the church is not a new idea in Mitla.  Like the underground passageway and the great opening that was filled when the church was built, it is a story that people there have grown up with and give as much credence as they do any old story about things that don’t affect them or treasures that are hidden out of reach.

In researching something like this, you can’t help but notice things that haven’t been tried, and think how you would do it.  But as for myself, I am just as happy that it hasn’t been found, not just yet.  It’s not going anywhere and our ability to extract information from sites gets better all the time, so there’s no hurry.  And I enjoy imagining the Zapotec kings and priests and the great lords who died in battle all sitting together holding court in their dark domain, unconcerned if we ever find them.

[The seven posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings at Mitla" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]   

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