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Some of the Mitla mosaics.

Mitla Mosaics: A Coded Language May Plaster the Walls of a Zapotec City of the Dead


Unique and curious designs plaster the walls of the most popular Zapotec archaeological site in Mexico. They are called the Mitla mosaics and are unrivalled in their precision and quality of workmanship. But a mystery surrounds the carved symbols as some researchers suggest they contain a coded language just waiting to be deciphered.

Pre-Columbian Mitla

Mitla is an archaeological site located in Oaxaca, a state in the southwestern part of Mexico. This site was probably in use since Zapotec times. The unique feature of Mitla is the presence of mosaics decorating the surfaces of various buildings, which is uncommon for a pre-Columbian culture of Mesoamerica.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Mitla was known as Mictlán, which, translated from the Nahuatl, meant ‘Place of the Dead’ or ‘Underworld’. For the Zapotecs, another pre-Columbian culture that inhabited that region from around 500 BC to 900 AD, Mitla was called Lyobaa, which meant ‘Place of Rest’. These names are an indication of the original function of the site, i.e. a burial site.

Palace in Mitla, Mexico, with original paint on the walls.

Palace in Mitla, Mexico, with original paint on the walls. (CC BY 2.0)

Mitla could have been occupied by human beings as early as the 10th century BC. The visible structural remains of the site, however, have been dated to between 200 and 900 AD. During this period, Mitla was under Zapotec rule. Ownership of this site changed hands form the Zapotecs to the Mixtecs, though the former would regain Mitla, and then finally lose it to the Spanish.

Five Groups of Mitla Mosaics

Mosaics can be found adorning a number of different buildings in Mitla, which may be divided into five distinct groups – the Southern Group, the Clay Group, the Creek Group, the Columns Group, and the Church Group. Of these, the mosaics of the Church Group and the Columns Group are the most impressive.

The Church Group is also known as the North Group and is situated at the entrance of the site. The name of this group is derived from the Church of San Pablo, which was built by the Spanish during the 16th century. Interestingly, it was believed that the lord and the lady of the Underworld lived in that area, hence the church was built to keep these entities from escaping into the human world. As for the Columns Group, this complex is located to the south of the Church Group. The main building of this complex is called the Palace / the Grand Hall of Columns and is believed to have been the residence of the high priest.

Church of San Pablo (1590), built on top of a pre-Hispanic structure including some of the mosaics.

Church of San Pablo (1590), built on top of a pre-Hispanic structure including some of the mosaics. (CC BY SA 2.0)

Unlike famous Roman mosaics, which were created using pieces of tesserae, the mosaics of Mitla were made with pieces of cut-stone that were inlaid onto panels. Alternatively, these works of art have been referred to as fretwork. In any case, the designs of the Mitla mosaics is known as step-fret designs, which are like those produced by civilizations in the Old World, such as Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians.

Part of the mosaics of the Mitla Columns Group.

Part of the mosaics of the Mitla Columns Group. (CC BY SA 1.0)

Meaning of the Mitla Mosaics

The mosaics of Mitla consist of six basic patterns. These individual designs are bound together in horizontal bands and each panel contains three of these bands, each of a different design. This meant that over 100 permutations could be achieved with these simple designs. It has been suggested by some that within the complexity of these mosaics is a coded language. This hypothesis, however, has yet to be proven.

Mitla mosaics.

Mitla mosaics. (DavidConFran/CC BY SA 3.0)

Finally, one should consider the conspicuous consumption that the Mitla Mosaics were meant to display. Even with the technology available to us today, the scale on which the buildings at Mitla were decorated with mosaics would have been extremely expensive. This cost would have been outrageous, considering that the mosaic makers had only chisels, hammers, and their own strength at their disposal.

Some researchers say this labor-intensive technique was required as there was a deeply religious or symbolic reason behind it, or that it was meant as a display of power and wealth for the city’s ruling class. The latter interpretation has been favored, as Mitla was probably the most important Zapotec religious center and the city’s elites sought to impress pilgrims who made the journey to this holy city.

An example of Mitla mosaic.

An example of Mitla mosaic. (CC BY 2.0)

Top image: Some of the Mitla mosaics. Source: DavidConFran/CC BY SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren 


DeLange, G. & DeLange, E., 2017. Mitla Archaeological Ruins. [Online]
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Heyworth, R., 2014. Mitla: The Mysterious Stepped-Fret Mosaics. [Online]
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Kultermann, A., 2003. Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico. [Online]
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Lonely Planet, 2017. Mitla. [Online]
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Sullivan, M. A., 2009. Archaeological site of Mitla--page 1 (of four pages). [Online]
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The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 1998. Mitla. [Online]
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chris6a2's picture

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great article by the way.

The expense of putting mosaics in huge numbers may not have been an issue. Today in an Italian family, children help in the kitchen. I know when making gnocchi the entire family gets involved in the kitchen making these small potato dumplings. This teaches the children how to cook for the next generation. So if you are a mason, you might have a bunch of children working on cosmetic things to train them on how to sculpture in a small scale and then use their carvings as a mosaic to show off their work. Unfortunately, I may not have been quite the artist and my mother never hung my artwork on the refrigerator, but that maybe the reason I pursued a different career.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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