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Terrifying Mesoamerican Skull Racks Were Erected to Deter Enemies

Terrifying Mesoamerican Skull Racks Were Erected to Deter Enemies

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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


Associated Press in Mexico City, 2015. Aztec skull trophy rack discovered at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor ruin site. [Online]
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Fordham University's Art History Department, 2016. Iconography of Tzompantli at Templo Mayor. [Online]
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Hirst, K. K., 2016. Wall of Skulls (Tzompantli). [Online]
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Stolze, D., 2015. Everything You Wanted To Know (And Then Some) About Skull Racks. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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