Archaeologists found an Aztec skull rack that once held tens of thousands of human heads

A tzompantli, illustrated in the 16th-century Aztec manuscript, the Durán Codex.  Image credit: CJLL Wright on Wikipedia.

A tzompantli, illustrated in the 16th-century Aztec manuscript, the Durán Codex. Image credit: CJLL Wright on Wikipedia.

On Thursday, August 20th archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced they unearthed a masonry platform and 35 skulls in the Templo Mayor complex, in what is now Mexico City. They believe the skulls and platform were part of a legendary skull rack known as the Huey Tzompantli.

Tzompantli, an Aztec word that means “skull rack,” were ceremonial structures used by the Aztec people to display the heads of people who were sacrificed. They built skull racks throughout Mesoamerica between the 7th and 16th centuries.   To construct a skull rack, the heads of sacrificial victims were severed, holes punctured in their skulls, then wooden poles were pushed through the openings. Rows and rows of these beams were suspended on vertical posts.

kull that was discovered at the ruins of the Templo Mayor Aztec complex. Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters via Discovery News.  Click here for full size image.

One of the skull discovered in the Templo Mayor complex. Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters via Discovery News. Click here for full size image.

The scariest largest tzompantli was known as the Huey Tzompantli, or Great Skull Rack, and it was built in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The Huey Tzompantli was seen by the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century. Witnesses described it as a massive structure constructed on a masonry platform and held anywhere between 80,000 and 136,000 heads. Although, in an article published in the American Anthropologist in 1983, Bernard Ortiz De Montellano calculated that the most the Huey Tzompantli could hold was only 60,000 skulls.

Raul Barrera, an archaeologist with INAH, said in a statement released last week (via Discovery News), “So far we have found 35 skulls, but there must be many more in underlying layers (Lorenzi 2015).”

The skulls and the platform were uncovered on the western side of what was once the Templo Mayor complex of Tenochtitlan (Lorenzi 2015). What was unusual about this tzompantli was that rows of skulls were mortared into the platform in circles. The skulls were plastered so that they faced the center of the circle, although no one knows what was once there (Lorenzi 2015 and The Guardian 2015).

Some of the skulls had holes in both sides indicating they belonged to a tzompantli.  Most of the skulls belonged to adult men, but some belonged to women and children (Lorenzi 2015 and The Guardian 2015).  Archaeologists estimated that the Great Skull Rack was built between 1485 and 1502 was about 112 feet long and 40 feet wide (Lorenzi 2015).

Works Cited

Aztec skull trophy rack discovered at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor ruin site. (2015). Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/21/aztec-skull-trophy-rack-discovered-mexico-citys-templo-mayor-ruin-site

Lorenzi, R. (2015). Massive human skull rack found at Aztec temple. Retrieved from: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/massive-human-skull-rack-found-at-aztec-temple-150821.htm

Ortiz De Montellano, B.R. (1983). Counting skulls: Comment on the Aztec cannibalism theory of Harner-Harris. American Anthropologist, New Series, 85 (2): 403-406.



Categories: Archaeology, News

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