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Deconstructing a Zapotec Figurine

March/April 2013



The site of Atzompa in southern Mexico was a suburb of the great Zapotec capital city of Monte Albán 1,200 years ago, when a man and a woman were laid to rest there in an elaborately painted tomb (“High Rise of the Dead,” November/December 2012). Recently, a team from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History finished excavating a colorful figurine from among the objects left with the deceased. Some researchers believe it may be an image of the man buried there, or of one of his ancestors. Interpretation of the figurine’s clothing, jewelry, and vivid coloration has much to say about Zapotec culture.


The seated statue is more than 30 inches tall and wears an elaborate headdress that would have been part of a costume symbolizing a person’s name and station within Zapotec society. According to Marc Zender, an expert in Mesoamerican iconography at Tulane University, painted figurines similar to this one were not rare among the Zapotec, but the variety of pigments used on this one seems to be something special.


A bar with three dots on the figurine’s apron is a glyph that represents the number eight. Above that is a circular glyph that means “earthquake” or “tremor.” Zender explains that the symbols spell out the day in the Zapotec ritual calendar when the person was born, and would also have been his name: Eight Tremor.