Abstract Surface fibrillation of articular cartilage is an early sign of degenerative changes in the development of osteoarthritis. To assess the influence of the surface zone on the viscoelastic properties of cartilage under compressive loading, wer prepared osteochondral plugs from skeletally mature steers, with and without the surface zone of articular cartilage, for study in the confined compression creep experiment. The relative contributions of two viscoelastic mechanisms, i.e. a flow-independent mechanism [Hayes and Bodine, J. Biomechanics 11, 407–419 (1978)], and a flow-dependent mechanism [Mow et al. J. biomech. Engng 102, 73–84 (1980)], to the compressive creep response of these two types of specimens were determined using the biphasic poroviscoelastic theory proposed by Mak. [ J. Biomechanics 20, 703–714 (1986)]. From the experimental results and the biphasic poroviscoelastic theory, we found that frictional drag associated with interstitial fluid flow and fluid pressurization are the dominant mechanisms of load support in the intact specimens, i.e. the flow-dependent mechanisms alone were sufficient to describe normal articular cartilage compressive creep behavior. For specimens with the surface removed, we found an increased creep rate which was derived from an increased tissue permeability, as well as significant changes in the flow-independent parameters of the viscoelastic solid matrix. From these tissue properties and the biphasic poroviscoelastic theory, we determined that the flow-dependent mechanisms of load support, i.e. frictional drag and fluid pressurization, were greatly diminished in cartilage without the articular surface. Calculations based upon these material parameters show that for specimens with the surface zone removed, the cartilage solid matrix became more highly loaded during the early stages of creep. This suggests that an important function of the articular surface is to provide for a low fluid permeability, and thereby serve to restrict fluid exudation and increase interstitial fluid pressurization. Thus, it is likely that with increasing severity of damage to the articular surface, load support in cartilage under compression shifts from the flow-dependent modes of fluid drag and pressurization to increased solid matrix stress. This suggests that it is important to maintain the integrity of the articular surface in preserving normal compressive behavior of the tissue and normal load carriage in the joint.