Terrifying Mesoamerican Skull Racks Were Erected to Deter Enemies

Terrifying Mesoamerican Skull Racks Were Erected to Deter Enemies

(Read the article on one page)

A skull rack, known also as Tzompantli in the Nahuatl language, is an object documented to have been used in several Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs, the Toltecs, and the Mayas. Skull racks are recorded to have been used by these civilizations to display human skulls. Depictions of skull racks can be found in paintings and in written descriptions from the early colonial period. Several types of skull racks have also been discovered during archaeological excavations over the years.

Skull racks are recorded to have been built throughout Mesoamerica between the 7 th and 16 th centuries AD. Skull racks may be divided into two types – those that do not display real decapitated heads, and those that do. For the former, human skulls may be carved from stone, and arranged in rows. Examples of such skull racks can be found at sites such as the Maya capital of Chichen Itza, and the Toltec capital of Tula.

It has been noted that the stone skulls possess subtle differences, and are not identical to one another.  As these skulls seem to stare menacingly at onlookers, it has been suggested that these skull racks were created in order to reproduce the terror inspired by the actual structures that held the heads of decapitated victims.     

Chichén Itzá Tzompantli

Chichén Itzá Tzompantli ( CC BY 3.0 )

It is commonly accepted that skull racks displayed the heads belonging to victims of human sacrifice. Apart from this group, war captives who were executed also had their heads cut off and displayed on skull racks. In the case of the Aztecs, it has been suggested that this was a way that they could display their military prowess. Additionally, such structures were erected by the Aztecs as a tribute to their gods, and was also intended to instill fear into the hearts of any rivals visiting their city. Skull racks were associated with the culture of ball courts. It is believed that the players from the losing team would be decapitated, and their skulls displayed on a skull rack, as depicted in stone reliefs around the courts.

A tzompantli, illustrated in the 16th-century Aztec manuscript, the Durán Codex.

A tzompantli, illustrated in the 16th-century Aztec manuscript, the Durán Codex. ( Public Domain )

Skull racks have also been mentioned by the Spanish who encountered and colonized the Aztecs. A Dominican friar by the name of Diego Duran, for example, wrote that more than 80,000 people were sacrificed to celebrate the dedication of the Great Temple of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The heads of these victims were displayed on a skull rack, and were replaced regularly with fresh ones after the sacrifices were carried out. Skull racks have also been depicted in paintings. One of these, for instance, shows the head of horses being displayed on a rack. As the Aztecs came across horses for the first time with the arrival of the Spanish, they are said to have place the heads of horses on skull racks as an offering to their gods.   

Chichén Itzá MEX - Tzompantli Wall of Skulls.

Chichén Itzá MEX - Tzompantli Wall of Skulls. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

It is reported that in 1962, archaeologists working at the site of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s twin city, unearthed a total of 170 skulls with their mandibles still attached. On both sides of the cranium in the temporal and parietal areas, large holes were found. These holes, in addition to the alignment of the skulls in groups of five, suggest that they were once displayed on a skull rack. Analysis of these skulls allowed archaeologists to know more about the victims, for example, their sex and age when they were killed, as well as the way the heads were defleshed.

In 2015, it was reported that archaeologists have found a skull rack on the western side of what was once the Templo Mayor complex in Mexico City. It was discovered that part of this rack was made by arranging rows of skulls mortared together roughly in a circle. The skulls were arrayed to look inward into a seemingly empty space in the middle of the circle. Experts, however, are unsure as to what was in the center, and the significance of this arrangement.

Top image: A tzompantli is illustrated to the right of a depiction of an Aztec temple. ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

The Mythology of Nut, Mother of Gods
One of the oldest goddesses in Egyptian mythology is Nut, the goddess of the sky (nut means ‘sky’ in the ancient Egyptian language). It was believed that that the sky is, in fact, a star-covered nude woman arched over the earth in a plank or perhaps down-dog position.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article