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Human skull ‘trophy rack’ found in ancient Aztec temple

The racks, known as “tzompantli” were unearthed on the western side of the temple complex. It was probably built between 1485 and 1502 and may have been about 112 feet (34 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, according to Discovery News.

The racks were used to display the severed heads of sacrifice victims. Wooden poles were pushed through the sides of the heads and the poles were then suspended horizontally on vertical poles. Archaeologists say most of the skulls appear to be those of young men, but women and children’s skulls are also included.

Dr. Eduardo Matos explains the significance of the skull rack found at the Templo Mayor.

Dr. Eduardo Matos explains the significance of the skull rack found at the Templo Mayor.
IB Times


CTV News says Eduardo Matos, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History, thinks the skull rack “was a show of might” by the Aztec leaders, built to inspire fear and awe. It was common to invite friends and even enemies into the city, with the main purpose of letting them see the heads in various stages of decomposition.

Archaeologists at the institute say that writings and paintings from the early colonial period showed descriptions of the skull racks, but this find is different. They say part of the platform on which the skull rack was displayed was made with rows of skulls mortared together to form a rough circle, with all the skulls facing toward the center.

Archaeologists are stumped as to why the skulls were arranged so, thinking perhaps something of great importance was placed in the center of the circle. Archaeologist Raul Barrera was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying, “there are 35 skulls that we can see, but there are many more” in the underlying layers. “As we continue to dig the number is going to rise a lot.”

Barrera did note that one Spanish writer, soon after the conquest, described skulls mortared together, but until now, none have ever been found.

The find was made between February and June this year. The platform was partially excavated under a three-story colonial era house. In order to not ruin the historical home, archaeologists worked on their stomachs, suspended on wooden platforms in excavation wells under the structure.

View of the Templo Mayor and the surrounding buildings in 2013.

View of the Templo Mayor and the surrounding buildings in 2013.
Diego Delso


The Templo Mayor
The Templo Mayor, meaning “Great Temple” in Spanish, was one of the main temples in the Aztecs capital city of Tenochtitlan, or what is now Mexico City. The temple was called huei teocalli in the Nahuatl language, and was dedicated to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture.

Scale model of the twin Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. The spire in the center of the image to the ri...

Scale model of the twin Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. The spire in the center of the image to the right was devoted to Quetzalcoatl in his form as the wind god, Ehecatl.
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City


Each god had a shrine at the top of the temple, with their own separate staircase. The temple measured 100 by 80 m. (328 by 262 ft) at its base. It is interesting to note that the temple was built for the first time about 1325 and was then rebuilt six times after that. Today the temple site is part of the Historic Center of Mexico City, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.

Discovery News reported that in a statement, Eduardo Matos said, “We believe we have found the Huey Tzompantli. Many of these skulls could be enemies of the Aztecs who were captured, killed and beheaded in a show of might.” The Templo Mayor, Great Tzompantli of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City) is estimated to have contained approximately 60,000 skulls.

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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