Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2004:
Sarah B. Barber

Proyecto Río Verde, 2003: Report on Excavations at Yugüe

Conservation of a Formative Period Incised Bone Flute from Oaxaca
With contributions by:  Mireya Olvera Sánchez.

Figure 15. Flute in block of earth. Photo of the removal of the flute. Click to enlarge.
Click on image to enlarge.


Excavations at the site of Yugüe in the lower Río Verde valley of Pacific coastal Oaxaca, México, resulted in the discovery of an incised bone flute dating to the late Terminal Formative Period (A.D. 100–250; Figure 1, and Figure 12, shown below). The Yugüe excavations were part of the Proyecto Río Verde 2003 (PRV03)–an archaeological research project designed to study political centralization and social organization during the Terminal Formative Period. A community cemetery, containing the remains of at least 33 individuals, was uncovered near the site’s largest public building. The flute was a burial offering interred with a subadult male within the cemetery.

Figure 12. Incised bone flute.

The flute was in a very poor state of preservation at the time of its discovery. Interred in an earthen mound and situated close to the modern ground surface, it had been subjected to nearly 2000 years of cultural and natural disturbance. Given its obvious importance as an example of early iconography, as well as its unusual media, the object was quickly removed from the ground and taken to the conservation laboratory of Mireya Olvera. Ms. Olvera undertook a year-long consolidation and restoration effort to stabilize, reconstruct, and restore the object.

Archaeological Context

Like many sites in the lower Verde region, Yugüe consists of a single earthen platform that supported both domestic and public architecture. The Yugüe mound is approximately 300 m long by 150 m wide and rises 10 m above the floodplain (Figure 13). Probably built in stages, the entire 10 m construction was in place by 150 B.C. The site was continuously occupied from the Late Formative Period Minizundo Phase (400–150 B.C.) until the Late Terminal Formative Period Chacahua Phase (A.D. 100–250). It was reoccupied during the Late Postclassic Period Yucudzaa Phase (A.D. 1100–1522) and again in the 20th century (Table 1).

As part of the PRV03, archaeological excavations were undertaken at Yugüe under the direction of Sarah Barber. The 2003 research included horizontal exposures on two of the three substructures that sit atop the Yugüe platform (Figure 2). The excavations at Substructure 1 were intended originally to be quick rescue operations given the heavy modern disturbance in that portion of the site. Surprisingly, a number of very important PreColumbian contexts survived.

The incised bone flute was discovered in late Terminal Formative Period cemetery located on the northeastern side of Substructure 1 (see Figure 2). Substructure 1 was used throughout the Terminal Formative Period as a community burial location: five other burials were found on Substructure 1 during the PRV03, and the town’s modern residents described several other areas of the Substructure that had produced human remains during modern building projects. The cemetery excavated during the PRV03 was therefore a small sample of a large public space used for human burials over several hundred years.

Figure 14. Plan View of late Terminal Formative Cemetery. Click to enlarge.
Click on image to enlarge.

The cemetery included bones from at least 33 individuals in an area of approximately 6 m2 (Figure 14, shown above). Most burials were primary, with the individual placed in an extended position on either their right or left side. It is possible that some of the interments are secondary, however there is insufficent evidence at this time to identify such burials with certainty. Most of the burials are aligned to an east-west azimuth that mirror the axis of the site as a whole or are perpendicular to this azimuth (e.g. north-south). Ages ranged from neonate/infant to elderly adult. Due to the fragmentary nature of most interred individuals, and the poor state of preservation of the bones, sex is not available for most interments. Both males and females were present.

The incised bone was interred with a subadult male (14 to 15 years old; Arion Mayes, personal communication 2003). He was placed in an extended position, oriented along an east-west azimuth, and facing south. The flute was placed in his left hand, resting against his left forearm. At his neck was a plaster and stone disk, probably a mirror. Several ceramic vessels were found around and near his lower extremities, but the density of burials above his legs makes it unclear whether these items were part of the same interment.

Figure 15. Flute in block of earth. Photo of the removal of the flute.

State of Preservation

In the field, it was clear to excavators that the Yugüe flute was a find of particular importance and that it was in a very poor state of preservation. For this reason, excavation of the item was halted after about 25 percent of its surface area had been cleared. It was then lifted within a single block of earth to protect the object and hold it together (Figure 15, shown above). During transit from the field to the conservation laboratory, the item was wrapped in tissue and aluminum foil and set on sand in a plastic box.

When the flute arrived in the conservation laboratory of Mireya Olvera, the surrounding soil had dried and hardened. The high clay content of the Yugüe fill created a very compact matrix that had successfully supported the fragments of bone. About 25 percent of the object was visible, 65 percent was covered with soil, and 10 percent had disintigrated due to natural processes (as revealed when the surrounding matrix was removed).

The overall structure of the object was very fragil. Salts were present on the surface of the posterior section, as were stains created by root action. Due to compaction and pressure, the flute had been deformed. There were numerous longitudinal fractures that had either creased or broken the object completely. The most serious damage was caused by two primary transverse fractures had divided the artifact into three sections. Within each section, numerous cracks had caused small fragments to detach. As a result, the artifact had broken into over 50 fragments.

Restoration Efforts

A number of steps were taken to consolidate, reconstruct, and restore the artifact. The most immediate action was to strengthen the object and remove it from the surrounding matrix. A 5-percent mixture of Paraloid B-72 was applied to visible portions of the bone using an eyedropper and paintbrush. The application of Paraloid softened the encasing matrix enough to draw it away from the artifact. As the earth fell away, every fragment of the bone was immersed in Paraloid so that both the exterior, interior, and pores were permeated with consolidant. The surrounding matrix itself was sifted; all fragments of bone within the matrix were removed and consolidated as well.

Once all fragments of the object had been removed from the block of earth and consolidated, a prelimiary cleaning was undertaken. Using solvents, the consolidant was diluted slightly and any adhering fragments of soil were removed from the surface of the bone. This process also enabled the removal of encrusted salts.

The flute was reconstructed using Mowilith adhesive and an internal wooden support. Although much of the artifact was self-supporting, a section of the shaft was too fragile to maintain its structural integrity. To reinforce this section of the flute, an interior support was constructed of balsa wood. Due to its flexibility and lightness, balsa wood was ideal for creating a structure that fit the complex interior topography of the bone’s shaft.

Salts were a particular problem in the conservation of the flute. Crystalized salts that had reached the surface of the object were removed using a scalpel and dissecting needle. In isolated instances, it was necessary to remove salts using dilute acids. The acid was then neutralized using distilled water.

Final treatment of the flute was intended to prepare it for long-term storage and possible museum exhibition. Areas of discoloration were treated with a tinted glaze in order to unify the color of the piece as a whole. A final protective of Paraloid B-72 coating was added to the entire exterior of the object.

Description of Artifact

The Yugüe flute is a particularly fine example of ancient Mesoamerican artistry. It is the only known artifact of its kind from Terminal Formative Period Mesoamerica. It also may be the only complete bone flute from Mesoamerica prior to the Postclassic Period. 1   In addition, as an incised bone artifact the Yugüe flute is one of only a handful of such objects from Terminal Formative Mesoamerica. The best known, a pair of incised bones from Chiapa de Corzo (Dixon 1958), are very different in style. The Chiapa de Corzo bones were human femurs, also found as mortuary offerings.

Figure 16. Distal end of the Yugüe flute.

The Yugüe flute was carved from a deer femur. Air would have entered the instrument from the distal end of the femur and exited through an opening created in the proximal end. A perishable mouthpiece probably would have been inserted into the large circular opening on the distal end of the bone (Figure 16, shown above).

Figure 17. Close-up of the Yugüe flute.

An interpretation of the complex iconography on the Yugüe flute is not yet complete, although several general observations can be made at this time (Barber, et al. in prep). The object bears the image of a skeletal figure in profile (Figure 17, shown above; Javier Urcid, personal communication 2004). The figure’s head is at the bottom of the flute, facing the end from which sound would have emerged. The figure is dressed in an ornate loincloth with a belt or ornament bearing a cross symbol (Figure 18, shown below). A scroll extends from the figure’s mouth and nose towards the proximal end of the bone–probably depicting the music emanating from the flute (see Figure 17, above).

Figure 18. Close-up of the loincloth.


The Yugüe flute will provide considerable insight into a number of aspects of PreColumbian belief and practice in the lower Río Verde valley. The object’s iconography depicts a supernatural individual with links to music, death, and perhaps ancestry. As a musical instrument, the Yugüe flute is an unusual find for such an early time period. It offers information on PreColumbian music–a topic that is not well understood, particularly in the Formative Period. Finally, the Yugüe flute is a burial object interred with a young individual at a small site. Its context hints at the complex character of social relations between elites, their local communities, and the regional polity in the Terminal Formative lower Verde region.


Funds for the conservation of the Yugüe flute were provided through the generous support of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., (FAMSI) and Dumbarton Oaks of Harvard University. The Consejo Nacional de Arqueología of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in México provided the permits for this project. We are greatly indebted also to the staff at the Centro INAH-Oaxaca, including: Antropólogo Eduardo Lopez Calzada, Dr. Marcus Winter, Dr. Robert Markens, Arqueóloga Cira Martínez López, and Arqueóloga Victoria Arriola. Staff at Monte Albán was also of great assistance: Dra. Nelly Robles-García, Lic. Miguel Angel Cruz, and Lic. Aciel Sanchez Flores. We also appreciate the assistance of Dr. Arthur Joyce, Dr. Payson Sheets, and Lic. José Luis Tenorio.


  1. A number of fragments of bone flutes have been found in Mesoamerica, particularly from Classic Period contexts. A fragment of a second Terminal Formative Period bone flute was also found in a midden context at Yugüe.

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