The main entrance to the "Columns Group" at the ancient site of Mitla. [Photo by Author]
The archaeological site of Mitla is among the better known to travelers and explorers of ancient Mesoamerica since at least the early 18th Century, when its constructions were first sketched and described. The site is unique for its peculiar megalithic architecture and stone mosaics, which are found in a remarkable state of preservation. This is due to the structures being in uninterrupted use for centuries after the Spanish conquest and almost to the present day.
The origins of Mitla are unknown. Although most of the structures visible today may date to the Post-Classic period (9th-12th Century AD), prehistoric cliff paintings and traces of human habitation in the area date at least to 3,000 BC (Caballito Blanco and Yagul).
The present ruins of Mitla are clustered around four main palatial groups, sharing a similar plan consisting of three to four structures facing a central courtyard. These are known as the “Church Group”, the “Arroyo Group”, the “Adobe Group” and the “Columns Group”. The most remarkable feature of these structures is the exceptional quality of the stone workmanship and the use of extremely large megalithic stones. The walls of the structures are lined with beautiful and exceedingly intricate stone mosaics, perhaps in the imitation of textiles. Thousands of perfectly cut, polished and fitted stones were employed for the realization of each mosaic panel. In some cases, the walls were painted in what archaeologists have labelled as “Codex style”, for its similarity with the coeval Mixtec codices and manuscripts.
|Another view taken from the East side of the "Columns Group", also showing part of the high podium that sustains the structures above. [Photo by Author]|
|A view of the main pillared hall inside the “Columns Group”. Each one of the massive basalt columns visible in the picture has an estimated weight of over 15 tons and an height of between 4 and 5 meters. [Photo by Author]|
|A view into one of the side chambers of the “Columns Group”, showing more of the intricate mosaics and sculpted decoration on the inner walls. [Photo by Author]|
|Another particular of the same doorway, seen from the front. [Photo by Author]|
Some of the monolithic lintels employed in the palaces, particularly the “Columns Group”, measure as much as 6 meters long with an estimated weight in excess of 30 tons. The stone is a very hard basalt, coming from quarries located at a distance of between 5 and 10 kilometers on the opposite side of the valley. From the same stone were also quarried a number of monolithic columns, which have a fluted appearance and measure from 4 to 5 meters high.
Mitla’s real “Temple of Doom”
The most remarkable examples of megalithic architecture and the finest stone workmanship visible anywhere at Mitla are found in some of the subterranean chambers that extend under the floor of the palaces themselves. These chambers generally follow a cruciform plan, with four long arms departing from the center. The remarkable precision of the stone cut, the polish and jointing of the stones is the finest in all of Mesoamerica and among the finest found at any megalithic site elsewhere in the world.
The joints between the stones are so tight that not a sheet of paper would fit between two blocks, while the intricacy of the sculpted decoration and the angles at which the stones interlock are a source of constant wonder. Unlike the stone mosaics in the palaces above, which consist of hundreds of minuscule stone tiles, the panels in the underground chambers are entirely monolithic, each consisting of a single immense stone block delicately carved in the imitation of curious arabesques and geometrical patterns.
|A view towards the entrance corridor of the same chamber, framed by sculptured panels. [Photo by Author]|
|More details of the same passageway. [Photo by Author]|
|More details of the same passageway. [Photo by Author]|
|One of the subterranean chambers of the “Columns group”. Notice the enormous size and the perfect fitting of the monolithic lintel above the entrance, and also the immense monolithic slab forming the roof of the chamber. [Photo by Author]|
The 16th Century Spanish priest Father Torquemada, who left an account of the ruins of Mitla, described the peculiar arrangement of the subterranean chambers of one of the palaces.
“The last (underground) chamber had a second door at the rear, which led to a dark and gruesome room. This was closed with a stone slab, which occupied the whole entrance. Through this door they, threw the bodies of the victims and of the great lords and chieftains who had fallen in battle…and so great was the barbarous infatuation of those Indians that, in the belief of the happy life which awaited them, many who were oppressed by diseases or hardships begged this infamous priest to accept them as living sacrifices and allow them to enter through that portal and roam about in the dark interior of the mountain, to seek the feasting-places of their forefathers. […] And the unhappy man, wandering in that abyss of darkness, died of hunger and thirst, beginning already in life the pain of his damnation, and on account of this horrible abyss they called this village Liyobaa. ”
The same account continues with the following story:
“When later there fell upon these people the light of the Gospel, its servants took much trouble to instruct them, and to find out whether this error, common to all these nations, still prevailed; and they learned from the stories which had been handed down that all were convinced that this damp cavern extended more than thirty leagues underground, and that its roof was supported by pillars. And there were people, zealous prelates anxious for knowledge, who, in order to convince these ignorant people of their error, went into this cave accompanied by a large number of people bearing lighted torches and firebrands, and descended several large steps. And they soon came upon many great buttresses which formed a kind of street. They had prudently brought a quantity of rope with them to use as guiding-lines, that they might not lose themselves in this confusing labyrinth. And the putrefaction and the bad odour and the dampness of the earth were very great, and there was also a cold wind which blew out their torches. And after they had gone a short distance, fearing to be overpowered by the stench, or to step on poisonous reptiles, of which some had been seen, they resolved to go out again, and to completely wall up this back door of hell. The four buildings above ground were the only ones which still remained open, and they had a court and chambers like those underground; and the ruins of these have lasted even to the present day. ”
While the account of the old Spanish priest appears credible in light of the accurate descriptions of the palaces above ground and the certain existence of vast caverns in the vicinity of Mitla, none of the subterranean chambers that have been explored to this day seems to match the description.
Marshall H. Saville, author of the first scientific excavations at Mitla in 1902, identified the palace described by Torquemada in his account as part of the “Columns Group”, doubtless the most imposing of the palaces at Mitla. This is the only palace possessing a substructure consisting of two cruciform tombs. However, none of these possess hidden chambers or communicate with any underground labyrinth or cavern; an evidence which led Saville to dismiss the account of Torquemada as either entirely fictional or greatly exaggerated. 
In our opinion, Saville might have been mistaken in identifying the “Columns Group” with the “Palace of the Living and the Dead” described by Torquemada as the access to the great cavern of Liyobaa. For a number of reasons, the “Church Group”, although now severely dilapidated, appears to be a more likely candidate. In its original state, this palace occupied a much larger area than the “Columns Group”, consisting of various interconnecting courtyards. A number of monolithic columns testify to the fact that this palace also possessed similar pillared halls that have not survived. More interesting still is the presence of the Catholic church of San Pablo directly above one of the courtyards of the Prehispanic structure. This is particularly evident from aerial photographs of the site. The position of the church altar is particularly interesting for its location on the Western side of the courtyard, facing what must have been the façade of one the palaces. There, some massive monolithic lintels are still visible in the church walls. One of the subterranean chambers of the "Columns Group" has its entrance in the same position to the West of the courtyard which is presently occupied by the altar of the Catholic Church. Churches and chapels were frequently built over the Prehispanic remains as a way of “exorcising” the demons of the old religion. It would only make sense that the Spanish missionaries would have chosen the most important and prominent of the old Mixtec palaces as the location for their church. Access to the great cavern of Liyobaa may therefore still be possible through some walled-up passage located directly under the altar of the Church of San Pablo.
|Some aerial pictures of the main palaces of Mitla in the area of the “Church Group”, showing the placement of the Catholic church on top of Prehispanic structures. [Photo by Author]|
|Another aerial picture of the same area, from which it is possible to appreciate the location of the main altar of the modern church on the western side of the palace. [Photo by Author]|
|A couple of monolithic columns still standing outside of the “Church Group”, next to a wall decorated with fine stone mosaics. [Photo by Author]|
|A detail of the Prehispanic structures incorporated in the lower walls of the church of San Pablo. The massive monolithic lintels framing the entrances to the palace are still visible in their original placement. [Photo by Author]|
In search of the lost tombs
In his report of the excavations of Mitla, Saville includes a most interesting picture of a cruciform tomb at a site known as Guiaroo. The tomb appears to be constructed of immense monolithic stone blocks, delicately carved. The site is vaguely described as being located 8 Km to the North-East of Mitla, but the place name does not appear on any modern map of the area.
|Another view of the same structure after partial excavation, taken at an angle. [Photo Saville, 1902]|
In the spring of 2016, we set out to identify the mysterious tomb. All hints pointed to the village of Xaaga, located in a side valley a few kilometers outside of Mitla, as the most likely location for the tomb. Very few of the local townsfolk seemed to be familiar with ancient ruins in the area. Finally, we were taken by a local guide to the ruins of an abandoned hacienda just outside the village. There, we found the entrance to at least one tomb having a cruciform structure similar to that of the tombs at Mitla. Although this is not the tomb pictured in Saville’s article, it is an extraordinarily fine example of the same style of megalithic architecture.
|A view of the ruined hacienda of Xaaga. The entrance to the cruciform tomb is in the foreground. [Photo by Author]|
|The opening of the tomb. [Photo by Author]|
|Entrance to the cruciform tomb of Xaaga. The workmanship of the stones forming the walls and the lintel is comparable to the that of the subterranean tombs at Mitla. [Photo by Author]|
Any attempt at locating Saville’s mysterious tomb or the enigmatic Guiaroo site has so far proved entirely fruitless. We are therefore left with only Saville’s description of this remarkable structure:
“A sepulcher is formed here, of massive blocks, in the form of a cross, about ten feet deep, six wide and thirty long…All the inner faces of these immense blocks are sculptured, like those at Sagá [Xaaga], while other dressed rocks are scattered about”. 
The quarries from which the immense stones were transported could also be found about one mile away from the tomb, for Saville writes that:
“Many immense quarried stones still lie scattered about at the quarries, while others have been partially broken-out from the bedrock. The large blocks used in the construction of the cruciform chamber were transported from this place, and on the way between these two points are several large blocks which were evidently being moved to the chamber when the work ceased. ”
More recent studies of the quarries in the vicinity of Mitla have revealed some enormous stone blocks measuring as much as 6.24 x 3.89 x 0.80 meters. . These stones would have reached a weight of as much as 50 tons and are among the largest stone monoliths ever quarried in Mesoamerica.
|A massive megalithic portal from a tomb outside the archaeological site of Monte Alban. The architectural style and technique bear a striking resemblance to the similar to the structures at Mitla. [Photo by Author]|
|Another view of the same megalithic doorway, from Monte Alban. [Photo by Author]|
|A much cruder example of underground tomb from the site of Yagul. Both the technique of the carvings and the general workmanship of the stones appear rather crude compared to the finest examples from Mitla and Xaaga. [Photo by Author]|
A legend reported by Saville is that these structures were not the work of the local population. Rather, they were built by the god Quetzalcoatl and his companions upon leaving their capital city of Tollan . This white, bearded race, which the Aztecs called Toltecs (not to be confused with the historical, post-classic people of the same name), was considered to be the author of so many of the unexplained megalithic ruins still visible across Mexico and Central America, showing a style of architecture and workmanship unlike any other in Mesoamerica.
The origin of the megalithic architecture of Mitla and the techniques employed for the quarrying and transportation of such immense stone blocks without the aid of metal tools are a mystery that still endures to this day.
 C. Lewis-Spence, The Myths of Mexico and Peru, 1913, Chapter IV: The Maya Race and Mythology. On-line resource: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/mmp/mmp07.htm
 Marshall H. Saville, Cruciform structures of Mitla and vicinity, Putnam Anniversary Volume, 1909
 Nelly M. Robles García, Las Canteras de Mitla, Vanderbilt University Publications in Anthropology, No.47, 1994, Nashville, TN
 Mitla, encyclopedia entry – From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitla
The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico – Part I – Teotihuacan: http://unchartedruins.blogspot.mx/2016/03/the-megalithic-ruins-of-ancient-mexico.html
The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico – Part II - Tezcotzingo: http://unchartedruins.blogspot.mx/2016/08/the-mysterious-rock-and-tunnels-of.html