The ancient Aztecs evidently had an affinity for human skulls, so much so that they built a rack to contain them all.
Archaeologists working in Mexico City found the main ceremonial skull rack at the Templo Mayor complex in Tenochtitlan, Discovery reported. Such a display is called a “tzompantli” and was meant to hold the freshly severed heads of people chosen for human sacrifice.
According to Reuters, they displayed the heads of warriors from rival kingdoms, most likely sacrificed by priests atop their temples.
The victims were mostly young men, but archaeologists also spotted women and children. Such racks were built to inspire awe and fear; the Aztec often invited both friends and enemies in equal measure to their city in order to look upon the tzompantli.
The Aztec skull rack was built between 1485 and 1502 and measured 112 feet long and 40 feet tall. The heads were displayed by pushing wooden poles through the heads, and then the poles displayed horizontally, between vertical posts, the Guardian reported.
Though gruesome, the skull rack is significant because scientists have found others before, but none quite so big. They’ve long been hoping to find the Aztec’s main tzompantli, said University of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie.
“This find both confirms long-held suspicions about the sacrificial landscape of the ceremonial precinct, that there must have been a much bigger tzompantli to curate the many heads of sacrificial victims.”
— Discovery News (@DNews) August 21, 2015
— CBC News (@CBCNews) August 21, 2015
— Philip Thomas (@skyphilipthomas) August 21, 2015
Just as disturbing as the skull rack is the platform on which it may have stood. This platform was actually built of skulls mortared together to form a circle; the faces of the victims faced inward, toward the center, but archaeologists don’t yet know what they were meant to be looking at.
“So far we have found 35 skulls, but there must be many more in underlying layers,” archaeologist Raul Barrera.
The platform was found beneath a historic three-story colonial house. It had been partially excavated and underwent previous examinations starting in 1914. For years, archaeologists believed a ceremonial site was located there, based on Spanish descriptions of the Aztec temple.
The Spaniards also wrote about, probably with shaking fingers, the Aztec’s gruesome skull racks.
Because the house under which the platform and tzompantli were found was historically significant itself, archaeologists had to work in narrow wells six beneath floor level, suspended on a platform on their stomachs.
The skull rack has been partly uncovered, so researchers have a bit more work to do. But already, the find is revealing plenty about the ancient Aztec and the way they used human sacrifice to show off their power to subjects and rivals, said lead archeologist Raul Barrera.
“(They) had a very specific symbolism. With more study, we expect to learn that many of these skulls belong to (Aztec) enemies, who were captured, sacrificed and decapitated in order to be displayed there.”
[Photo Courtesy Igor Sh/Shutterstock]