Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán Municipality in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The site is located on a low mountainous range rising above the plain in the central section of the Valley of Oaxaca where the latter's northern Etla, eastern Tlacolula, and southern Zimatlán & Ocotlán (or Valle Grande) branches meet. The present-day state capital Oaxaca City is located approximately 9 km (6 mi) east of Monte Albán.
The partially excavated civic-ceremonial center of the Monte Albán site is situated atop an artificially-leveled ridge, which with an elevation of about 1,940 m (6,400 ft) above mean sea level rises some 400 m (1,300 ft) from the valley floor, in an easily defensible location.
In addition to the aforementioned monumental core, the site is characterized by several hundred artificial terraces, and a dozen clusters of mounded architecture covering the entire ridgeline and surrounding flanks (Blanton 1978). The archaeological ruins on the nearby Atzompa and El Gallo hills to the north are traditionally considered to be an integral part of the ancient city as well.
The etymology of the site's present-day name is unclear, and tentative suggestions regarding its origin range from a presumed corruption of a native Zapotec name such as “Danibaan” (Sacred Hill) to a colonial-era reference to a Spanish soldier by the name Montalbán or to the Alban Hills of Italy. The ancient Zapotec name of the city is not known, as abandonment occurred centuries before the writing of the earliest available ethnohistorical sources.
As indicated by Blanton's survey of the site, the Monte Albán hills appear to have been uninhabited prior to 500 BC (the end of the Rosario ceramic phase). At that time, San José Mogote was the major population center in the valley and head of a chiefdom that likely controlled much of the northern Etla branch (Marcus and Flannery 1996).
Perhaps as many as three or four other smaller chiefly centers controlled other sub-regions of the valley, including Tilcajete in the southern Valle Grande branch and Yegüih in the Tlacolula arm to the east. Competition and warfare seem to have characterized the Rosario phase, and the regional survey data suggests the existence of an unoccupied buffer zone between the San José Mogote chiefdom and those to the south and east (Marcus and Flannery 1996).
The monumental center of Monte Albán is the Main Plaza, which measures approximately 300 meters by 200 meters. The site's main civic-ceremonial and elite-residential structures are located around it or in its immediate vicinity, and most of these have been explored and restored by Alfonso Caso and his colleagues. To the north and south the Main Plaza is delimited by large platforms accessible from the plaza via monumental staircases.
On its eastern and western sides the plaza is similarly bounded by a number of smaller platform mounds on which stood temples and elite residences, as well as one of two ballcourts known to have existed at the site. A north-south spine of mounds occupies the center of the plaza and similarly served as platforms for ceremonial structures.
The primary threat to this archaeological site is urban growth that is encroaching and "threatening to expand into territories that have potential archaeological value." To complicate matters, the administration of the site is divided amongst four different municipalities, making a unified effort to stop the urban encroachment challenging.